The main question hanging over the new WPSL-Elite league was a simple one: Is a league with teams consisting of downscaled WPS teams and upscaled WPSL teams really going to be competitive top-to-bottom? Or is it going to be half truly elite teams and half teams for the elites to beat up on? This inaugural match seemed designed to answer that question, with the Boston Breakers, late of WPS and stacked with players like Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill, taking on the Chesapeake Charge, late of WPSL, whose best player from last year is college senior and central defender Jessica Hnatiuk.
After a mere forty-five seconds, the worst seemed to be true: The Breakers’ Courtney Jones brought the ball down the right flank and easily got around Hnatiuk to get off a cross, which Veronica Napoli knocked into the lower left corner of the net. The Breakers had been practicing such plays before the game with only a goalkeeper defending, and this looked about the same. “This is going to be ugly,” I thought, and I doubt I was the only one.
But the Charge buckled down and took it to the Breakers, earning the game’s first corner kick three minutes later. That went ineffectually through the box, but at least the home team was putting on some pressure and continued to do so for most of the next ten minutes.
The momentum turned again approaching the fifteen minute mark as the Breakers scored two quick goals, one by Katie Schoepfer and assisted by Napoli, and the other by Jessica Luscinski assisted by Leslie Osborne. The latter was set up by a turnover deep in their own end by the Charge. The ball ended up under Osborne’s control, and the former national teamer calmly turned and slid the ball over to the open Luscinski, who knocked the ball off the right post and in. The score: Breakers 3, Charge 0, with 5/6ths of the match yet to be played.
But after that rather dismal start, the Charge stepped up their game for the next 75 minutes, and the score held the rest of the way. My impression was that Chesapeake improved almost literally minute-by-minute, picking up strategy and techniques from the more experienced Breakers players as they went. As time went by, they got more physical, they fought back better on the shoulder-to-shoulder challenges, and they made better use of their superior speed and agility, forcing the Breakers into turnovers of their own. Believe it or not, there were a few minutes toward the latter part of the game where Breakers defenders were literally slipping and falling to the ground as they tried to maneuver quickly enough to keep up with the Chesapeake attackers. That was the battle, in a way: the Charge’s unpolished athleticism up against the Breakers’ experience and superior technique. Those forces met in little battles all over the field, which along with the enthusiasm and undying energy of players on both sides made it a very enjoyable game to watch.
Players for both teams noted the improvement in the less experienced team. Christine Nairn of the Charge noted that they were a little jittery at first, somewhat in awe of the “name” players on the Breakers, but then settled in. Co-captain Laura Kane simply said, “We’re young, and it showed.” She also noted that the team had only been together for ten days, with some key players like Nairn for much less than that. Despite the loss, Hnatiuk, the third co-captain, found playing the formidable Breakers to be a “great experience” and thought her team “did a great job.”
Cat Whitehill particularly noted how strong Chesapeake came out for the first fifteen minutes of the second half and said the Breakers had to work to regroup in response. Both she and Leslie Osborne complimented the Charge players on their energy and never-say-die attitude. They noted that the evenness of the game for the final 75 minutes boded well for the league and noted that they expected to continue to have teams come in to play them with an underdog, “you’re-the-team-to-beat” attitude. (Cat and Leslie also expressed how happy they were to be playing again after “the longest off-season ever!”)
Charge head coach Albert Oni pointed out that the Breakers simply had “more detail,” which he clarified to indicate what I would call their technical superiority. The Breakers could, for example, send a long pass clear from one sideline to another, expect the sending player to put the ball on target, and expect the receiving player to be able to trap the ball with one touch. Despite their efforts and improvements, that’s not something Chesapeake was ever able to match.
That being said, the underdog Charge were a significantly better team in the 90th minute than in the first. If that trend continues, then it’s way too soon to conclude that this league belongs to the Breakers, the Independence Fury, and the Flash.