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The Lowdown: Australian rules (NWSL) football

Christie Rampone battles Sam Kerr (right) for the ball. (Photo courtesy Mark Novak/WNY Flash)

There was an intriguing battle last Wednesday at Sahlen’s Stadium that took place within the confines of the Western New York Flash’s 2-1 victory over Sky Blue FC. It wasn’t just that Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Foord are both Australians—players from the same nation battle frequently in all corners of the globe—but that neither one has celebrated a 20th birthday.

On that day Kerr, playing as a left-sided midfielder for the Flash, got the best of Foord, stationed at right back for Sky Blue. In the bigger picture, the matchup was a glimpse into the future of Australian soccer and the changing landscape of the women’s game.

“Sam Kerr came into (the Australian) national team January 2009 at the age of 15 so she’s been in it for four years,” said Tom Sermanni, current U.S. national team head coach who was the Australian manager in 2009. “For her to come here and play alongside Abby Wambach and play in a professional league with top class players is invaluable. It’s a great experience for them. You can’t buy that experience.”

If Kerr continues to play as she did last Wednesday night, May 1, it will be her Flash teammates looking to her for guidance rather than the opposite. The 19-year-old was in complete command of the Flash’s left side, doing much of damage against the 18-year-old Foord, who by full time was reduced to a shell of the player who normally uses her speed to make her presence felt in the attack.

“Obviously a fantastic start for a young player in the league,” Flash coach Aaran Lines said following the match that saw Kerr assist on the first Flash goal and do most of the work on the second. “I think the most important thing for her is she’s able to see the time that she needs. She still needs time to mature and develop. She’ll be given that time.”

In some ways Kerr and Foord are no different than their American counterparts. In other ways they are far more advanced in their development than most U.S. teenagers. The development system in Australia is more in line with the rest of the world in that players latch on early with top-flight clubs and are able to play for the senior team at young ages. In the U.S. it’s youth soccer and then college.

“They’re further developed tactically,” James Galanis, an Australian who coached the Atlanta Beat in WPS and runs Universal Soccer Academy in Lumberton, N.J., said of Kerr and Foord. “I think they know the game better than an average 18-year-old. In Australia, if you’re a talented player it doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or even 15, you’re going to be selected for your senior (club team). So now all of a sudden from a nice young age you’re playing with women who actually know the game. So tactically you become more mature at a much younger age. That’s the difference between the two countries.”

Last year top college prospect Lindsay Horan walked away from a scholarship to North Carolina and instead accepted a contract to play professionally at Paris Saint-Germain where she has found early success. But Horan’s story is the lone exception to the rule that sees female soccer players go through their full college eligibility before turning pro.

Sermanni says the college system represents good and bad in the development of the game and players.

“The college system here is a huge plus in the sense it gives an inordinate amount of players somewhere to play from the ages of 17 to 21,” he said. “At the same time the national team (does not) have too much control over them during that time. The good thing in Australia with the young players that have come through is the national team system had control over them from a young age.”

Galanis believes the world has already surpassed the U.S. in terms of both skills and tactics and that the U.S. women maintain their edge due to athleticism and mental toughness. And he expects Australia’s recent improvements to continue until they compete for global hardware.

“Australia is going to become a force within the next 10 to 15 years. There is no doubt,” Galanis said. “Because Australia has a very similar competitive nature as the American girls. And with a combination of these kids that are playing senior soccer at such a young age in Australia and now that the best ones are coming over here and playing in (NWSL), Australia is becoming and will become a power house in the future.”

Leroux hat trick highlights weekend action

Sydney Leroux went into the history books with three goals in the Breakers’ 4-1 win over the Red Stars on Saturday, becoming the first NWSL player to register a hat trick. The Breakers also set a team mark in their second straight win as no other NWSL squad has scored more than twice in a match.

“I think the team played amazing,” Leroux said, deflecting the attention. “Obviously I wouldn’t have the goals without my teammates.”

Video evidence suggests Leroux needed none of those teammates for at least one of the goals. In the 74th minute she pounced on a loose ball in the defensive third, got lucky when Michelle Wenino slipped off a heavy first touch by Leroux, then picked up the dribble and scolded Erin McLeod 1-vs.-1. On the way to goal Leroux was adding daylight between herself and trailing defender Carmelina Moscato even as she was on the ball. Leroux’s second goal made it 3-1 and gave the Breakers some much needed breathing room.

The match was the first at Dilboy Stadium since the Boston Marathon bombings. A sellout crowd of 3,113 was on hand to cheer the Breakers to victory.

“It’s really good to be back home and to get a win, and just the way we played was pretty impressive,” coach Lisa Cole said.

Katie Schoepfer, who scored the first Boston goal, added: “We have a goal of staying undefeated at home and the crowd really helps us out with that.”

In other Saturday action FC Kansas City spoiled the Reign home opener, knocking off the Emerald City club 1-0 for the second straight win over the same opponent. And the Thorns defeated the Spirit 2-1 for their third straight win.

The inaugural NWSL season is now in danger of seeing the table split into two groups. All three Saturday matches saw undefeated teams defeat winless squads. The Spirit occupy sixth in the table and already concede five points to Kansas City and Boston, tied for 2nd place.

Where are the goals coming from

Throughout the season The Lowdown will track where the goals are coming from in terms of the different levels of roster building. The eight clubs combined to score a dozen goals during an action-packed Week 4. Here’s how the goals break down with Week 4 totals in parenthesis.:

Allocated players – 19 (8)
College Draft – 3 (1)
Free Agent – 7 (2)
Supplemental Draft – 3 (1)
Discovery et al. 1
Own Goals – 1

Note: Free Agent refers to any player signed during the free agent window immediately following the college draft; Discovery includes any player acquired through means not included in any other category

Free Kicks

– The Breakers and Red Stars have both been involved in historical hat tricks before. The first WPS hat trick was scored by Cristiane while playing for the Red Stars. And back in 2001 Tiffeny Milbrett was the first WUSA player to bag three in a game, doing it for the New York Power against the Boston Breakers.

– There was an awful lot of hubbub in the Sahlen’s Stadium press box over Samantha Kerr being denied a second assist on the second goal of the night. But her cross was clearly played—or misplayed—by defender Christie Rampone before Abby Wambach finished it. Therefore, no assist. Doesn’t mean Kerr was not the best player on the park.

– As for Caitlin Foord, her coach Jim Gabarra said she had her worst game at right back, but that he was not close to removing her from the match. “I’m not going to give players a pass or give them an out,” he said. “They have to take their medicine and figure out how to solve the problem.”

– Hope Solo was a halftime guest on the Seattle Reign FC webcast and said she hopes her first game back for the national team will be June 15 when the U.S. plays South Korea at Gillette Stadium. The two teams meet again five days later at Red Bull Arena.

– Another Reign webcast guest, new mom Stephanie Cox, said she would like to return to playing but has not set a target date for doing so. Cox is not affiliated with an NWSL team.

– Sky Blue FC has yet to play in front of a crowd larger than 3,102 (and that was on the road). With a midweek home match looming that figure is not likely to change Wednesday against the Red Stars.

– Jessica Fishlock is the first player closing in on yellow card jeopardy. The Reign midfielder has been booked three times. Two more will equal a one-game suspension. There is no make-good policy to wipe Fishlock’s three cards off the books.

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