The Women's Professional Soccer playoffs are here this weekend. But missing from this group of four postseason teams are the Chicago Red Stars, who finished their inaugural season with a 5-10-5 record, 20 points and a sixth-place finish.
There is no question that Chicago's first season had a mix of highlights and lowlights, and all you have to look at is the undefeated four-game start, followed by a two-month winless stretch.
Despite the shortcomings, the league and the Red Stars were a welcome addition to the Chicago area, whether it was Brazilian Cristiane's exciting play, a dominant 4-0 win over the Boston Breakers, the continual increase in attendance at Toyota Park, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. Women's National Team's World Cup victory in '99 ... and that is the tip of the iceberg.
In closing out the season, SlideTackles.net presents its final performance grades of the women who battled on the pitch for 20 regular-season matches.
• Goalkeeper (GRADE: A): Forget the Red Stars' regular-season record for a second and keep in mind that Caroline Jonsson (pictured) recorded more saves (89) than any other WPS goalkeeper. Jonsson was the cornerstone of this team, especially during the team's many close battles. The epitome of her success shone during her 13-save effort against the Washington Freedom on April 11. She recorded nine saves in the second half, while the Red Stars' offense didn't even put a shot on goal in that half. And the team still managed a 1-all draw. Jonsson was the third-to-last pick of the WPS International Draft, and I'd say she was a steal.
• Defense (GRADE: C): Since Jonsson makes up a category of her own, it's time to critique the rest of the group. There were three things that stood out from what I saw during the season. One, there were some late lapses to allow a game-tying goal or even the opposing team's go-ahead score. Two, on many occasions the Red Stars' defense simply bunkered down and allowed an onslaught of shots. In the five draws this season, opponents out-shot Chicago by an 81-54 margin, leaving you wondering if they only could possess the ball a bit more, maybe the playoffs would have been on the docket. And three, the Red Stars showed some vulnerability in trying to keep up with some of the league's speediest forwards. But there were some positives. In-season acquisition Jill Oakes (pictured) improved quite a bit at center back, and Natalie Spilger earned some valuable starting time. It would have been nice if one of Spilger's flip throw-ins actually directly led to a goal, because few people can provide that distant setup from the sidelines. Kate Markgraf, out this past season because of the birth of twins, intends to play in 2010. So I'd be curious to see how she can take hold of this group.
• Midfield (GRADE: C): Based on raw individual talent, this was the cream of the crop. Together, the moments that they gelled were too few. Some national team call-ups didn't help, either. Megan Rapinoe (pictured) and Brittany Klein were the most consistent within this group, and they're rightly being rewarded with All-Star appearances. Klein in particular had a solid season and saw the most play on the field. Lindsay Tarpley and Karen Carney had some flashes of brilliance and several solid goals, but there were some occasions when they could have finished some other chances. Tarpley closed out the season well, only to suffer an ACL injury before the season finale. Carli Lloyd would be the first person to lead her own criticism talk, which I admit is a very professional acknowledgment. She eluded to the fact that there was some pressure for herself and Tarpley to perform at the highest level, especially since there was so much preseason buzz surrounding these allocated players who have demonstrated their skills at the national team level. When the pressure went away during the Red Stars' 3-1 win over the L.A. Sol (since the game had no bearing on any playoff hopes), they each had one of their better performances. But the bottom line is that pressure will continue to be there for 2010. This area of the pitch needs to be Chicago's cohesive unit, because most times you live or die with your midfield play.
• Forward (GRADE: B-minus): Goals were hard to come by, not just for the Red Stars, but for most of the WPS contingent. Nevertheless, Chicago tied for second-to-last within this seven-team league. The majority of the thunder came from Cristiane's team-leading seven-goal season, and she is joining Rapinoe and Klein on the WPS All-Star Team. Tarpley and Carney pushed up front, as well, especially earlier in the season when Cristiane joined the team a little late and had a knee injury. The Red Stars' 92 shots on goal was the smallest total in WPS. Nine times out of the 20 games, the team attempted 10 or less shots in a game, so we didn't see as much as we would have liked from up top. And that definitely is a trickle effect from some of the possession and defensive shortcomings. One forward I think many people would have liked to have seen a bit more this season is Ella Masar. She only logged 655 minutes and suffered a hip injury when she collided with FC Gold Pride goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart.
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No question there will be some changes to the Red Stars roster here and there, some new signings to look forward to. I gather that for the teams that fell short of the playoffs, this inaugural season is a disappointing mulligan that can be corrected at the start of next year. It was a brand-new league with new personalities to get used to and different styles of play trying to converge into one game plan. But those explanations carried lesser meaning toward the final third of the season, and it better be a non-issue for everyone in 2010.
The parity level in WPS was pretty strong, and as long as the league can avert many of the scheduling conflicts that involved so many national team call-ups, we should see some exciting developments across the board next season. I wouldn't expect the L.A. Sol to run away with the regular-season title again in 2010, but you never know. They have Marta.