Women's Professional Soccer is back in full swing following the Women's World Cup. The always hoped for and oft-alluded to bump in interest was very evident last week in WPS, which registered two of its top-three all-time crowds in the past seven days. Most importantly, two games were on display in front of national TV crowds, making it a watershed week for WPS. Those types of numbers will not last very long, but they provide a glimpse of hope for a league that was more than in need of one.
1. Women's World Cup bump -- WPS was hoping it would get a boost from the Women's World Cup and Abby Wambach's 122nd-minute header against Brazil on July 10 put into motion a series of events that has propelled women's soccer to new -- even if only temporary -- heights. On Wednesday, Wambach returned to Rochester, just outside her hometown, to a stand-alone WPS record crowd of 15,404 for magicJack's game against the Western New York Flash.
That game was followed up by the third-largest single game crowd in league history on Saturday, when 9,345 people showed up in Kennesaw, Ga. to see magicJack play the Atlanta Beat. On Sunday, 6,222 fans showed up at Harvard Stadium to see the Boston Breakers take on the Flash. The one blemish of the weekend was Sky Blue FC's crowd of 1,593 when the New Jersey-based side hosted the Philadelphia Independence.
Players such as Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight, but WPS' challenge is retaining that interest from both fans and investors. The championship game is just over one month away and this offseason, just like last year's, will be critical to the league's future.
2. Prevalent parity -- Aside from runaway regular season winners Los Angeles Sol in 2009 and FC Gold Pride in 2010, WPS has been filled largely with parity since the league's inception. The middle of the table has always been up for grabs and Sky Blue FC even made a miracle run to win the 2009 title as the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
Currently, the league table is a perfect example. Philadelphia and Western New York are tied for first place with 27 points, while Sky Blue FC, Boston and magicJack are all tied for third place with 16 points. With five teams competing for four spots in the playoffs, the field is wide open. Sky Blue FC and Boston have played well against Philadelphia and Western New York, but magicJack faced both of those top-of-the-table squads with a depleted lineup. The Boca Raton-based team could be poised for a playoff run under newly appointed player-coach Abby Wambach, who is one of seven U.S. players returning to the lineup. The only team out of the equation is Atlanta (1-10-4, 7 pts.).
3. Morgan, Sinclair, one-two punch -- Christine Sinclair, fresh off a broken nose and a tumultuous World Cup with Canada that ended with coach Carolina Morace resigning on Friday, proved she is ready to win another WPS championship with her two goals and an assist on Wednesday against magicJack. Sinclair is now tied with Philadelphia's Tasha Kai for the league lead in goals with eight, but she's played in four less games than Kai. Sinclair has managed to stand out on a front line that includes Marta and Morgan, who attract both defenders and the media spotlight.
Meanwhile, Morgan provided one of the most spectacular goals of the season -- or at least the most publicized WPS goal in the wake of the attention from the Women's World Cup. In the 87th minute with her back to goal, she struck a twirling outside of the foot shot smacked off the underside of the crossbar and into the net to give the Flash a 2-2 draw with Boston. In classic Morgan fashion, the 22-year-old forward did this after coming on as a substitute at halftime.
4. Streaking sophomores -- Several second-year WPS players are hitting their form as the league hits the stretch run of the 2011 season. Casey Nogueira scored both of Sky Blue FC's goals in the team's 2-0 win over Philadelphia. Nogueira is now tied for third in the league with five goals and has scored some spectacular ones this season. The former North Carolina Tar Heel is far more consistent than she was last season with the Chicago Red Stars and it's paying off for Sky Blue FC. Interestingly, her five goals are matched by breakout magicJack rookie Christen Press.
Also looking sharp this week was Kelley O'Hara, who scored both of Boston's goals in that 2-2 draw with the Flash. Her rookie season was incredibly productive (she scored six goals and assisted on four for FC Gold Pride), but the start of 2011 was a bit up and down as O'Hara shuffled in and out of the U.S. women's national team camp before being called in as Lindsay Tarpley's replacement on the Women's World Cup roster following Tarpley's injury on May 14.
Deserving of a footnote in the discussion on players showing well in their sophomore season is the recent play of Flash midfielder Beverly Goebel. She hasn't necessarily shown up on the stat sheet, but she won the header that led to Morgan's equalizer on Sunday and she was also a spark plug off the bench in Wednesday's 3-1 win over magicJack. Teammate Becky Edwards, the Flash's co-captain, has also been a stalwart in the middle.
5. Finally, some defending -- Atlanta, in the return of right back Heather Mitts, earned its first shutout in over a month in the 0-0 draw with magicJack. That's a positive sign for a team which has given up 27 goals and has a goal differential of minus-20. Unfortunately for the Beat, this was also the 10th time this season the team was shutout. The match was also magicJack's first shutout since May 26, when the team thumped the Beat 4-0.
Sky Blue FC also picked up its first shutout in five games (the last one came against Atlanta, not so shockingly). And even in the absence of Amy LePeilbet, Rachel Buehler and Stephanie Cox, Boston's makeshift back line looked good despite giving up a pair of O'Hara goals.
Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a Web site devoted to women's professional soccer news.