April 4, 2010

Saint Louis Athletica 2010 - Can They Take the Next Step?

Coach: Jorge Barcellos
2009 Record: 10-6-4 (2nd place)
Postseason: Lost to Sky Blue 1-0 in the semifinal.

Returnees (9): Eniola Aluko, Lori Chalupny, Niki Cross, Daniela, Tina Ellertson, Kendall Fletcher, Hope Solo, Erin Walter, Elise Weber.
Draft Choices (5): Kristina Larsen (IR), Ashlyn Harris, Veronica Perez, Carolyn Blank, Sarah Teegarden.
LA Dispersal Draft (3): Shannon Boxx, Aya Miyama, Tina DiMartino.
International Signings ( 2): Madelaine Edlund, Elaine.
Free Agents (3): Kati Jo Spisak, India Trotter, Sarah Wagenfuhr.
Trades (1): Lindsay Tarpley

The 2009 season got off to a devastating start for Athletica. They opened with an 0-2-2 record, culminating in the loss of one of their best players, Daniela. But Athletica made some trades, came together as a team and had the league’s best record over the final 16 games. The question is, can they take the next step and win it all in 2010.

One might think that the 2nd place team would make only a few changes, but that wasn’t the case with Athletica. They did a nearly complete makeover of their international cast, signing Madelaine Edlund and Elaine away from Umeå IK. On draft day, they traded backup keeper Jill Loyden for USWNT player Lindsay Tarpley. Then they traded Angie Kerr and Kia McNeill to move up in the dispersal draft, where they selected Shannon Boxx, Aya Miyama, and Tina DiMartino. Athletica now has 7 players with USWNT caps and another 6 that have caps internationally for other countries. The real concern right now is the team’s health. Lori Chalupny has been battling problems from concussions and Daniela and Tarpley are coming off serious leg injuries. Toward the end of training camp, Kristina Larsen suffered a stress fracture in her foot and will be out 12 weeks. Does Athletica have the depth to overcome injuries?

Goalkeeping-Any conversation about Athletica has to start with defense and any conversation about their defense has to start with Hope Solo. Arguably the best goalkeeper in the women’s game, Solo makes acrobatic saves on a regular basis. She earned 8 shutouts last season with a 0.82 GAA. She distributes the ball as well as any keeper and even assisted on a goal late last season. After trading Jill Loyden to Chicago, Athletica chose Ashlyn Harris out of North Carolina in the college draft. Harris posted a microscopic 0.42 GAA for NCAA champs UNC. Athletica also brought in former Freedom keeper Kati Jo Spisak, a St. Louis native, to add depth at goalkeeper.

Defenders-Only two starters return from last year’s defense. Gone are Stephanie Logtermann (retired), Kia McNeill (traded to Atlanta), and Sara Larsson (Philadelphia). The good news is that one of the returnees is Tina Ellertson, who had an all-star season in 2009. Ellertson has better closing speed than any other back in the league and she gives Athletica a calming presence in the center. Young Elise Weber performed well last season and if she can improve her passing out of the back, she could be a very good outside defender.

The addition of Shannon Boxx gives Coach Jorge Barcellos the luxury of moving Kendall Fletcher to the back line. Fletcher, who played defensive mid last season, was often given responsibility for marking the opponent’s best player. Another player who might move from midfield to defense is Elaine from Brazil. Athletica also added Carolyn Blank out of West Virginia through the draft, signed free agent Sarah Wagenfuhr (formerly Florida State and Chicago Red Stars), and picked up Niki Cross at the roster deadline. Cross spent the ’09 season with Athletica and has the versatility to play defender or forward. The major concern here is depth. Tina Ellertson may be the least replaceable player on the team outside of Hope Solo.

Midfielders-There is no team in the league with as deep and talented of a midfield as Saint Louis. Consider that former Gold Pride starter Tina DiMartino could be the team’s 6th or 7th best midfielder, once everybody is healthy. But there lies the concern. Lindsey Tarpley is recovering from ACL surgery and may not be ready for the start of the season. And with all the depth at midfield, she may play forward for Jorge Barcellos. Lori Chalupny has been plagued by symptoms from concussions and may also be a question mark. Add to those concerns, Brazilian midfielder Daniela is still recovering from her injuries suffered in 4th game of the 2009 season. It appeared that she was just coming into form, scoring the first two goals for Athletica in that game.

But thanks to the LA Sol dispersal draft, Saint Louis has depth to spare. In part due to a trade with Atlanta, Saint Louis was able to pick up both Shannon Boxx and Aya Miyama. Merry Christmas, Jorge! A great veteran player, Boxx has long been one of the top defensive midfielders in the world. She scored 3 goals and 3 assists for the 2009 Sol. Miyama, who has magician-like skills in the midfield, led the league in assists in ‘09 with 6. One of the areas in which Miyama is most proficient is on set pieces, a sore point for Athletica last season. The aforementioned Tina DiMartino is good with the ball at her feet and gives Saint Louis another weapon in their midfield arsenal. Developmental players Sarah Teegarden and Erin Walter provide further depth. If everyone is healthy, this group may have no peers.

Forwards-Saint Louis has one of the league’s best young forwards in Eniola Aluko. At the start of the ’09 season, many people in this country didn’t know her name, but they certainly know now. Aluko had 6 goals, 4 assists, and caused an own goal, meaning she had part in 11 of Athletica’s 19 goals. The problem last year was finding her a running mate upfront. The team addressed that problem by signing Madelaine Edlund, who has scored 28 goals over the past two seasons with Umeå. Edlund scored a goal in the 2009 WPS All-Star game. The team also signed India Trotter, formerly of Florida State, who they had drafted way back in the fall of 2008. Then there is the possibility of Tarpley, Kristina Larsen, or young Veronica Perez playing forward. Perez has capped for the Mexican National Team. If the team can find another scorer, it should open up space for the speedy Aluko.

Summary-Athletica now has 5 players that played for the WPS in last year’s All-Star game and another that was selected, but couldn’t compete. They have a great goalkeeper, a great midfield, one of the league’s best defenders, and one of the most exciting attacking players in WPS. The one thing that stopped them last season was lack of scoring. There were all too many 1-0 nailbiters. Without Aluko, Athletica was unable to score against Sky Blue in the semifinal.

The main concerns for this team have to be scoring, depth on defense, but most of all, team health. If this team can get healthy and get off to a better start than last season, they should challenge for 1st place.