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WPS Wrap: A weekend of firsts

All that can be said is that this was one screwy weekend in women’s soccer.  But that is what keeps things interesting, isn’t it?

Truthfully, the weekend did not just bring crazy happenings, but a lot of firsts as well.  From players making their first starts or appearances to first wins and first losses, the weekend’s women’s soccer fixtures across the globe reminded fans that soccer is completely unpredictable.  Of course, perhaps nothing compares to the magnitude of shock that New Zealand produced by drawing Italy 1-1 Sunday, but there were some other notable happenings outside of South Africa.

Perhaps the biggest “first” of the weekend came out of Atlanta.  The Atlanta Beat finally – yes, finally (it deserves repetition) – got its first win Sunday in improbable fashion when Atlanta topped the Chicago Red Stars 1-0 at KSU Soccer Stadium.  Chicago was riding a three game unbeaten streak into the match and Atlanta was without Hope Solo, Eniola Aluko, Ramonna Bachmann, Kia McNeil and Johanna Rasmussen.  Still, Tina Ellertson scored in the 42nd minute to give Atlanta its first win.

It was pretty easy to sense the relief from the Atlanta organization.  The headline of the team’s press release was “First Win!”  Yup, that about sums it up.  All it was missing was a “finally, now we can breath (and somehow we are only two points behind Boston now,” subtitle.

In New Jersey, the Philadelphia Independence beat-down on Sky Blue FC to the tune of 4-1 in Christie Rampone’s first start of the year.  It was also goalkeeper Kristin Luckenbill’s first start of the year for Sky Blue FC with Karen Bardsley off on English National Team duty and it was one to be forgotten for Luckenbill.  It was the first time this year that any team has scored four goals in one match, so a typically defensive-minded Philadelphia team will be very happy with that.

This is certainly a game to be forgotten if you are Sky Blue FC.  Philadelphia (5-3-2, 17 pts.) now jumps into second place, two points ahead of the idle Washington Freedom.  Sky Blue FC remains in fourth place and next faces a cross-country trip to take on first place FC Gold Pride, a team that continues to roll.

In FC Gold Pride’s first match at Cal State East Bay’s Pioneer Stadium, the team picked up a critical 1-0 win over the struggling Boston Breakers.  Kelley O’Hara scored in the 37th minute on a sloppy play that sums up Boston’s state right now.  Amy LePeilbet played a slightly errant ball out of the back that split Fabian and surprise starter at right back Taryn Hemmings, who was making her first start of the season.  Ali Riley made a great step amidst the confusion between Hemmings and Fabiana and played a ball to O’Hara.  O’Hara’s give and go with Sinclair seemed to be closed down by LePelibet, but the U.S. Women’s National Team defender inexplicably backed off and gave O’Hara a lane to shoot.

The loss was Boston’s first this season away from home, bringing the Breakers to a measly 1-4-4 (7 pts.).  The Breakers had 14 shots, so they had their chances.  Kristine Lilly smacked one off the bar in the 11th minute and Lauren Cheney’s 69th minute header hit the crossbar as well, but there is just a lack of finishing ability and really a lack of urgency from Boston.  The Breakers return home Friday night – still without a win at Harvard Stadium – to avenge a 2-0 home loss May 1 to the Chicago Red Stars.  With Philadelphia taking on Atlanta Wednesday, the Breakers could find themselves in last place at that point.  It is unlikely, but still a scary possibility for Boston.

The firsts did not just take place in WPS.  Some real shockers went down in the W-League.  After winning two straight championships in undefeated fashion, the Pali Blues lost their first game in franchise history Saturday night, falling 2-1 to the Vancouver Whitecaps.  The Hudson Valley Quickstrike Lady Blues also lost their first regular season game in franchise history (20 regular season games) when they fell 2-1 to the Washington Freedom Futures.  Hudson Valley’s only other loss was to Pali in the W-League semifinals in 2009.

The Ottawa Fury, Chicago Red Eleven, Washington and Vancouver remain as the only unbeatens in the W-League.

Not to be forgotten are the UEFA 2011 Women’s World Cup Qualifiers that took place over the weekend. 

Attendance Watch:

Indeed, it is time to really start watching these numbers.  With the halfway point of the season approaching, the bottom line is that attendance is down for the time being.  WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci issued the challenge to raise league-wide attendance by 5 percent to 10 percent this year from the 2009 average of 4,493.

Saturday’s games produced attendance figures of 3,362 in New Jersey, 3,589 in Atlanta and 3,588 in Northern California.  That brings the average attendance to 4,131 for the season thus far (excluding Saint Louis).  If WPS expects to reach that goal of raising attendance figures above the 4,500 mark, teams will have to start bringing more people through the gate as the summer sets in (Monday being the first ‘official’ day of summer) and school gets out.

FC Gold Pride’s new home at Pioneer Stadium looks like a very nice place to play, on TV at least.  It is turf, but it is soccer-specific so there is no line pollution from the football field.  Even with a track, fans seem to be right on top of the action.  Attendance is up from last season – which was a rough one at Buck Shaw Stadium – but with Marta, a star-studded supporting cast that includes local college standouts Riley and O’Hara, and a winning team, the bar surely needs to continue to be set higher.  Sunday will showcase the stadium for Fox Soccer Channel’s first trip to Northern California (vs. Sky Blue FC, 6 p.m. Eastern).

Atlanta also needs to raise expectations.  The Beat play in the finest women’s soccer stadium in the world and now, after picking up Athletica superstars, have the stars on the field to back-up the infrastructure.  Crowds in the realm of 3,500 in a beautiful, brand new 8,000 seat stadium that features Hope Solo, Ramonna Bachmann, Aya Miyama and Lori Chalupny on the field is not going to cut it long-term.  Wednesday’s match against Philadelphia will be a tough sell on a weeknight, but next week’s All-Star Game turnout (as well as the July 3 match against FC Gold Pride) could be very telling of what the future interest in the Atlanta market holds.  Heck, across town the W-league’s Atlanta Silverbacks managed 842 fans their last home match against rival Tampa Bay Hellenic.

Check back tomorrow for power rankings.  This weekend will certainly cause for some shifts in the those.  Also, what would type of coverage would fans like to see from Atlanta and the 2010 WPS All-Star Game?  Who are the players you want to hear from most?  I will be on site for the full three days of festivities bringing you increased video content and inside access, but I want to know if there is anything fans are looking to know.  Leave a comment below.


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