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2011 Season Preview: Philadelphia Independence look to avoid sophomore slump

Expansion teams aren’t supposed to do what the Philadelphia Independence did in their inaugural season in Women’s Professional Soccer in 2010. Under the two-a-day practice regimen and soccer acumen of Paul Riley, the Independence reached the WPS Championship before falling to the Marta-led FC Gold Pride. Riley, the 2010 WPS Coach of the Year, guided his club to a 10-10-4 record, good for third place.

Because Philly stumbled down the stretch, being surpassed by the Boston Breakers for second, the Independence had to play three games in a week in the postseason, topping both the Freedom (1-0 at home) and Breakers (2-1 on the road) in overtime battles to reach the WPS Championship. Having played the first round and semifinals in a four-day span, and the finals four days after that, the Independence had no gas against the first-place Gold Pride and were ousted 4-0 in the final.

Leading into the championship contest, Riley was outspoken about his problem with the playoff format (he wasn’t the only one complaining) about how it was unfavorable to any team outside of the top seed. WPS heard the complaints league wide and changed that WPS format.

“There is no hangover from the final. The schedule was against us and we were playing a team that we would have to be fresh, play at our very best and still need some luck to win,” Riley said about his team’s ride last season. In 2011, there will be a week between the super semifinal and championship matches. “Gold Pride proved they were the class of the league. I think those playoff experiences will hold ourselves in good stead for the roller coast ride of a tough physical season of WPS soccer.”

Going into 2011, Riley isn’t going to sit on his hands. Philadelphia, in Riley’s mind, needs to get better, especially in preventing goals.

“We needed to improve our defense which we have done with the additions of Kia McNeill and Leigh Ann Robinson,” Riley mentioned. “We have added speed, skill and youthful legs to our back line. We have more depth in our defense and crucially we will be able to find better match ups for players such as (former Gold Pride, and now Western New York Flash teammates) [Christine] Sinclair and Marta.”

The combination of Sinclair and Marta proved too much to handle in the 4-0 championship loss for Philadelphia. Marta earned the MVP award in that contest for her performance. In addition to the struggles stopping Gold Pride from scoring, there was an issue scoring goals. Nicole Barnhart got the clean sheet. Independence leading scorer Amy Rodriguez couldn’t do it all. Riley is ecstatic about the addition of Tasha Kai to bolster the offense, and feels with Kai, the whole offensive unit will be immensely better.

“Adding Tasha Kai gives us another major weapon up top and we have spent much of preseason trying to get our midfield unit on the same page with Kai so we can forge a fruitful and successful partnership,” said Riley. “I think Tasha is delighted with the midfield corps, with players like Tina DiMartino, Joanna Lohman, Lianne Sanderson and Sinead Farrelly providing her with ammunition, she should be able to have a super WPS season.”

And Riley isn’t even mentioning the likes of Lori Lindsey, Holmfridur Magnusdottir and Danesha Adams, all key cogs for Philly last season. They have also added productive players like Megan Rapinoe, Laura Del Rio and Veronica Boquete. With all the additions, it’s unlikely that the top keepers will be able to notch clean sheets against Philadelphia.

One keeper for sure that won’t notch another shutout against Philly is Barnhart. Philadelphia signed Barnhart — who allowed the fewest goals in WPS last season — after Gold Pride folded in the off season. She will battle with incumbent starter Val Henderson for the starting role in 2011.

With only 11 spots to put players on the field, Riley explained why the club added so many dynamic players.

“The team was put together so we could function without our four women’s national team players (who will be away during the FIFA 2011 Women’s World Cup in late June into July),” Riley pointed out. “When they are with us, we are certainly stronger in just about every position from last year.”

According to Riley, the Independence will implement many different formations throughout the season because of the availability of players. However, the thought is that Philadelphia will be up-tempo attacking squad.

Now in their second season, the Independence won’t be able to sneak up on anyone and will have to play much better than 2010 if they plan to reach the WPS Championship in consecutive years.

“We will have to perform better than last year to repeat our 2010 achievements and I certainly think our depth and talent level will put us in a position to at least compete for a playoff spot,” said Riley. “Many of the rosters are stacked and most think Boston and Western New York will be the top two. It’s up to us to stay in contention with these two and battle it out for the other two playoff spots with magicJack, Atlanta and Sky Blue FC.”

One player that may breakout and surprise some people is the rookie, Farrelly, selected second overall by way of Virginia. Riley has nothing but praise for his new midfielder.

“Sinead has the qualities to make the full women’s national team and I think this experience will further develop the tactical and mental end of her game,” he said. “She is a true talent and I’m excited to see our midfield in action.”

Philadelphia did an excellent job retooling its roster for the 2011 season. Additions of former Chicago Red Stars Boquete and Rapinoe, and former Gold Pride keeper Barnhart were excellent in shaping the club. Frankly, when the World cup is behind us, it’s hard to point to the 11 players who will start with the loaded team Philadelphia has put together.

But just adding players doesn’t win you a championship. It comes down to practice, perfecting and executing the game plan. Should the Independence do that, it will definitely be poised for another deep playoff run.

“Our training environment and team culture will be critical in our success,” said Riley. “Our core leadership group from last year – Henderson, Allison Falk, Nikki Krzysik, Jen Buczkowski, DiMartino, Magnusdottir, Sanderson, Adams, Estelle Johnson and Lohman – have returned in tremendous shape and their experiences of last year have certainly given them the hunger and dedication to get back to the final.”

Philadelphia kicks off its second WPS season April 10, 6 p.m., at Sky Blue FC.  Six days later, the Independence opens its home slate at Leslie Quick Stadium on the campus of Widener University at 7 p.m. against magicJack.

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