Women's World Cup preparations gutted WPS of its main superstars this weekend, but that did not prevent the two matches from being entertaining. Meanwhile, the U.S. women's national team is battling fatigue and injuries despite an impressive 2-0 victory of Japan on Saturday. Here's five things learned in WPS Week 6:
1. Role players maintained high level of play: Even in the absence of international players, both WPS games this weekend featured a relatively high level of play.
On Friday, the Boston Breakers and Western New York Flash were missing 14 players combined due to international duty. However, New York's McCall Zerboni continued her stellar start to the season by scoring her first two career WPS goals -- one of which was a classy chip from 25 yards out in the first half -- and assisting on Brittany Bock's opening tally in the Flash's 3-2 win. Liz Bogus and Kasey Moore, both also starting in the absence of internationals, tallied for Boston.
Australian midfielder Leah Blayney put in a positive 90-minute performance in her WPS debut as the Breakers deserved a point after dominating the second half. However, defensive errors combined with Western New York's superior finishing gave the Flash the victory. Even in the absence of stars Marta, Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, the Flash still looked dangerous going forward.
2. U.S. players battling fatigue: The U.S. women defeated Japan 2-0 on Saturday, but the stylish victory did not come without significant cost. Lindsay Tarpley tore her right ACL in the second half after entering the match at halftime. She could miss up to eight months, meaning the 27-year-old will not take part in this summer's Women's World Cup. Add that to defender Christie Rampone's tweaked groin and Heather Mitts' hamstring -- which leaves her World Cup dreams questionable -- and the injuries are beginning to pile up for the U.S.
There is no doubt that fatigue has been a factor, with players constantly traveling between their WPS teams on the weekend and U.S. training during the weekday. With another match against Japan on Wednesday and a friendly on June 5 against Mexico, the back and forth is not over for U.S. players. Even some of the healthy players looked gassed on Saturday, including midfielder Shannon Boxx.
3. magicJack situation worsens: The ongoing squabbles between magicJack and WPS reached an all-time low last week, with WPS issuing the team, among other penalties, a one-point deduction from the team in league standings for failure to comply with league standards. Team owner Dan Borislow fired back with some harsh public comments against the league. However, WPS issued its own statement that suggested it would take over certain functions of the team if magicJack did not comply with league standards, including the correct displaying national sponsor signage and uploading match videos to the internal database used by coaches to scout other teams.
Regardless of who is right or wrong, the public nature of the drama is a black eye for a league that needs all the positive coverage it can get. WPS has fined Borislow incrementally, escalating from money and draft picks to a point deduction. The next violation will result in magicJack losing the ability to host a playoff game -- something it is on pace to do -- and the league could step in to ensure things are done properly. At this point league enforcement is clearly needed, but this fight needs to take place in private.
4. Young players take time to adapt: As good as some of the role players have been, young players need time to adapt to the higher level of play in WPS. The notion that the jump from college to WPS is tough is almost a cliché, but it remains true. Amy Rodriguez was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft and struggled in her rookie season before breaking out in 2010. Tobin Heath got drafted first in the 2010 draft and is yet to make an impact in WPS, although Alex Morgan, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft has already gotten her professional career off to a hot start.
Several young players struggled over the weekend, including rookies who have had otherwise strong starts to the season. Philadelphia midfielder Sinead Farrelly and Boston midfielder Keelin Winters were both substituted for less than stellar performances. Young goalkeepers Alyssa Naeher of Boston and Ashlyn Harris of Western New York -- pegged as the next generation of U.S. goalkeepers -- both committed poor errors on Friday. Boston coach Tony DiCicco, who drafted Rodriguez in 2009 and has frequently noted the difficulties young players have adapting to the league, was upset with some of his young players following the match.
"I had players that were working their butts off and I have players that I am questioning if they know how to work that hard," said DiCicco. "They have been playing this college game where if they get tired they come out after 22 minutes. Then they can go back in later on. This isn't how you play in the professional ranks. And here is the thing: They are fit enough. I know they are fit enough, so it's basically just a mental decision and I don't think we had enough of it in the first half."
5. Riley still a tactical magician: Philadelphia coach Paul Riley proved again why he can get the best out of any squad in his team's 2-1 win over the Atlanta Beat on Sunday. The Independence played 77 minutes with only 10 players after Kia McNeill was sent off for bringing down Meghan Lenczyk, but Philadelphia still found a way to get a result despite a first-half onslaught from Atlanta following the red card.
Riley dropped defensive midfielder Jen Buczkowski into a center-back role for the rest of the first half and played a 4-4-1 formation until halftime, after which he decided to go for the win. Riley inserted Estelle Johnson at left back and played with just three defenders as Philadelphia chased the game. Johnson scored the equalizer five minutes into the second half and Laura del Rio scored the winner in the 73rd minute on a team goal that featured 13 straight touches from Philadelphia. The Independence never looked to be playing with a player down in the second half.
Western New York Flash 3-2 Boston Breakers: Brittany Bock outjumped Naeher in the 10th minute to head the ball into the net and give the Flash a 1-0 lead. Zerboni then doubled the lead 15 minutes later, but Liz Bogus' header in the 38th minute made it 2-1 at halftime. Zerboni then headed in a Gemma Davison cross in the 69th minute to give the Flash a 3-1 lead and Kasey Moore made things interesting by finishing a penalty kick in the 80th minute, but it wasn't enough for Boston.
Atlanta Beat 1-2 Philadelphia Independence: Lori Chalupny gave Atlanta the lead in first-half stoppage time but Johnson and Del Rio struck in the second half to give Philadelphia the victory. A WPS season high crowd of 6,125 showed up for the match in Kennesaw, Ga.
Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a Web site devoted to women's professional soccer news.