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Analysis

Sawa wins Ballon d’Or, plus WPS updates

Japan's players celebrate with the trophy after the victory against the U.S. in their Women's World Cup final soccer match in Frankfurt

Japan won the World Cup in July and now, at the start of a new year, the Nadeshiko have swept FIFA’s end of year awards. Midfielder Homare Sawa was awarded the Ballon d’Or on Monday, given each year to the best male and female players of the year. Lionel Messi won the award on the men’s side for the third-straight year.

Sawa’s coach, Norio Sasaki, was also named the women’s coach of the year on Monday after guiding Japan to the World Cup title in a penalty kick victory over the United States on July 17. Japan also won the FIFA Fair Play Award.

Finally, the voters got this one right. Sawa’s election as the top player of 2011 dethrones Marta as the five-time reigning holder of the award. To say that Marta – the most talented individual player in the world – was undeserving of those awards would be silly. But the process always seemed flawed. Finalists for the award really never made sense (like Cristiane in 2008 and and both the aging Birgit Prinz and talented but still unproven Fatmire Bajramaj last year).

This time, however, the storybook year ended just as scripted.

Sawa was the clear choice here, even despite Marta’s usual flare in 2011 and Wambach’s earth-shattering heroics that sent Ian Darke’s screaming voice through American households for the second-straight summer. Sawa, after all, had the last stand as heroine when she equalized for Japan to send the final to penalty kicks. Sawa, just like her coach, Sasaki, for the coaching award, is the hands down winner of player of the year.

As always, the Japanese captain was quick to praise her team first and foremost.

Marta and Wambach, the two other finalists, spoke to the Associated Press on Monday about their respective futures (or potentially, lack there of) in WPS. Both sound unsure about playing in WPS in 2012. Wambach’s focus is on the Olympics and her hometown of Rochester, home of the Western New York Flash, seems the only sensible option. But Flash head coach Aaran Lines said there are no talks currently between Wambach and the Flash.

And Marta? The Brazilian starlet’s future is, for the second straight New Year, very secretive. A return to Western New York would also likely be the only WPS destination for Marta, but re-signing with the Flash remains a question mark.

“We’d like to have her here,” Lines said.

“We know she had a good experience with us. She’s told us that this was her best experience in WPS, with out club. We value her as a person and as a player.

“It’s very much 50-50. She’s a player that’s going to have a lot of options. Any club in the world would want to sign her. The question is, ‘Can we afford her?’ We’re not going anywhere near what that contract was valued at last year. And it’s not because she’s not valued, it’s just the market that we are in now. But we want to make it happen for ourselves and WPS. It would be good for the game.”

ELSEWHERE IN WPS

Defender Cat Whitehill has signed with the Boston Breakers. The 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist played with the Atlanta Beat last season and despite a dismal one win season for Atlanta, Whitehill was (and is) always upbeat (no pun intended). She’s truly one of those players who ‘gets it’ when it comes to promoting the women’s game and she has a future as a sports broadcaster. Oh, and Whitehill is a more-often-than-she’d-care-to-be-called-upon emergency goalkeeper.

The Philadelphia Independence has finally made some signings official. Forward Tasha Kai will be back with the Cheesesteaks along with defender Kia McNeill and midfielder Jen Buczkowski. Meghan Lenczyk was also officially introduced on Monday. Others set to return to Philadelphia but yet to officially be announced include goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, forward Amy Rodriguez, 2011 WPS MVP Vero Boquette, midfielder Lori Chalupny, captain Nikki Krzysik and Icelandic international Holmfridur Magnusdottir. In all, Riely said at least 12 players from last season will return in 2012.

Jenna Pel reports that defender Amy LePeilbet is headed to Atlanta. The flurry to WPS’ only team south of Philadelphia continues.

Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum is now the U.S. U-23 women’s head coach.

Our Game Magazine reports that Sky Blue FC traded its first round pick in the 2013 draft and its No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft to Atlanta in exchange for Atlanta’s No. 4 overall pick in Friday’s draft. Check back tomorrow for a full 2012 WPS Draft preview.

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