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WPSL Elite League kicks-off with wide variety of teams

McCall Zerboni and the Western New York Flash have a unique opportunity to win an unusual triple. (Photo Credit: Patricia Giobetti | http://www.printroom.com/pro/psgiobetti)

WPSL Elite will not look like most other leagues, a distinction that should be on full display in the very first match when the Boston Breakers travel to Maryland to face ASA Chesapeake Charge on May 10.  The Breakers were born more than a decade ago along with WUSA, were reborn in 2009 with WPS, and made the jump to WPSL Elite in February less than two weeks after WPS scrapped the 2012 season.  ASA Chesapeake Charge won their WPSL division a year ago but elected to stay NCAA compliant upon joining the Elite League.

“When we were approached with it I didn’t feel there was enough time to put together a full pro squad that could compete,” Charge general manager Patrick Crawford said.  “What we have currently is an even stronger squad than I feel like we probably could have put together if we went full pro status.”

Crawford is confident the Charge will be able to compete with the WPSL Elite’s power clubs even if NCAA regulations will mean their mostly young roster will have less than two weeks to train ahead of the season opener.  The Charge’s exciting group of young players includes fringe national teamer Christine Nairn plus U-18 players Ashley Spivey and Riley Barger.  Spivey and Barger won’t be college freshmen until the fall.  On the other side the Breakers boast Leslie Osborne, Heather O’Reilly, and Melissa Henderson, among others.

WPSL Elite was announced February 9, originally billed as a bridge from WPS 2011 to WPS 2013.  But as it becomes more apparent that WPS will not be back in the same form we knew—if at all—WPSL Commissioner Jerry Zanelli has made no bones about his plans for expanding the Elite league and slowly evolving into a top flight, national league for women to play professionally.

“We feel like this is the right model for women’s soccer to succeed,” said New England Mutiny owner Joe Ferrera.  The Mutiny, like the Charge, FC Indiana, Chicago Red Stars and New York Fury, are making the jump out of the main WPSL and will be a professional side as will the Fury.  The Breakers and Flash played in WPS last season.  The Red Stars can lay claim to both.  They were in WPS for two seasons before abandoning the top flight to field a WPSL side in 2011.  The eighth team is the Philadelphia Fever, an amateur club created specifically for entry into WPSL Elite.

“I think it opens different avenues, it gives the college players a chance to play without damaging their eligibility,” Fever coach Stuart Gore said.

The Fever won’t even begin training until May 10 meaning they will barely be cooled down and relaxing by the time the Breakers and Charge kick off the season.

“I know as a coach I can’t go in and play the Flash straight up,” Gore acknowledged, while adding that the Charge have spent three months of hard recruiting trying to build the best possible amateur team.  “It will be down to us as a coaching staff to be very tactical.  I know what we have to do to be competitive and to be successful.  I know the owner is considering taking the team professionally next year.  We’re starting off on the low end and going up.”

The Fever will be aided on the back line by Molly Allen and Myriam Bouchard, both recent Virginia Commonwealth graduates and both capped by Canada.  Gore is also excited about Liberian forward Cherie Sayon.

The most unique squad in terms of roster building is FC Indiana.  An extremely successful club since its inception in 2000, FC Indiana is coached by Shek Borkowski, who doubles as National Team coach for Haiti.  A large number of his FC Indiana players are from the Haitian National Team.  “You won’t know any of our players,” he readily admitted.  Borkowski has set a modest team goal of cracking the top four in the eight-team loop and building from there.

The Fury were the last team to join WPSL Elite but creative head coach Paul Riley is quietly stocking his club with talented players.  Brittany Taylor, Kia McNeill, Tina DiMartino and sometimes Tobin Heath will give the Fury instant credibility.  The club is also close to announcing Hofstra University as their home base.

The Flash will be trying to accomplish an extremely unusual if not altogether unheard of triple.  Having won the W-League in 2010 and WPS in 2011 they will be trying to win a third straight title while playing in three different leagues.

The Red Stars have gobbled up some strong Midwest talent.  Lori Chalupny was a rock for an overmatched Atlanta Beat team in WPS last season and might be the best full-time WPSL Elite player.

Asked about a future where the top echelon US National Team players join the league, coaches and executives gave a universal, “not sure.”  Quality of play in WPSL Elite figures to be high, but most of the top international players—including Marta—are now playing overseas or training with their national teams.  Some top US players long ago made it tacitly known they had no need to play in a league environment ahead of the Olympic Games.  Other top players have elected to sign with W-League sides closer to home rather than relocate to play WPSL Elite.

As for league structure the teams will play a double round robin for a 14-game schedule concluding July 22.  A playoff format has yet to be announced, but look for a championship weekend to follow with a semifinal game (or games) Thursday and a championship match Saturday, July 28.  Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester is the leading candidate to host the games.

Teams will be permitted six substitutions per match with no re-entry.  Red cards will result in a minimum one-game suspension, but there will be no suspensions for yellow card accumulation.  There is currently no television contract, but Zanelli has spoken to more than one outlet about the possibility of getting a match here and there out to the masses.

While no team is committed to WPSL Elite beyond 2012 Zanelli says all of the owners are talking about 2013 and beyond and that expansion is on the horizon.  WPS just crumbled having failed to deliver on a number of expansion promises, but WPSL Elite is different in two ways.  First, the entry fee is about a quarter of what WPS was asking.  Second, a slew of West Coast teams were gearing up to start a similar league in 2013 even before WPS stepped aside.

The mission of each team is different as it should be.  When Joe Sahlen was preparing to take the Flash into WPS in late 2010 as doubts lingered over whether the league would survive he more or less said that the Flash would play in the highest level league available to them.  And while the Fever are clearly thinking professional, the Charge are taking more of a wait and see approach.

“We’re sort of taking it one step at a time,” Crawford said.  “We’ll see how this year goes and kind of take it from there.  Maybe we will keep a squad like this in the U-23 league and then possibly do an all pro team.  To do that you obviously need sponsorship and things like that which we’ll have more time to work on.”

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