All eyes on the Marta-Kelly Smith showdown
The two current best players in women's soccer will be on display Saturday as the Los Angeles Sol's Marta and the Boston Breakers' Kelly Smith meet on the field at Harvard Stadium in Boston. The pair will clash for the first time in Women's Professional Soccer competition and only the second time in their careers. (They first met in the second leg of the 2008 UEFA club quarterfinals when Marta scored four goals to ease former Swedish club team Umea past Smith's then-club Arsenal.) Only four games into the season, both have been outstanding so far in WPS and have pulled far ahead of everyone else in the MVP race.
"[Marta's] one of the best players in the world I've ever seen play the game, and it's just so much fun to watch," said ESPN analyst and former U.S. national team captain Julie Foudy via telephone. "Top of mind, the next person you think of is Kelly Smith in terms of things she can do on the ball, her ability to finish and the way she plays the game."
Marta leads a Sol team that is undefeated. Although she missed Saturday's game because of Brazilian national team duty, she is tied for the league lead with three goals and an assist. The player she's tied with? That of course would be Smith. The Breakers striker had scored in each of Boston's first three games this season. However, Smith sat out the team's 4-0 loss in Chicago on Saturday after playing 90 minutes for England against Norway the previous Thursday.
Smith downplayed being tied for the league lead in goals.
"We don't really care who scores the goals or who assists, as long as we stay together and work for each other," Smith said via telephone. "It's all about the team environment in Boston, which is good."
After Saturday's game, Smith and Marta will meet again May 10 in Los Angeles. But this weekend, the first-place Sol hope to remain unbeaten and unscored upon, and the third-place Breakers will try to bounce back from this past weekend's loss. Despite the compelling team storylines, all eyes will be on the two players wearing No. 10.
"If I was a young girl, I would want to be at the game," Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said via telephone. "For me, to be a part of it as a player is phenomenal. This league is about the best players in the world, and you're going to get to see them go head-to-head."
Marta and Smith have high praise for each other.
"Kelly Smith is quite skillful and has great ball control and is an excellent finisher," Marta wrote in an e-mail. "In fact, she is one of my favorite players in the world to watch because she is such a complete player and does such a good job, even with all the attention she attracts on the field."
Smith had similar compliments for Marta.
"She's the best player in the world today. She's a phenomenal talent. She's very hard to mark, very crafty, very skillful, and her movement's very clever."
Neither Los Angeles nor Boston has scored without Marta or Smith on the field for her respective team, and the Breakers looked especially lost in the shutout loss to Chicago.
"[Marta's] got great speed, incredible balance on the ball, great technical ability in terms of beating players one-on-one and dancing on the ball. Typical Brazilian flair," Foudy said.
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Harvard Stadium, Cambridge, Mass.
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Boston at Los Angeles
"Kelly has a similar ability to beat players, but she does it in a different way. She isn't necessarily going to take them with her speed, but she has to be a little more creative. She's great at getting players off balance and going by them. She has a really good sense of the game, like Marta."
With her three straight FIFA World Player of the Year trophies, Marta is probably more familiar to more casual soccer followers in the United States. On the other hand, Smith is not well-known outside of those who closely follow the women's game, but she has impressed her new WPS teammates.
"I'd never played with [Smith] before, just against her," Breakers midfielder Angela Hucles said via telephone. "It's nice to be on the same team as her. She is very technical and also very tactically savvy. It's always fun playing with her and even watching her play."
1. Loving Boston. Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who played three seasons for the Breakers in the Women's United Soccer Association, is looking forward to returning to Boston.
"I love Boston. I fell in love with the city when I was fortunate enough to play there," LeBlanc said. "The entire organization became a family to me. For me, it's like I'm going back home. It will be a bit emotional because part of my heart will always be with the Breakers."
2. Return of the phenom. Marta will return after serving national team duty for Brazil in a 1-1 draw in Germany played in front of 44,825 fans. The crowd in Germany was encouraging, as the World Cup is set to be played there in 2011. That the full Brazilian national team played together in a friendly is also a great sign. After the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, the team didn't play together for three years as the Brazilian federation opted not to arrange any competitive fixtures.
"It was an interesting atmosphere with 45,000 people there, even though it was a friendly," Marta said. "It was a well-contested game and an important one for us because we have a new coach and many players who have to get used to the level of play. Overall, I thought we came through it very well."
3. Back in form. Abby Wambach has finally scored her first goals of the year. In the most thrilling game of the young WPS season, Washington topped FC Gold Pride 4-3, and Wambach's header in stoppage time won the game for the Freedom. She notched another goal and an assist in the match as the Freedom got things going offensively for the first time this season. Although Wambach's broken leg still might not be 100 percent healed, U.S. national team fans need to remember the World Cup won't be until 2011, and she will be fine by then.
4. Style points. Although FC Gold Pride lost to the Freedom in that match, Albertin Montoya's team is perhaps the most enjoyable team in the league to watch because it plays fun soccer. Forward Tiffany Weimer is always entertaining, and she and midfielder Christina DiMartino combined well together Sunday. Former WUSA MVP Tiffeny Milbrett, who has two goals this season, makes big plays when needed. Nicole Barnhart is a solid goalkeeper despite a rough outing Sunday.
Earlier in the season, after FC Gold Pride topped Boston, Milbrett explained why she thought her team had played so well.
"What we did is we've been a playing a lot of soccer this preseason. The coaching staff has done that on purpose so that come game time, it's not weird for us to be playing soccer together," she said via telephone. "We haven't done a ton of running or anything else, other than getting the ball at our feet around practice every day."
5. Crowd update. League attendance was down a bit this past week, as home teams all saw less than 5,000 fans in the stands. St. Louis had 4,228 in attendance (although the game was not in St. Louis' regular venue), Chicago drew 4,118 fans (albeit during another rainstorm) and FC Gold Pride drew 3,321. Once the weather improves in Chicago, the Red Stars' attendance should go up, but WPS needs more from FC Gold Pride.
1. Los Angeles Sol (3-0-1): Another clean sheet for Karina LeBlanc, who has posted four straight shutouts.
2. Chicago Red Stars (2-0-2): Finally broke out on offense in the win over Boston. Chicago and Los Angeles remain the only unbeaten teams in WPS.
3. Boston Breakers (2-2-0): Rough night with Kelly Smith sitting on the bench.
4. FC Gold Pride (1-2-1): Fun, fast and exciting.
5. Washington Freedom (1-2-1): The team finally looked on the same page offensively despite lacking the services of international standout Sonia Bompastor, who played on the French national team.
6. Sky Blue FC (0-1-2): Coming off a bye week but still have only one goal this season.
7. St. Louis Athletica (0-2-1): Played better in the draw with Los Angeles but still the only team not to find the back of the net. St. Louis has taken 46 shots in three games, but only 10 have been on goal.
Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, followed on Twitter and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.