Sunday, March 29, 2009

LeBlanc impressive in WPS opener

A Canadian played a huge part in a big step forward for women's soccer in the United States.

Karina LeBlanc, the long-serving Canadian international (69 caps at the senior level), made several impressive saves to preserve a 2-0 victory for the Los Angeles Sol over the Washington Freedom in the first-ever game in Women's Professional Soccer.

It's been a long road to this point for LeBlanc. According to her bio page, she was born in Atlanta but moved to Maple Ridge, B.C. with her family at a young age. She went to Maple Ridge Secondary, where she didn't play high school soccer (as they didn't have a team at that point) but starred in basketball, track and field hockey. She then spent four very successful years playing soccer at the University of Nebraska — for coach John Walker, a Queen's grad — finishing with a career record of 67 wins, five losses and three draws and a career GAA of 0.56 (36 goals against in 79 games).

After that, she joined the Boston Breakers of WUSA, the last attempt at a high-profile women's pro league in the States. LeBlanc did well with them, but the league collapsed and she wound up in the lower-profile W-League, where she had stops with at least the Montreal XTreme and the New Jersey Wildcats (perhaps other teams as well, but none of the bios available seem to reflect them).

Throughout her career, LeBlanc's been a tremendous representative for Canada. She was the No. 1 keeper for quite some time, but has more recently taken a back seat to Erin McLeod. However, she has still been a valuable presence for Canada and has proven very effective when called upon, as she was in the Olympics this summer against the United States after an injury to McLeod. I wrote at the time that LeBlanc was "a huge reason that the Canadians were even able to take the game to extra time." It's good to see her find success at the club level as well.

LeBlanc was the only Canadian international in this first game, at least according to the Washington and LA rosters online. However, there were still plenty of Canadian connections. As Neate pointed out long ago, one of the most prominent investors backing the league is Victoria's own Steve Nash (who's also now a co-owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps). Also, Canadian midfielder/forward Martina Franko is listed on the L.A. roster, although she didn't see action in this game. There aren't any details up about her yet on their site, so I'm guessing she's a recent signing. Franko has been another long-time stalwart for the national team and won W-League titles with the Vancouver Whitecaps women's team in 2004 and 2006. She's also perhaps the only Canadian women's soccer player to make it onto Jezebel.

The striker LeBlanc spectacularly denied twice was American star Abby Wambach. Wambach has been a thorn in the side of the Canadian women for years, including this past year's Olympics and the 2006 Gold Cup, so there perhaps is some poetic justice in having her stopped by LeBlanc.

Overall, it was a pretty good start for the WPS. The Sol (by the way, they should really look into Sol beer as a sponsor) and the Freedom played in front of 14,832 at the Home Depot Center in L.A., comparable to some MLS crowds. According to the CP article, organizers expected an attendance of 10,000, so this is a step up.

League superstar and World Player of the Year Marta set up the second Sol goal. In some nice continuity with the past, several long-time stars of the women's game were also involved, including Wambach and Washington goalkeeper Brianna Scurry. Mia Hamm, who perhaps has done more for the profile of women's soccer than any other person, was also recognized in a pre-game ceremony, which was good to see.

(By the way, if you've never read Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated 1999 profile of Hamm, you owe it to yourself to check it out).

That doesn't mean that the league will be a guaranteed success, though. As this excellent piece on Avoiding The Drop pointed out yesterday, there are still many concerns surrounding the league, including marketing and television. There's a lot of competition in the women's soccer market, including the NCAA game and the aforementioned W-League. Sports Business Journal's Bill King recently asked, is it really feasible to launch a new league during the current economic crisis?

I'd suggest enjoying the WPS for what it is and sending your best wishes to the Canadians involved. Games can be caught on Fox Sports World Canada every Sunday, and there's plenty of Maple Leaf-covered players, including Christine Sinclair (FC Gold Pride), Christine Latham and Candace Chapman (Boston), and Melissa Tancredi (St. Louis). We may even see Canadian-based teams some day, and WPS investors Nash and Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett apparently even tried to have the Canadian senior national team (based out of Vancouver) join the WPS, but were shot down by the CSA [Marc Weber, The Vancouver Province]. That doesn't mean the dream of WPS in Canada down the road is dead either, though, as Whitecaps' president Bob Lenarduzzi left that door open with his comments in Weber's piece. Before then, if you want to see Canadian stars on Canadian soil, you should take Ben Knight's advice and head out to the Canada-Japan game on May 25.

(Cross-posted to Sporting Madness.)

Photo: Karina LeBlanc makes a save while training with the Canadian women's team in 2007 (Photo from

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