Women's Professional Soccer enters its 2011 season marked by one word: Change. Gone are the Chicago Red Stars and FC Gold Pride, the defending WPS Champion. The Washington Freedom has relocated to Boca Raton, Fla. and is now known as magicJack, sponsored by the Internet telephone company.
Furthermore, a slew of free agency movement in the offseason has created wholesale team makeovers at magicJack and the Atlanta Beat. With only six teams competing in WPS' third year, parity will define the 2011 season. Here's a look at five storylines to monitor this season:
1. Club vs. country: U.S. women's national team players are expected to train together during weekdays but be available for club selection on the weekends. That demanding travel schedule is the best compromise that WPS and U.S. Soccer could reach. As the season progresses and the 2011 Women's World Cup nears, don't be surprised to see U.S. coach Pia Sundhage keep players in camp on the weekends as well. Keep an eye on how U.S. internationals will be treated by their clubs. Some WPS coaches have stated they'll only field a team of players that show up for training throughout the week, meaning some U.S. stars could be ostracized by their clubs.
2. Rookie sensations: The early indication is that rookies will be given chances to earn significant playing time. Draft picks Meghan Klingenberg and Amanda DaCosta should factor into magicJack's midfield and Philadelphia midfielder Sinead Farrelly is the best young attacking midfielder not getting call-ups from Sundhage. When available for club duty, young U.S. forward Alex Morgan will be part of a deadly Western New York attack that features superstar Marta and Christine Sinclair.
3. Denouncing the critics in Atlanta: The Atlanta Beat is widely considered to be the weakest team in the league. Atlanta features 10 players without any WPS experience, several of which will be starting. However, Beat officials feel that their ability to keep the team together for the entire season will be a significant advantage. Atlanta will remain relatively untouched by international call-ups, losing only U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd and defender Heather Mitts. Atlanta may not stack up on paper, but it will be the only team together for the entire season. The question is whether there is enough talent to surprise the critics and make the playoffs.
4. High expectations for the Flash: The Western New York Flash includes seven players from 2010 WPS Champion FC Gold Pride and looks to be the best team on paper. But the Flash will be gutted by international call-ups throughout the season with eight of the Flash's potential starters likely headed to the Women's World Cup. How coach Aaran Lines manages the roster in their absence will determine whether or not this is a championship team.
5. Monitoring league viability: Two teams folded in the offseason and WPS almost did not make it to year three. Increased attendance will be a critical barometer after a drop-off in 2010, but all six owners have to remain committed to the league. Investors in Vancouver, Seattle and Orange County are interested in joining WPS in 2012. Expanding to at least two of those markets could determine whether or not WPS returns in 2012. Without expansion, WPS likely won't survive another tumultuous offseason.
Prominent additions: Lloyd and Mitts are the only major signings of note on this young team and both will miss significant time with the United States. Ex-U.S. international defender Cat Whitehill is the most critical free agent signing for this team, although captain Lori Chalupny is the biggest piece of Atlanta's puzzle. Meanwhile, Allison Lipsher and Allison Whitworth will fight for time in goal.
Key departures: Lipsher and Whitworth will struggle to fill the shoes of Hope Solo, who is now with magicJack. Also gone are five other all-stars: Forward Eniola Aluko, defender Tina Ellertson, midfielder Angie Kerr, midfielder Aya Miyama and forward Ramona Bachmann. With only two players returning from 2010, the entire core of this Atlanta squad is gone.
Prominent additions: The addition of defender Rachel Buehler gives Boston the best defense in the league alongside fellow U.S. internationals Stephanie Cox, Amy LePeilbet and English right back Alex Scott. Also joining the Breakers from FC Gold Pride is the speedy Kelley O'Hara, who can play up top or out wide.
Key departures: Kristine Lilly's retirement removes the veteran leadership of one of the best players in the history of the game, but O'Hara's style of play mimics that of a young Lilly: A technical player with an unlimited amount of energy. Fabiana's creative attacking ability out wide will also be sorely missed. The Brazilian flank player was the most underrated Breaker in 2010.
Prominent additions: U.S. internationals Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone, Lindsay Tarpley and Solo all joined magicJack (formerly the Washington Freedom) in the offseason. The club also added striker Ella Masar, who had a breakout 2010 season with Chicago Red Stars, and a rock solid center back in Tina Ellertson. Former Sky Blue assistant coach Mike Lyons is the new coach.
Key departures: Losing Whitehill at center back initially looked like a big blow, but Ellertson will more than fill her shoes. The biggest loss is French defender/midfielder Sonia Bompastor, a two-time WPS all-star who was the heart and soul of the Freedom. Her two goals and five assists in 2010 do not do justice to the spectacular two-way play Bompastor provided as an outside back and midfielder. The most notable departure is at the head coach position with Jim Gabarra's departure. Gabarra built the Freedom in its first 10 years of existence, guiding the club to championships in the WUSA and USL W-League.
Prominent additions: Philadelphia's back line, which gave up the second most goals in 2010, has undergone a complete makeover. Former Atlanta defenders Kia McNeill and Leigh Ann Robinson join the Independence in 2011. McNeill adds veteran guile at center back and Robinson's an attack-minded outside back. Veronica Boquete and Megan Rapinoe's presence on the flanks combined with ex-Sky Blue FC forward Tasha Kai will give Philadelphia the fastest front line in WPS.
Key departures: Caroline Seger is the biggest loss for Philadelphia. The Independence traded its best attacking midfielder to Western New York in exchange for draft picks, but expect Boquete and Rapinoe to fill her role. Also gone is Mitts, who battled injury and fell out of favor at right back with coach Paul Riley in 2010.
Sky Blue FC
Prominent additions: New coach Gabarra is the orchestrator behind all of the movement at Sky Blue FC. He's revamped the team's midfield, adding young holding midfielders Allie Long and Carolyn Blank alongside Kerr and Swedish flank midfielder Therese Sjögran. Casey Nogueira and Eniola Aluko are also new faces to Sky Blue FC's attack, which has produced less than a goal per game in two years of WPS play.
Key departures: Sky Blue FC's biggest struggle this season could be with its defense, which is no longer led by Rampone. Dutch center back Daphne Koster is also gone, leaving Kendall Fletcher and Anita Asante in charge of coordinating an otherwise young back line. And while Kai and Sky Blue FC always had a rough relationship, her departure to rival Philadelphia takes away the team's top goal scoring threat.
Western New York Flash
Players to watch: As an expansion franchise, there are no departures of note, although Boquete, who is now in Philadelphia, played with the Flash in the second division USL W-League in 2010. Western New York has built a top-notch squad with Marta and six other former FC Gold Pride players. In addition, the Flash obtained the next generation of U.S. stars in goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, defender Whitney Engen and Morgan up top. The quiet recent addition of Julianne Sitch also provides depth in the midfield to help the Flash handle international absences.
Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a Web site devoted to women's professional soccer news.