Freedom's squad could be special
For five months the future of the club formerly known as the Washington Freedom has been one big question mark. New owner Dan Borislow has changed the name of the club to magicJack's Washington Freedom, promoting his Internet telephone company, Magic Jack, a la Red Bull New York. The Freedom will play the majority of its home games at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.
One month from opening kickoff, "TBA" is still listed as the venue for each of the team's nine home games. There is still an outside chance that the Washington Freedom might actually play a game in, well, Washington. Go figure.
D.C.-area fans are furious over their team being taken away to another market without any communication. It is completely justifiable, since keeping the Freedom in Florida is better than no club at all (which ultimately could have brought the end of Women's Professional Soccer as well).
However, despite all of the off-field drama, head coach Mike Lyons and general manager Briana Scurry have assembled one of the best squads in the league. With WPS being a six-team league in 2011, five of those teams look pretty equal on paper -- the Atlanta Beat being the exception and fielding a very young squad. The remaining five all have their superstars, but where the Freedom could have the edge is with its role players.
Headlining the Freedom's roster are U.S. internationals Hope Solo in goal, Christie Rampone in defense, Shannon Boxx in the midfield and Abby Wambach at forward. Add Australian striker Lisa DeVanna and U.S. midfielder Lindsay Tarpley to the equation and the team matches up well with any other club team in the world.
However, all of those players will be missing significant time throughout the spring in order to join their respective national teams in preparation for the Women's World Cup. It is the Freedom's supporting cast that will have to step up in their absence -- a group brimming with relatively young talent.
Leading that pack is utility player Nikki Marshall, who spent 2010 playing just about every position. She played every minute last year -- her rookie season -- and scored three goals while enjoying a brief stint at forward. Marshall is due for a breakout sophomore year. Where she fits into the lineup is the only question.
If Marshall is utilized in the back, she will be joined by Tina Ellertson, a former U.S. international who was not called up by U.S. women's national team coach Pia Sundhage. For the Freedom, that will prove to be a good thing with Ellertson available all season. Ellertson will also be joined by Becky Sauerbrunn, who has an outside shot of making Sundhage's roster for Germany), Marian Dalmy and Meghan Schnur as outside backs.
Just like Ellertson, Dalmy is an underrated defender with a unique ability to get forward while making few mistakes in defense. Sauerbrunn is the WPS iron woman as the only player to play every minute for her team in the first two seasons. Unlike say Boston (the Breakers will lose all four starting defenders and possibly its starting goalkeeper to the Women's World Cup), the Freedom's defense will remain relatively untouched.
Going forward, some youngsters will have the chance to prove themselves. Rookie midfielders Amanda DaCosta and Meghan Klingenberg are strong, hard working players that come from winning college programs. Sarah Huffman's crafty technical ability will bring some WPS experience to the midfield in the absence of Boxx and Tarpley.
Up top, the loss of Abby Wambach and Lisa DeVanna on any given weekend will not put the Freedom into a goal scoring drought. Ella Masar, who scored eight goals with the Chicago Red Stars in a breakout 2010 season, will fill that void with her ability to be in the right place at the right time. Rookie forward Christen Press also has the opportunity to make an impact, although the adjustment to life in WPS will not be easy.
Press' raw athleticism and ability to beat goalkeepers from long range worked wonders at Stanford, where she holds the school record for goals (71), assists (41) and points (183). In WPS, where defenders close the ball down far quicker than in the Pac-10, Press could struggle to find open looks early on.
For the Freedom, the one question mark comes in net. Hope Solo will be with the U.S. and Erin McLeod will be with Canada for the Women's World Cup. Rookie Katie Fraine is the only remaining goalkeeper on the roster, meaning the club needs to find another suitable goalkeeper to account for the void in net around World Cup time.
WPS will be taking a two-week break during the group stage of the Women's World Cup, but the players will still have training camps and friendly matches leading into the tournament. How often that occurs is critical to WPS clubs' plans. The travel will be easier to handle for U.S. players, who are expected to train with the national team during the week and fly out to play WPS games on the weekend.
Other internationals -- Brazilian Marta and Swedish midfielder Caroline Seger, for example -- might not be so lucky. The Western New York Flash has put the best team together but faces the risk of realistically losing at least seven starters to the Women's World Cup.
So while magicJack's Washington Freedom -- which still does not have a full front office and has not updated its website in months -- may be a mess off the field, the team has all the makings of a championship contender. Whether or not anyone will notice is the big question.