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Young talent flourishes in WPS


Women's Professional Soccer is close to honoring its year-end award winners. Several young players who will not receive any hardware quietly pieced together solid seasons for which they deserve recognition. Here is a list of the WPS' best XI newcomers:

GK, Alyssa Naeher, Boston Breakers -- The 22-year-old Naeher has emerged alongside the Washington Freedom's Ashlyn Harris as the league's best young goalkeepers. Naeher has been rewarded with a call-up to U.S. national-team camp thanks to her shot-stopping ability and awareness. She rarely makes costly mistakes.

D, Ali Riley, FC Gold Pride -- A finalist for WPS Rookie of the Year, the 22-year-old Riley is a left back who can get forward and defend. She is part of the best defense in the league and already one of the best attacking outside backs thanks to her superior left-footed delivery from the flanks.

D, Whitney Engen, Chicago Red Stars -- Like Naeher, Engen got the call-up to the preliminary roster by U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. Chicago veteran Kate Markgraf is 34, making Engen the potential long-term answer to ensuring that the Red Stars continue to have one of the best defenses in the league.

D, Nikki Marshall, Washington Freedom -- Marshall gets inserted into this lineup as a defender because of the abundance of strikers already on the list, but she is versatile enough to be an effective center back or forward. Her speed up top is lethal and she proved that in her few appearances up front. That raw athleticism makes her a great defender as well.

D, Holmfridur Magnusdottir, Philadelphia Independence -- Whether being accused of dirty play or knocked for inconsistent play, Magnusdottir has her critics. She did little in her early season role as a forward, but she has proved to be a great outside back who can get into the attack.

M, Jordan Angeli, Boston Breakers -- Arguably the favorite to win WPS Rookie of the Year, the 24-year-old Angeli is the surprise of the season. She is the model for a player who works hard and positions herself properly to exploit opportunities, as evidenced by seven goals from just 13 shots on goals this season.

M, Brittany Taylor, Sky Blue FC -- Perhaps even more versatile than Marshall, Taylor can play anywhere on the pitch. That flexibility is the reason she has played every minute this season. Superior athletic ability makes her a great defender and attacker, and her technical ability in the final third also makes her lethal pushing forward.

M, Kelley O'Hara, FC Gold Pride -- O'Hara will be considered a midfielder for this list. She is one of the fastest attackers in the league, a physical player who is not afraid to throw her weight around and make defenders uncomfortable. It's an approach that has helped her tally four goals and three assists.

F, Lauren Cheney, Boston Breakers -- Cheney is a classic target forward who can hold up the ball against any player, but she has been up and down in 2010. If she can find consistency, she will surely be Abby Wambach's eventual replacement as the U.S. team's target forward.

F, Casey Nogueira, Chicago Red Stars -- Nogueira is another player who struggled with consistency. She started just 12 of 24 games, but she is one of the craftiest American players on the ball and has superior dribbling ability.

F, Veronica Boquete, Forward, Chicago Red Stars -- Boquete played only three games for Chicago after winning the USL W-League Championship with the Buffalo Flash, but she is more creative than most young players in WPS. She plays a classically beautiful Spanish style of soccer and she could be an answer to a lack of production from Brazilian forward Cristiane.

1. Crunch time for Washington Freedom, Sky Blue FC. The fourth and final playoff spot is still up for grabs on the final weekend of play. Washington (7-9-7, 28 points) has a one-point edge on Sky Blue FC and the advantage in scheduling. The Freedom host the last-place Atlanta Beat while Sky Blue FC must defeat the Boston Breakers at home Saturday. Last time out, Boston embarrassed Sky Blue FC 4-0. Sky Blue FC has struggled to create quality goal-scoring chances all year and it will be hard for the defending champion to match Boston's firepower. Look for Washington to find its way into the playoffs.

2. Untouchable Pride. FC Gold Pride (15-3-5, 50 points) has shown no signs of slowing down. Sunday's 2-0 win over Boston makes the WPS regular-season champion unbeaten in its last 12 games. FC Gold Pride has outscored opponents 27-8 during that stretch. Center back Rachel Buehler anchors a back line that both starts the buildup and denies opponents significant looks at goal.

3. Philadelphia slumping. Wednesday's 2-0 loss to Chicago was the third straight for Philadelphia, which has hit a rough patch at the worst time of the year. Philadelphia (10-9-44, 34 points) has scored just one goal in that stretch and star forward Amy Rodriguez has not scored in almost a month. The Independence's reliance on Rodriguez could hurt as the playoffs begin.

4. Americans get the call. U.S. coach Sundhage named her 30-player preliminary roster for the Oct. 2 and Oct. 6 friendly matches against China. The group includes midfielders Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd, who are returning from injury, and features several young players. Sundhage deserves credit for giving UCLA junior Sydney Leroux a chance after Leroux impressed with five goals at the FIFA Women's U-20 World Cup in July. She could prove to be a super-substitute to provide energy at the forward position. She is the next great American forward with incredible speed and work rate.

5. Internationals absent again. Several WPS stars will be missing from their teams again Saturday because of Women's World Cup qualifying. Many of the absences will affect the two matches with playoff implications. The fact that these conflicts have surfaced again after the 2009 postseason was altered by international absences is a concern. WPS needs its teams at full strength down the stretch, and if that means adjusting the calendar to accommodate FIFA dates, then that is what has to be done. The quality of critical games should not be diluted because of scheduling conflicts.