September 15, 2010

WPS Awards - Who I Voted For and Why.....Part 2

In Part 2, I'll look at the final two awards, plus one that wasn't voted on, but I feel deserves mention.

WPS Rookie of the Year - Jordan Angeli, Boston Breakers

This award was just flat out hard to vote on. Not only were the four players on the ballot all worthy choices, but there were about a half dozen more that could have and perhaps, should have been on the ballot.

Brittany Taylor, Ali Riley, and Lauren Cheney all had solid seasons from beginning to end. Meanwhile, Jordan Angeli only played 26 minutes in Boston's first four games and didn't become a regular starter until the 8th game of the season. But it was the definition of the award that put Angeli ahead of the others on my ballot.

Description: Awarded to the rookie – one year removed from playing in college – judged to have had the greatest impact on her team’s performance during the WPS regular season.

At the point Angeli was inserted into the starting lineup, the Breakers were floundering in 6th place. From that point on, Angeli had seven goals and three assists over the last 17 matches. In early July, she scored the game-tying goal against Atlanta, followed by the game-winning goal against Washington. She tallied both a goal and an assist in a late July game against the Freedom and again in mid-August against Sky Blue. In both cases, they were the first two goals of those games. Angeli had been expected to be a defender at the start of the season, but stepped right into the midfielder's role when needed. Her impact on the Breakers cannot be understated and for that reason, she was my choice for this award.

Ali Riley had a very strong season for FC Gold Pride. The speedy outside defender is dangerous on the attack as well as being a solid defender. She earned a respectable three assists from her back line position and was one of the reasons for the strong improvement of Gold Pride's defense compared with 2009.

Brittany Taylor was one of the few constants in the Sky Blue lineup this year. She started and finished every single game for New Jersey and played well throughout. And like Angeli, she showed the versatility to play midfield as well as defender. Taylor finished the season with two goals.

In my mind, Lauren Cheney is the heir apparent to Abby Wambach. She's a big strong forward with a lot of talent and is a constant threat to score. She is one of the most dangerous players in the league with her back to the goal, turning on her opponents with quick precision to get off that blast of a shot. Her arrival took some pressure off of Kelly Smith as well. I just felt her Breaker teammate, Angeli, had more of an impact in this season.

I feel that the mention of a few more worthy names that didn't make the ballot is called for here. The Freedom's Nikki Marshall showed unbelievable versatility, playing solidly at both forward and defender. She started on the back line, but then scored three goals in a brief stint as a forward, before being moved back to defender. Her return to the back line coincided with Washington's August resurgence, giving the Freedom the speed on defense that they had been lacking.

The Red Stars' Whitney Engen lacked just four minutes of duplicating Taylor's feat of playing every minute. She was solid and often overlooked on Chicago's back line, at least partly because of the Red Stars being out of contention most of the season. She helped lead a Chicago team that was second only to Gold Pride defensively.

Four other players worthy of strong praise were Ashlyn Harris, Alyssa Naeher, Becky Edwards, and Kelley O'Hara. Once Harris got her feet wet, she had a phenomenal month of August, giving up just two goals, one of which was an own goal. Naeher was the Breaker's starting keeper for the final two thirds of the season and did a solid job for them. Edwards is perhaps one of the most underrated and overlooked young players in the league for Gold Pride. O'Hara had outstanding rookie totals with six goals and four assists for Gold Pride. It will be hard for future rookie classes to match this one in shear talent and depth.

Michelle Akers Player of the Year Award - Marta, FC Gold Pride

For many people, choosing Marta as the winner of this award was cut and dry. She far surpassed everyone else with her 19 goals over 24 games. She didn't miss a minute for FC Gold Pride this year. She helped 2009's last place team become 2010's champion. Quite simply, she was the best player on the best team in WPS and her impact on Gold Pride's performance was immense.

For me, however, this was a lot tougher decision than it appeared, considering that Gold Pride was going to be a very good club, even without Marta. They certainly wouldn't have been 16-3-5 without her, but they still might have won the regular season. So I decided to look deeper, before making a final decision.

First, I wanted to look at high impact goals, goals that either tied the game or put a team in front. I did this before the final two weekends of the season, right before I submitted my ballot. At that point, between the four players on the ballot, it was very, very close overall:

Marta - 17 goals, 7 game-leading goals (2 PK's included), and one game-tying goal.
Rodriguez - 12 goals, 4 game-leading goals, and 3 game-tying goals.
Wambach - 12 goals, 5 game-leading goals, and 2 game-tying goals (1 PK included).
Smith - 11 goals, 6 game-leading goals (1 PK included), and 2 game-tying goals.

So at that point, Marta had 8 high-impact goals (two of which were penalty kicks), Smith had 8 high-impact goals (one of which was a penalty kick), Rodriguez had 7 high-impact goals (no penalties), and Wambach had 7 high-impact goals (one of which was a penalty kick). The other three candidates had as many high-impact goals as Marta did, which was somewhat of a surprise given how many games Gold Pride won. Both Marta and Wambach later added one game-leading goal apiece.

I also looked at assists. At the time I voted, Wambach had eight assists, Rodriguez had six, Smith five, and Marta just two. Marta did add three assists in Gold Pride's final game of the season, more than doubling her assist total in just one swoop.

Then I looked at each players impact on their respective teams and in all cases, it was tremendous. There is no doubt that Gold Pride became a good team because of overall excellence, but became a great team because of Marta. She helps others score because she draws defenders away from her teammates. She's the most talented player, one of the fastest, and has the best instincts of any player in the world.

But the other three candidates had a huge impact as well. Where would Philadelphia be without Rodriguez? She scored 12 goals for Philadelphia, while no one else on the team had more than five. Defenses could key on her, since the Independence didn't have a lot offensive threats.

Where would the Freedom have been without Wambach? Washington scored 33 goals and she had a part in 21 goals, nearly two-thirds of the Freedom's offensive output. She always draws multiple defenders, no matter which team she is playing.

Where would the Breakers have been without Smith? She is their leading scorer, leading assist getter, and along with Kristine Lilly, gives Boston veteran leadership that helped bring them back from near the basement to a legitimate contender for the title.

With all of the above factors in mind, it was nearly too close to call among the four. All had great seasons. All are extremely talented players. All had a tremendous impact on their team's performance. All are also leaders for their teams. In the end, I went with Marta. It all came back to her being the best player on the best team and having a large impact in making that team into a champion.

One Unofficial Award

There was one award that I don't think WPS awards and that we certainly did not vote on, but I think merits mention.

Comeback Player of the Year - Lindsay Tarpley, Boston Breakers

Had this been one of the categories we had voted on, it too would have been a tough decison. Several players come to mind, but I will mention five that stand out. Lindsay Tarpley, Sarah Huffman, and Kandace Wilson all came back from horrific injuries to make a huge impact on their teams this season. Kate Markgraf missed the entire 2009 season on maternity leave, but came back to lead the Red Stars' defense in a solid 2010 season. Joanna Lohman came back from virtual retirement to become Philly's second leading goal scorer. Each of these players are wonderful stories in perseverance and achievement.

Lindsay Tarpley's injury came at the very end of the 2009 WPS season in August. One had to wonder how much impact she could have in 2010, given the long recovery time of most ACL injuries. She scored one goal for Saint Louis, before signing with Boston and having a major impact on their season turnaround. She ended up with four goals and three assists, helping the Breakers to 2nd place.

Sarah Huffman missed nearly the entire 2009 season, save for a brief appearance in the Freedom's one playoff match. Her solid play helped the Freedom overcome the loss of Lori Lindsey in the expansion draft. Huffman's play was strong enough to impress Pia Sundhage, who named her to the preliminary USWNT roster for the next round of friendlies in October.

Kandace Wilson suffered a severe hip injury nearly midway through the 2009 campaign, but was back in Gold Pride's lineup for 2010, helping the most-improved defensive team in the league. Not to mention, her speed and ability on forward runs always presents a threat to opposing defenses.

Not many 33-year old players could take off a full year, have a child, and return the following year to have an excellent season on the field (only Kristine Lilly comes to mind immediately). But Kate Markgraf came back to captain and lead Chicago's defense through the 2010 season. It was great to see her back on the field.

Finally, Joanna Lohman showed that hard work does eventually pay off. Lohman was originally drafted by Saint Louis in the fall of 2008, then traded to Washington. Last year, she ended up playing a total of 248 minutes with the Freedom and there was talk about her retiring from professional soccer. However, she returned to the field with Philadelphia and had a great season in their midfield with five goals. She is being given a shot at USWNT camp for the upcoming October friendlies, this being several years since her last appearance with the team.

There are certainly other players worthy of mention including Anita Asante and Jen Branam. All of these players should be given huge praise for their accomplishments and they each have my admiration. I hope the league will establish an award for Comeback Player of the Year in the future.