April 5, 2010

Washington Freedom 2010 - Are They Defensive Enough?

Coach: Jim Gabarra
2009 Record: 8-7-5 (3rd place)
Postseason: Lost to Sky Blue 2-1 in the 1st round.

Returnees (13): Sonia Bompastor, Lisa De Vanna, Jill Gilbeau, Sarah Huffman, Allie Long, Erin McLeod, Rebecca Moros, Becky Sauerbrunn, Homare Sawa, Briana Scurry, Alex Singer, Abby Wambach, Cat Whitehill.
Draft Choices (4): Nikki Marshall, Beverly Goebel, Kristi Eveland, Caitlin Miskel.
LA Dispersal Draft (1): Brittany Bock.
International Signings ( 1): Lene Mykjåland.
Free Agents (3): Marisa Abegg, Meagan McCray, Christie Welsh.

If there were a soccer equivalent to standing pat, the Washington Freedom would fit that description better than any team in the league. They retained 13 players from last year’s 3rd place squad, brought back all four international players from last year, and primarily used the draft for improvement. The only real high impact free agent that the Freedom signed was Norwegian striker, Lene Mykjåland. They only picked up one player in the LA dispersal draft, although a very high quality selection in Brittany Bock.

The 2009 version of the Freedom could score, and score often. Washington scored 3 or more goals in 6 matches and led WPS with 32 goals. Unfortunately, they also gave up 32 goals and one would have to think that they need to shore up their defense if they want to compete for the title. The situation did improve after the arrival of Erin McLeod, but there were all too many high-scoring shootouts.

Goalkeeping-The Freedom return last year’s starter and Canadian National Team veteran, Erin McLeod. McLeod earned three shutouts and posted a 1.43 GAA in 14 starts for Washington. The Freedom were allowing nearly 3 goals per game before McLeod’s arrival in May and there’s no doubt that her presence improved their defense. Veteran Briana Scurry returns as the backup after an injury filled 2009. Meghan McCray won the battle for developmental keeper after spending '09 with FC Gold Pride.

Defenders-I’m sure giving up a league high 32 goals was not what Coach Jim Gabarra had in mind for the 2009 Freedom. They return four of their starters intact from last year’s group and have added 3 players that should help out. Out of the 3, Brittany Bock could have the most impact. Bock may have had the best season of any of the new college grads in 2009 and is among the league’s most versatile players, spending time at several positions. The Freedom added Nikki Marshall and Kristi Eveland through the college draft. Marshall spent the latter part of her college career as a forward for Colorado, but was a mainstay at center back for 2008 U-20 WC champs. Eveland played outside right in UNC’s 3 back defense.

The returnees include Cat Whitehill and Becky Sauerbrunn in the middle. Whitehill, a member of the USWNT team, is particularly dangerous on long free kicks which she almost unerringly sends dangerously into the penalty area. Sauerbrunn also proved her offensive prowess scoring Washington’s 1st goal ever on a header. On the outside, Alex Singer and Jill Gilbeau return. Singer is probably the better of the two defensively, while Gilbeau has ability going into the attack and she can play wing/midfielder or forward, as well. Marisa Abegg adds depth to this unit.

Midfielders-Sonia Bompastor is the engine that makes this team run. One of the world’s best all round players, Bompastor scored 4 goals last season and tied for the WPS lead in assists with 6. She is also versatile and can play anywhere on the field. From an offensive point of view, Washington appeared much stronger with Bompastor playing midfield and the loss of Lori Lindsey almost ensures she will spend most of 2010 in that position. The Freedom also return holding midfielder Homare Sawa, a 3 goal scorer from ’09. Sawa had a solid season and she gives Washington good support at the defensive end.

Washington does get a boost in the return of Sarah Huffman. Huffman missed the entire '09 season, save for a 17 minute appearance in the playoffs. For attacking midfielders, the Freedom have Allie Long and Rebecca Moros, both of whom played quality minutes in 2009. Long scored two goals and showed great improvement as the year progressed. Moros also had two goals with an assist and she relentlessly pressures opposing backs into mistakes. Another midfielder, Beverly Goebel out of Miami, is a 3rd round selection. The main question for this group is whether or not Huffman will be able to give the Freedom what Lindsey did in 2009.

Forwards-Washington already had the best forward combination of power and speed with Abby Wambach and Lisa De Vanna, and now they have added Norwegian striker Lene Mykjåland to the mix. Just 23 years old, Mykjåland has spent the last 5 seasons with Roå. She has 25 caps and 5 goals for Norway, a team with a long, successful history in women’s soccer. The addition of Mykjåland certainly gives Gabarra more options upfront.

Abby Wambach is perhaps one of the most feared forwards in the world and she’s now back fully fit from the leg injury that kept her out of the 2008 Olympics. Wambach started slowly in ’09, but put on a late surge scoring 5 goals in the last four regular season games, giving her 8 for the year. There is no player better in the air near the goal. Meanwhile, De Vanna is motion personified. Very few defenders can match her stride for stride and she scored 6 goals and 5 assists for the Freedom last season. The Freedom did add veteran Christie Welsh, who scored 3 goals late in the season for Saint Louis for depth. Virginia alum and Freedom W-League player Caitlin Miskel is a developmental forward.

Summary-The loss of Lindsey left a hole in the midfield, but the return of Huffman, and additions of Mykjåland, Bock, and Marshall should improve the team. The question is how much. There’s no doubt that this team will score goals, but they aren’t going to be able to just rely on outscoring every team. The defense is going to have to win some matches for Washington to compete for the top spot. Having McLeod for an entire season will help, as will the presence of Marshall and Bock. If they can hold opponents somewhere near a goal a game, we will see this team in the playoffs in September.