Week 1 of the 2011 Women's Professional Soccer season is in the books and the Boston Breakers sit atop the table after a 4-1 thrashing of the Atlanta Beat. Sky Blue FC and the Philadelphia Independence played to an entertaining 2-2 draw on Sunday, while magicJack and the Western New York Flash were idle on opening weekend. Here are five things learned from this week's fixtures:
1. Sky Blue FC's midfield is for real: Despite giving up a stoppage-time equalizer, Sky Blue FC played arguably its best brand of soccer ever. Even when the team won the 2009 title it lacked an identity, but Sky Blue FC showed on Sunday that its midfield will define its success. Allie Long was the best player on the pitch, distributing the ball from deep in the midfield to spring her front line players. She created Sky Blue FC's first goal with an inch-perfect through ball to an overlapping Brittany Taylor.
Casey Nogueira, Long's former University of North Carolina teammate, was the perfect attacking midfielder complement to Long. Nogueira's free kick from just outside the 18-yard box in the 36th minute that bent into the far upper corner was spectacular and she looked dangerous all night. She forced two huge saves -- one in each half -- from Philadelphia goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart and caused fits for an experienced Philadelphia defense. Tobin Heath, another former Tar Heel, also looked effective as a second-half substitute. Carolyn Blank was a strong defensive presence as the second holding midfielder in Sky Blue FC's 4-2-3-1 formation.
2. Philly's front line is athletic: U.S. international Amy Rodriguez came on at halftime and instantly changed the game with her speed. Her 57th-minute goal was a result of Philadelphia's three forwards combining beautifully. Lianne Sanderson, who was involved in most of Philadelphia's best scoring chances, played Tasha Kai in behind and Kai quickly put the ball into the path of Rodriguez, who finished on the breakaway. The combination is a sign of things to come for what might be the most athletic and certainly the fastest forward combination in the league.
Kai looked inspired all evening against her former team and should have put the visitors ahead in the 13th minute when sent a cross from Sanderson over the crossbar from six yards out. Due to national team duty, Rodriguez may not be available as often as coach Paul Riley would like, but in tandem with Kai, will allow Philadelphia to play a more direct style. Sanderson offers a nice balancing option as a back-to-the-goal forward.
3. Atlanta's youth need time: Boston's 4-1 win over Atlanta may have been a harsh score, but Atlanta will need time to develop. Beat goalkeeper Allison Whitworth was sent off in the 90th minute and Atlanta, out of substitutes, put defender Cat Whitehill in goal. Breakers defender Kasey Moore then buried a free kick to pad the score, but Atlanta's inexperience showed throughout the match. Fifteen of Atlanta's players are age 25 or younger and many of them played on Saturday. The Beat had chances but could not finish. Atlanta will be disappointed that its supposed strong point -- a veteran defense -- was exposed by Boston.
Whitehill and Keeley Dowling lead the defense as experienced center backs (Dowling has a WPS Championship ring from Sky Blue FC's 2009 run) and, combined with Heather Mitts at right back, the three veterans will be critical to this team's early season fortunes. Younger players like Megan Jesolva and Kristina Larsen should develop in time, but for now Atlanta will lean heavily on its back line. The most curious move for Atlanta was the absence of Kylie Wright from the lineup. Wright was the Beat's top draft pick at No. 7 overall and saw significant time in preseason.
4. USWNT players start on the bench ... for now: Thus far, WPS coaches have stood by their word that they will reward players who were in training camp for the entire preseason. That of course means benching U.S. national team players, who have been with their clubs for less than a week. Atlanta coach James Galanis kept Carli Lloyd on the bench until halftime, while Breakers coach Tony DiCicco held back center backs Rachel Buehler and Amy LePeilbet and forward Lauren Cheney from even traveling to Atlanta. Kelley O'Hara came on as a first-half substitute only due to a Jordan Angeli injury.
In New Jersey, Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra waited until the 68th minute to insert Heath into the game and midfielder Heather O'Reilly did not even play. Riley waited until halftime to insert Rodriguez into Philadelphia's lineup and waited until even later into the half to include midfielder Lori Lindsey. The key here is how willing coaches are to stick to their word. If U.S. internationals just come on at halftime every game and that is predetermined in a coach's mind, is that really the fairest compromise? Maybe the answer is "yes," but it is surely a tactic that could affect the mental psyche of players on the field who know that they will inevitably be subbed out in favor of national teamers.
5. Goals were a plenty: WPS has been notorious for low-scoring games in its first two seasons. The league averaged around 2.5 goals per game in 2009 and 2010, but the two games on opening weekend featured nine goals. With only six teams in the league this season, talent is far more concentrated and could produce more high-scoring, exciting games. For WPS, more goal-scoring could attract more fans. And with most teams rotating their starting goalkeepers this year due to the World Cup, defensive miscommunications could allow forwards to flourish.
Boston Breakers 4-1 Atlanta Beat: Jordan Angeli put Boston ahead in the 18th minute before being taken off due to a knee injury (Angeli was later diagnosed with a season-ending ACL injury). Rookie midfielder Keelin Winters doubled the visitors' lead in the 23rd minute and Kelley O'Hara, who replaced Angeli, made it 3-0 in the 72nd minute. Carli Lloyd got one back for Atlanta on a 78th-minute penalty kick, but Kasey Moore iced the game for Boston with a stoppage-time free kick that found net.
Sky Blue FC 2-2 Philadelphia Independence: Laura Kalmari scored in the 18th minute to put Sky Blue FC ahead before Casey Nogueira doubled the lead in the 36th minute on a free kick that went upper 90. Amy Rodriguez cut the lead in half on a breakaway in the 57th minute and Christina DiMartino scored the equalizer for Philadelphia in second-half stoppage time.
Next week: The mysterious magicJack opens its season on the road against Philadelphia (0-0-1, 1 pt.) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Widener University. Sky Blue FC (0-0-1, 1 pt.) travels to Atlanta (0-1-0, 0 pts.) on Saturday at 7 p.m. and the Western New York Flash plays its first-ever WPS game on the road against Boston (1-0-0, 3 pts.) on Sunday at 6 p.m.
Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a Web site devoted to women's professional soccer news.