By John Philip Wyllie
The San Diego Spirit will hope the third time is the charm when they open their 2003 season on Saturday April 5 at 6:00 p.m. at USD Torero Stadium. After failing to make the WUSA playoffs again last year, the Spirit conducted an off-season house cleaning. Eleven players from their 2002 opening day roster have been dispatched. In their place, a lot of eager, new faces, a new coach, a new General Manager and more importantly a new attitude.
“I’d like to think we are much better (than last year’s team),” said new head coach Omid Namazi as he prepared for Saturday’s home opener. “When you look at who we have on the attack, it is a pretty good group of players.”
The hope is that by pairing newly acquired Canadian international Christine Latham with Scotland’s Julie Fleeting, the Spirit will be able to create more pressure up front. Latham and Fleeting are cut from the same mold. Both stand 5’9,” have strong aerial games and are scrappy, physical forwards. Working in conjunction with swift and skillful Shannon MacMillan, the Chevy U.S. Soccer Player of the Year, the Spirit’s attack line should compare favorably with most throughout the league.
Supporting them, the Spirit has one of the finest attacking midfielders in the game, first round draft pick, Aly Wagner. At 22, Wagner is already a fixture on the U.S. national team. Wagner will be counted on heavily when the United States defends its World Cup Championship this fall in China. She will be equally important to the Spirit as the engine that will drive the team with precise passing and skillful play-making. Joining her in the midfield will be a couple of other new acquisitions, Daniela, the Brazilian Olympic team captain and Kerry Connors an aggressive, speedy flank midfielder. Chinese international Zhang Ouying, another speedster will split time as an outside midfielder and as a forward. U.S. national team captain, Julie Foudy will complete what looks like a much-improved midfield.
The Spirit’s problems could be on defense. Joy Fawcett, regarded by many as the best female defender on the planet, returns to the central midfield. But the departure of several others leaves the Spirit backline rather thin. Third year defender, Kim Pickup, a reserve up until now, will get the call at right back and Amy Sauer should return on the left side. The spot in the central defense next to Fawcett will probably go to Ronnie Fair, acquired in the off-season from the New York Power. Injuries here could be devastating as the Spirit opens its season with very little depth on defense.
Jaime Pagliarulo hopes to rebound from a sub-par 2002 season in goal. If she can return to her 2001 form, goaltending will be a Spirit strength. If not, the job could eventually fall to rookie Jenni Branam. Branam however, still recovering from a serious knee injury, will not be at full strength when the season opens.
On paper, Namazi has put together a team that is faster, more physical and far more talented than last year’s group. How they will perform as a unit and how they will survive when their international stars depart for their respective national teams remains to be seen.
“It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out over the next few weeks,” said Namazi. We will just have to see what the best possible combinations are. It will just be about how they come together and how everything clicks.” Spirit fans will get their first look on Saturday when the Spirit plays host to the Boston Breakers.