By Andrea Canales
It's always great to see stars emerge once they are given a proper stage for their skills and talent. While Women's Professional Soccer still has a lot of room to grow and improvement to make, one thing that is already evident is that there are worthy players making their mark on the beautiful game with their skillful moves, technical control and creative plays.
Another thing that is also clear is that very few of them are American.
Of course, there are more players in WPS who are from the U.S. than any other country. It's just that in most cases, these are the supporting performers on the team - the defenders, the goalkeepers, the defensive midfielders. The Americans tend to be steady, unspectacular performers.
This is not accidental or coincidental, but the consequence, at least in part, of the American culture itself.
"Growing up as Americans and growing up in our system, fitness is one of our top priorities, as well as organization and defending as a team," said longtime U.S. women's national team defender Christie Rampone. "We've never had that creativity and flair individually because we're all working together and trying to win as one."
It's true that often, from the time girls are first shown to kick a ball on U.S. fields, they are also taught to share it. It is generally considered selfish to hold on to the ball too long. Tricks and skills to show off technical prowess are frowned upon by many - after all, there is no "I" in "Team".
There is one in "flair", however.
Creativity can be devastatingly effective, as the top two scoring leaders in the WPS have shown. Kelly Smith, a Brit, and Marta, a Brazilian, have four goals each in the season, twice as much as anyone else, including, obviously, the American players.
As a defender that has faced the best in the world, Rampone sang the praises of Smith.
"Crafty, skillful, she's hard to defend, because she can spray the ball all over," said the veteran of multiple Women's World Cups. "A player that has vision like that is a big threat up top."
Yet the world's number one female player had also impressed Rampone.
"A player like Marta - 90 minutes, you have to be focused on her at all times, because all it takes is one chance, and the ball is in the back of the net."
Other revelations in the new league have made an impact. The versatility of France's Sonia Bompastor, the technique and power (until her injury) of Brazil's Daniella, the precise ball control of Japan's Aya Miyama and the impressive shutout prowess of Canadian Karina LeBlanc have all been showcased.
It's not as if no Americans have impressed. The club performance of Brittany Bock, for example, was a key reason why the Sol defender was called up to the national team recently.
Still, though it is a general observation, it certainly seems that what the players from the U.S. excel at is the defensive side of the game, the hard work and coordination that sets the stage for the players with imagination to seize the moment and make something happen.
Rampone tried to explain why the situation might exist. "It's not having that confidence to make a mistake, afraid to try a move, in case it fails. It's like a Catch-22. We work so hard on defense and keeping things tight and organized and when you open up and spray the ball around, it's hard to keep that."
On other teams that don't have as many quality players as the U.S., the stars of the squad feel both the pressure to perform, but also the freedom to cut loose - because if they don't do something special, perhaps no one else will.
"Little by little we're starting to see it - in certain personality players," said a hopeful Rampone. "It's just being creative and having the confidence on the ball to try plays, knowing that if you make a mistake, everyone has your back."
One reason Rampone expects to see change on the U.S. scene is due to the leadership of Pia Sundhage as the U.S. women's national team coach.
"Under Pia, who is more technical, you're going to start seeing more flair and individual creative players rising." Rampone observed. "But it's going to take time and getting more technical, to get anything like Kelly or Marta on the ball. There's bit and pieces out there on the American girls, but I think we work better together than individuals."
It may start at the top, and then trickle down, with girls on soccer fields all over the U.S. deciding that it's ok to take chances, that the team can be helped with a little selfish play at the right time, that passing all the time can lead to defenses sagging back to cover passes. If the U.S. is to take the present example of the top players in WPS, the willingness to take a leap forward must exist. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
For more on Women's Professional Soccer, go to Goal.com's women's soccer section.