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WPS' uneven first season wraps up

CARSON, Calif. -- "Decent, but not great."

So observed one fan from the crowd of 7,218 on hand here on Saturday for the first final of Women's Professional Soccer, where Sky Blue FC defeated the Los Angeles Sol 1-0 (RECAP).

That description also could be used for the entire first season of the women's league. There were many aspects of the organization and play that were carried off fairly well, especially given the current difficult economic climate. What's left as the biggest positive, however, is the potential for improvement in key areas.

It wasn't the fault of the Sol, for example, that to a certain degree, they ruined the regular season. With the flashy, creative Marta on board, L.A. gelled quickly. Other clubs were still finding their way, and by the time they did, the Sol were so far ahead on points that there was no competition for the regular-season points title. It sucked a lot of suspense out of the build-up to the final.

But as Sky Blue showed in the title match, there are teams that can challenge and defeat the Sol, so that bodes well for more contenders next season. Still, it's hard to look back on so many games in which the Sol consistently dominated all comers and accept that they won't be remembered as the best squad in the debut year of WPS simply because they couldn't win one last contest.

Midfielder Shannon Boxx said before the game that the regular season "wouldn't mean anything" if the Sol couldn't win the final. That statement may have left a few fans wondering why they bothered to attend those earlier matches if they were so pointless.

The credibility of the championship was also damaged by poor timing on the part of WPS, which bumped the final against the start of the UEFA Women's Championship. That meant that several teams lost some key European players right when they were needed most. The Sol, for example, were without their midfield engine, France's Camille Abily.

"She creates a lot," Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc acknowledged. "Obviously we missed her. I'd be lying if I told you we didn't."

The format of the final was also questionable, as it granted the regular-season points winner home-field advantage and a bye into the final, but left the squad idle while the opponent was decided via a playoff system.

To try to stave off losing game form, the Sol played a game against a boys' under-16 team. It's entirely possible that could have actually hurt the squad. Young men are more athletic, and it's likely the Sol ran, chased and tired more than they would against a top women's team. But the touch of the top female players is usually superior, and that's where the Sol seemed most befuddled in the early going in the final against Sky Blue FC, as the New Jersey-based team dominated possession.

LeBlanc wasn't sure the time off from the playoffs worked to the Sol's advantage. "You could argue both ways," she noted. "There is no right or wrong answer."

While WPS may want to revisit the playoff format, it could well decide to stick it out, given that it does promise the regular-season winner will contend for the title. (There are cries for a similar reward in Major League Soccer, too.)

Yet almost everyone will agree that championship competitions work best when they are settled by the players themselves, not by officiating. The title game was marred by a red card given to Sol defender Allison Falk less than a half-hour into the match. Referee Kari Seitz judged that another defender, Stephanie Cox, was too far to one side to affect the play and carded Falk as the last player back on a goal-scoring opportunity.

It wasn't the sort of decision one would expect any official to make in a situation where there was room for doubt, but especially in a championship. As well as Sky Blue had played to open the game, the chances the Sol created, even while a player down, left the what-ifs wide open as to what the outcome might have been had the sides remained equal.

"We definitely fought hard and created opportunities," said LeBlanc. "We just couldn't get them in the back of the net."

Sky Blue player/coach Christie Rampone was aware that the fast start of her team was due to run out of steam, given the playoff minutes the Sky Blue players had already logged.

"Our legs were going to start tiring, especially on that big field," she said. "[The Sol] were going to attack us strong with a goal down and no matter how many women they had on the field."

More than any other player, Rampone emerged from the final as the hero of the 2009 WPS season. Probably no team in soccer history has endured a triple coaching change in one season (Ian Sawyers and Kelly Lindsey held the job before she did) and then gone on to lift the trophy under a coach who played every minute of the match in the final.

If Rampone wasn't such a remarkable player on the field, it would be more of a shame that, as she has said, her coaching days are done for now. The U.S. national-team veteran stated she would not continue in the dual roles, putting off a full-time coaching future until retirement from play.

Still, the legacy of the first year of WPS is perhaps best exemplified by the team that overcame so much at every turn. It's a story that inspires and sets a example of perseverance.

It was always going to be difficult for WPS to position itself as the practical version of the failed WUSA without seeming like a down-market version. It wasn't a favorable comparison for the league to debut during the 10th anniversary of the '99 Women's World Cup, given the staggering attendance totals back then. A recession is also hardly ideal timing to try to draw new fans.

Given all these difficulties, WPS would do well to follow the winning strategy of Rampone. "We had to stay compact, stay strong and just weather that storm," Rampone said.

The league has had a decent start, and the promise of greater things lies ahead.

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