April 9, 2011

2011 Season Opener: Boston at Atlanta

The 2011 WPS regular season opens today with the Boston Breakers traveling to Kennesaw, Georgia to take on the Atlanta Beat at 7 pm eastern time. The Breakers are coming off of a second place regular season finish and a disappointing playoff loss in 2010. Meanwhile, Atlanta is looking to improve on 2010’s last place finish.

In spite of the tough overtime loss that ended the season, Boston can look to a lot of positives coming out of the 2010 season. The emergence of several talented, young players like Lauren Cheney, Jordan Angeli, and Alyssa Naeher, and continued fine play of veterans like Kelly Smith, Amy LePeilbet, and Alex Scott should give Breakers’ fans a lot to look forward in the third season of WPS play.

But while the Breakers have kept most of their team together, Atlanta almost wiped their roster completely clean. Only Lori Chalupny and Lauren Sesselmann return of those Beat players that finished the 2010 season. The Beat decided to go with a sprinkling of national team veterans with a fairly overwhelming number of young players. Of the 24 WPS players who spent the 2010 season in college, nine of them are on Atlanta’s roster, nearly 40% of the league total.

Boston should feature a lineup very similar to last year, although several players might miss the first game according to the WPS roster report. Defender Amy LePeilbet and striker Lauren Cheney are listed as unavailable for this match because of their recent work schedule with the USWNT, while defender Rachel Buehler is listed as questionable. Of course, the other player missing from last year is Kristine Lilly, who announced her retirement in the offseason.

If Buehler and LePeilbet are both sidelined, the center back pairing for the Breakers might well be Ifeoma Dieke and Alex Scott, who moves inside, with regular Stephanie Cox and rookie Elli Reed on the outside. Leslie Osborne returns from an injury that ended her 2010 season far too early, as does young Jordan Angeli, one of the top rookies in the league last season and a scorer of seven goals. Rookie Keelin Winters looks to join that duo in the midfield.

Even with Cheney out, Boston has excellent scoring options in English veteran Kelly Smith, who led the Breakers with 11 goals in 2010, and attacking mid Kelley O’Hara who scored six for Gold Pride in her rookie season. Katie Schoepfer is listed tentatively as the other forward. Hopefully, we will also see Nikki Washington, whose ACL injury kept her off the field since the fall of 2009.

To be honest, Atlanta will have to have a lot of things break their way to earn many victories this season. It looks to be not enough experience and not enough firepower on this team to challenge for the league title. Yes, they do have proven veterans like Chalupny, Carli Lloyd, Cat Whitehill, Heather Mitts and Keeley Dowling. But they will be relying a lot more on young talent, right out of college like Megan Jesolva, Vendula Strnadova, Kylie Wright, and Meghan Lenczyk.

Where will the goals come from? Out of the four listed forwards on the roster, three have never played in a WPS regular season match before and the fourth, Lauren Sesselman, will miss this game due to red card received in the final match of 2010. That means the Beat will be looking to midfielders Chalupny, Lloyd, Strnadova, Jesolva, and India Trotter to score more often than not. Chalupny scored six goals in preseason.

Atlanta looks to the veteran trio of Whitehill, Mitts, and Dowling on the back line. They will be trying to keep pressure off of their goalkeeper, whether it would be Allison Whitworth or Allison Lipsher. Both are capable keepers, but most of the other teams in the league have national team caliber netminders.

It will be interesting to see how the young players in this match perform and there will be quite a few in the lineup for both teams.

There will only be two matches this weekend. On Sunday, Sky Blue hosts Philadelphia in a match that will be televised. Western New York and magicJack will play their openers next weekend, when WPS returns to a full slate of matches.