Not many people were giving the then expansion Philadelphia Independence much of a chance of breaking out of the Women’s Professional Soccer basement prior to the start of the 2010 regular season – WPS’ second. But with strong play from the backline, including stellar goalkeeping by two could-be No. 1 goalkeepers in Karina LeBlanc and Val Henderson, the Independence made it all the way to the WPS Championship before falling to FC Gold Pride.
LeBlanc began the season for Paul Riley’s club as the regular starter, with Henderson filling in for the Canadian on the occasion she’d be on international duty. In those stints, Henderson performed above and beyond, eventually earning a more regular starting role by season’s end.
In the inaugural WPS season, with LeBlanc and Henderson both in Los Angeles playing for the now defunct Sol, it was LeBlanc who was in net and led her team to a league-best record and a spot in the WPS Championship before losing to Sky Blue FC. But unlike their time with the Sol, with both Henderson and LeBlanc in Philadelphia, it was Henderson who led the team in the playoffs.
As the No. 3 seed in the WPS postseason, Henderson guided the Independence past the Washington Freedom and Boston Breakers to make it to the championship. Where Henderson got the best of keepers Ashlyn Harris (Washington) in the WPS First Round and Alyssa Naeher (Boston) in the WPS Super Semifinal – both overtime victories – she was outdone by Nicole Barnhart and watched as FC Gold Pride hoisted the championship trophy.
For two years, day in and day out, Henderson battled another legitimate No. 1 keeper in LeBlanc. When LeBlanc was jettison to the Chicago Red Stars (now a free agent after Chicago’s operations have been suspended for 2011) via off season trade, Henderson looked to be a lock for the top keeper in Philly.
But just a week ago, she learned her cozy spot as the top keeper will again be a daily challenge. Her new co-keeper, Barnhart, signed as a free agent after FC Gold Pride folded in November.
“All teams need two excellent goalkeepers and we will have good depth in that position,” said Riley. “Val is an extraordinary athlete with great reflexes and an infectious will to win. Barney is calm, collected and thrives in big games.”
WPS is loaded with talented keepers. The debate of which team holds the best one-two punch in the goalkeeper position could be a never ending endeavor. Sky Blue FC has Jenni Branam along with 2010 all-star Karen Bardsley, both of whom were on the 2009 WPS Championship team. The Freedom has Hope Solo and Erin McLeod; and Western New York Flash has Harris and former Gold Pride back-up Brittany Cameron.
But how can you argue with Barnhart and Henderson? The two keepers that were starting in the 2010 WPS Championship will be battling it out against each other on a daily basis in seven-aside scrimmages. Barnhart (who last year led keepers with a 0.7 goals against average) and Henderson could very well be the top two keepers in the league and they will only be making each other better by the sheer competition in training.
“They both know they will need to be at their best day in day out,” Riley noted, “and I think top class competition makes everyone better.”
Barnhart will likely be away with the United States Women’s National Team in Germany for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, leaving Henderson with the chance to solidify herself as the starter for the home stretch of the WPS season, just as she did a year ago, stealing the job from LeBlanc. With Barnhart’s competitive nature, she won’t make it easy on the Bay Area, Calif. native.
Both Philly keepers may have been rivals just a few months ago, but with the two on the same side, there could be a friendly rivalry in the making that could make 2011 a special season for the two of them and the fans of the Independence.
“It makes life easier,” said Riley of having a pair of steadfast keepers. “Two world class goalkeepers competing is like being in goalkeeper heaven. I’m excited to see them become friends, teammates, competitors. Philadelphia fans are very lucky to have two such renowned goalkeepers in their squad.”
Philadelphia kicks off its 2011 regular season April 10 at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, N.J., against Sky Blue FC. The Independence opens up at home a week later, April 16, at Widener University in Chester, Penn., against the Freedom.
Editor’s note: Attempts were made to contact Val Henderson, who was unavailable for comment.
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