While Western New York is hotly anticipated as a 2011 WPS expansion team, the Atlanta Beat has had its fair share of critics this off-season. Gone are big names such as goalkeeper Hope Solo, defenders Kia McNeill and Tina Ellertson, midfielder Aya Miyama and forward Eniola Aluko. Replacing them is a group of young, unproven talent, which has many questioning how the squad will stack up against the five other WPS teams loaded with international talent. But Atlanta Beat Head Coach James Galanis is not worried.
“I ignore the critics,” Galanis said. “In life, you can criticize anything and everything. I am a positive person and I look for the positives that surround me. I am proud of the young team we have assembled, and we plan to work hard in every game and play for our fans. Critics will always be critics. We don’t care what they think.”
Atlanta will be led by veteran utility player Lori Chalupny, who will probably run the midfield as the team veteran. India Trotter, who is also one of the more experienced players on this young Beat squad, could join Chalupny in the center of the park, while the wide midfield position is up for grabs amongst several rookies. Kylie Wright, who the Beat selected No. 7 overall in the 2011 WPS Draft after trading down to get her, should claim one of those spots. Also pushing for a starting role in preseason is Megan Jesolva, who has gotten looks as a right midfielder.
Defensively, Cat Whitehill and the underrated Keeley Dowling provide leadership and consistency. Heather Mitts is also a veteran, although exactly how available she will be throughout the season remains to be seen. Mitts has battled several injuries throughout her career (including this off-season) and will also miss time with the United States Women’s National Team along with midfielder Carli Lloyd.
“I think we all know when Carli and Heather will be around,” Galanis said. “The [women’s national team] schedule is set. I will be evaluating their physical fitness and mental fitness every time they return from [women’s national team] camp and make a decision at the time. I cannot guarantee them playing time.”
Atlanta should benefit from having only two U.S. players and no internationals. The Beat will be the only team largely undisturbed by the Women’s World Cup and international duties, which will help the team develop chemistry unlike any of the five other WPS teams.
The one place Atlanta may struggle is up top. With Aluko gone, the Beat lacks a proven goal scorer. Meghan Lenczyk, selected No. 14-overall in the 2011 WPS Draft out of Virginia, will have to pick up some of the scoring load in her rookie campaign. Kristina Larsen will also factor into the Beat’s attacking plans. Larsen is yet to play in WPS after getting hurt during the 2010 preseason with the now defunct Saint Louis Athletica.
Lauren Sesselmann could also crack into the line-up, but where is unclear. She has the ability to play as a wide midfielder or as an outside back, but can also play up top. Where she fits into the line-up could depend on the day. Galanis said he does not plan on having a set formation.
“We have worked hard to learn several different formations over the pre-season, and we probably won’t plan to necessarily stick to any specific formation,” he said. “We will play the formation needed on that particular day.”
While Atlanta does not match-up with the other five WPS teams on paper, it does have the ability to keep the same squad together throughout the season. That could help the Beat sneak into that fourth playoff spot, and after that, anything is possible (see Sky Blue FC’s 2009 run).
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