For the first time this season all six teams in Women's Professional Soccer were in action on the same day, with home teams taking maximum points -- albeit in front of scarce crowds. Here are five things learned in WPS Week 4:
1. Boston back on track, Sky Blue still winless: The Boston Breakers ended a two-game losing streak with a 1-0 victory over Sky Blue FC on Sunday at Harvard Stadium. The win came as a result of some tactical changes and surprising personnel moves by Breakers coach Tony DiCicco.
Boston has struggled up front this season and much of that has been a result of relying on Kelly Smith to be a goal scorer instead of a playmaker. Recognizing this, DiCicco dropped the English maestro into her more comfortable attacking midfield role on Sunday in what was an unorthodox 4-1-2-3 formation. That was expected. What was not expected, was DiCicco's move to deploy Alex Scott as an attacking right winger. Scott is one of the best fullbacks in the league but DiCicco said he wants to get her more involved in the attack. Scott played well in her more advanced role, providing several good crosses and using her speed to apply higher pressure to Sky Blue FC players. If nothing else, the change gave Boston a much needed fresh look. Scott probably won't be turning into a midfielder any time soon, but for at least one week she provided a spark to a Breakers team that was searching for answers.
Meanwhile, Sky Blue FC (0-2-1, 1 pts.) is one of only two winless teams left in the league along with Philadelphia. After a poor 2010 season, the overhauled Sky Blue FC looked like it got the fresh start it wanted on opening weekend against Philadelphia. However, a 2-0 lead that night ended as a 2-2 draw and frustration has followed ever since. The following week the team dominated Atlanta only to lose 1-0 and this week Sky Blue FC managed just three shots on goal in Boston. Friday's trip to Rochester to take on the Western New York Flash won't make things any easier on Sky Blue FC.
2. Unsung heroes in the middle: Defensive midfielder is one of the least appreciated roles in the women's game. The U.S. women's national team doesn't even use defensive midfielders in its system, but WPS gives them a place to showcase their talent. Leslie Osborne has long served as the face of the defensive-minded American holding midfielder and she was instrumental to Boston's second-place regular season finish in 2010.
Also emerging are young stars such as Allie Long, who despite Sky Blue FC's rough start has been the anchor to the team's midfield, winning balls and switching the point of attack well. She is complimented well by Carolyn Blank, who serves as the primary ball winner. Most notable early in the 2011 season has been the emergence of Brittany Bock and Becky Edwards in Western New York. At times it seems like a stretch to call them true holding midfielders because of their attacking abilities (Bock in particular), but the two youngsters have been the best central midfield pair in this early season. They stay at home and do the dirty work and the star-studded attacking cast that surrounds them does the rest for the Flash.
3. Home turf advantage: Home-field advantage was very apparent on Sunday with all three home teams securing wins. Sky Blue FC, a grass team, lost to Boston on the flat Harvard turf; Atlanta, a grass team, fell to the Flash on a slick turf in Rochester and Philadelphia, a turf team, lost to magicJack on a narrow grass field in Florida. Incredibly, four more times this season WPS will feature a full slate of three weekend games where the road team is on a surface other than the one on which they normally play.
The adjustment from grass to turf or vice versa is not just mental, either. Home teams are 5-2-2 this season. For a team like Western New York, which may be the fastest in the league with Marta, Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan up top, a wet turf makes them that much more dangerous. Western New York was noticeably slower on grass in Atlanta last week, but looked lethal on its home turf on Sunday.
"It's very different on turf," Atlanta defender Cat Whitehill said after Sunday's loss. "The ball moves a lot faster and that really benefits a fast team so I think the turf had a little bit to do with us. We're not accustomed to the turf."
4. Lipsher really is a standout: The surprise player of the season thus far has been Atlanta goalkeeper Alli Lipsher. She became the first-ever WPS player to win the player of the week award in consecutive weeks when she claimed the honors in Week 2 and Week 3. Her 1.67 goals against average is because she has been peppered in goal. Even in Sunday's 3-0 win Lipsher made a handful of world-class saves that could have made the game even uglier for Atlanta, which was outshot 20-3.
It is not inconceivable to think that Lipsher is worthy of a look from U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. In any year other than a Women's World Cup year, that training camp experience would be invaluable for Lipsher. For now, the best thing Lipsher can do is continue to progress in WPS. There are several quality goalkeepers in the U.S. system but the next generation of U.S. goalkeepers is still very much up in the air. Thus far in 2011, Lipsher has outperformed her young counterparts Alyssa Naeher in Boston and the Flash's Ashlyn Harris, who in fairness has not had much action in goal.
5. Attendance woes: While the season is still just getting going, attendance across the league is down significantly. This past weekend's action saw 1,008 people show up in Florida, while 2,789 turned up in Boston and only 2,164 fans showed for the Flash's first-ever home game at Sahlen's Stadium. The current league average, which topped 4,000 fans in its first two seasons, now sits at 2,746 after four weeks of action. Philadelphia is the only team that has not yet hosted a home game. The Independence will host its first home game on Sunday against Boston, which could help boost that average.
Sky Blue FC 0-1 Boston Breakers: Defender Rachel Buehler scored on a 12-yard half volley in the 52nd minute for the Breakers. After the ball bounced around in the box, Buehler slid in and smashed it in off the underside of the crossbar for the game's only goal.
Atlanta Beat 0-3 Western New York Flash: Christine Sinclair scored a brace and Alex Morgan scored her first professional goal in the Flash's home opener. Sinclair opened the scoring in the 23rd minute after initially being denied by Lipsher and added a second in the 59th minute off a feed from Marta. Sinclair leads the league with four goals. Morgan scored in the 73rd minute, seven minutes after entering the game.
Philadelphia 1-2 magicJack: Christina DiMartino opened the scoring in the eighth minute for Philadelphia but Abby Wambach equalized in the 25th minute to send the teams to halftime level at 1-1. Lisa De Vanna proved to be the difference maker when she converted a pass from Abby Wambach in the 75th minute, less than one minute after entering the match.
Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a website devoted to women's professional soccer news.