September 15, 2010

WPS Awards - Who I Voted For and Why.....Part 1

The WPS Year-End Awards will be announced soon, so I thought I would do a two-part series on who I voted for and why. Every category had a number of good candidates and a couple of the awards were exceedingly hard to decide. So, without further ado, this is who I voted for in each category:

WPS Coach of the Year - Paul Riley, Philadelphia Indpendence

Nothing against Jim Gabarra, but to me, this came down to Riley, Tony DiCicco, and Albertin Montoya. I thought that both DiCicco and Montoya had more talent to work with than Riley. I also think that heading into the season, both Boston and Gold Pride had superstars in Kelly Smith and Marta, where Philadelphia really did not.

I was very impressed with how Riley brought together a group of spare parts (no offense to the Independence players intended) and had them playing competitive soccer from day one, something that is difficult with an expansion team. Players seemed to reach their potential for Philadelphia and I believe Riley needs to be given credit for a lot of that. I know critics are going to cite the four consecutive losses at the end of the season, but the expansion Independence still finished in 3rd place, just a scant two points behind established Boston.

Tony DiCicco did an admirable job in turning around a Breakers team that appeared to be headed nowhere in May. The Breakers made some acquisitions and DiCicco tweaked his lineup and things turned around in a hurry. But Boston entered the season with a strong veteran lineup and didn't have to deal with the handicap of expansion that Riley did.

One comment that I've heard far too much is that any team that has Marta should win, thus discounting Montoya's efforts with Gold Pride. Marta is a big difference maker to be sure, but it shouldn't detract from the job Montoya did, starting three rookies and leading FCGP from last place in 2009 to first this season.

Jim Gabarra has to be given credit for the Freedom's surge at the end of the season, picking up 14 points in the final 7 matches. But the Freedom had a dismal two months in June and July, so it was hard to see picking him over Riley.

MedImmune Defender of the Year - Rachel Buehler, FC Gold Pride

This is always a tough category to vote on. Defense is much more of a team effort than individual effort. There are no statistics to easily quantify a defender's performance and one really needs to watch them over a full schedule to appreciate what they do for a team, game in and game out. All four of the nominees are team leaders and solid defenders, but on my vote, I had Rachel Buehler edging out Amy LePeilbet.

Rachel Buehler is an exceptional defender and is known for her hard tackles. She captained a defense that went from 2nd worst to best in just one year. Of Gold Pride's regular starting back line, only Kandace Wilson had played with Buehler at all last year and then for only part of the season. I think Buehler has to be given a lot of credit for the group's cohesiveness given the small amount of time they had played together. I also rarely saw Buehler make a mistake.

Amy LePeilbet is often called the best defender in the league and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if she won this award. She is talented, consistent, and always gives top effort. It was a very hard decision, but I gave Buehler the nod over LePeilbet by the slightest of margins.

Both Allison Falk and Tina Ellertson are excellent defenders. Both are good in the air, keeping their respective teams out of trouble on set pieces. Falk is a threat at both ends of the field on headers. Ellertson makes many tackles that most defenders wouldn't even attempt and has perhaps the best closing speed of any defender in WPS. I thought both were hurt by the fact that their teams could be very inconsistent defensively. I would love to have them on my team, but I just couldn't vote for either over Buehler for 2010.

Coast Guard Goalkeeper of the Year - Nicole Barnhart, FC Gold Pride

Nicole Barnhart, often overshadowed by her USWNT teammate Hope Solo, had a great season in goal for FC Gold Pride. She led the league in shutouts with eight and in goals against average at 0.77 per game. She only gave up as many as two goals three times this season. I thought her consistency from start to finish of the 2010 season lifted her above the other candidates.

Karen Bardsley, stepping in for the injured Jen Branam, did a phenomenol job early in the season. She earned five shutouts before the All-Star break. Unfortunately, she suffered a season-ending injury in training for that game and missed the rest of the season. In spite of the great half season she had and my very high respect for her accomplishments, I couldn't choose her over Barnhart's season-long excellence.

I still regard Hope Solo as the beat keeper in the league, but again, it was hard to choose her over Barnhart in 2010. Controversy aside, there is no other goalkeeper that I would want in goal for a penalty kick or a breakaway and she kept the Beat in many a game that they had no business being in. But she suffered from Atlanta's inconsistent defensive efforts and there were just too many multi-goal games.

Jill Loyden is a solid young keeper who will only improve as she gains confidence and experience. Like Solo, she posted six shutouts. But again, it was hard to see choosing her over Barnhart in this particular season.

Tomorrow, part two of WPS Awards - Who I Voted For and Why.