An exultant Salt Lake United pose for a team photo after their surprising 3-1 win over San Diego SeaLions in the WPSL Western Conference playoffs
Women's Soccer News: Rebranded Salt Lake United Rises to the Top in WPSL
Salt Lake Sparta competed admirably through its first four seasons in the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), posting a record just above .500 and coming close to the playoffs in 2009, when it won eight games in the Big Sky Conference's North Division.
A step forward this year, marked by a new association with Major League Soccer powerhouse Real Salt Lake, has brought unforeseen success, and the rebranded Salt Lake United heads into this weekend's WPSL final four aiming to top it off in style.
The most mature side that will compete in Saturday's semifinals in Pensacola, Fla., arrives with a unbeaten record – 8-0-2 – and is coming off upset victories over Pacific powers California Storm and San Diego SeaLions at last week's West regional finals.
“You're always surprised when you get to the final stages of any season, any tournament,” said head coach Dennis Burrows, who founded the team with players Sara Cowley and Kendra Halterman. “This year I think all the signs lined up and all the players focused to overcome the issues and put us in a position to win.”
They face a tough test in their championship weekend opener at Ashton Brosnaham Stadium, taking on host Gulf Coast Texans (9-0-0) in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader. Aztec MA (9-1-1) meets Oklahoma FC (11-1-2) in the 4 p.m. ET opener, and the final is Sunday at 1 p.m. All the action will be streamed live at http://sinclairsportsnetwork.com/2012%20WPSL%20Championships.htm.
|Salt Lake United battled San Diego SeaLions to a 3-1 victory in the WPSL Western Conference championships
Salt Lake United has profited hugely from its affiliation with Real Salt Lake, which provided a needed financial boost and served as a clarion call for local talent. The RSL name, Burrows notes, means “other players take us seriously.”
“Talent-wise, it's definitely a better, well-rounded team,” he said. “We've had great players every year, but the difference this year is the cohesiveness of the unit. The girls all get along. Some players who messed that up are gone, and we brought in personalities that have helped. It's a great, gelling group.”
It's an older team, too, filled with players beyond their college careers and, in a number of cases, minding after their children, too. Cowley, Halterman and backline leader Brinna Bennion are mothers, and there's no doubt Salt Lake United will be the most mature team at the final four.
The Utahans boast a powerful one-two punch up top, with Annie Hawkins, who wrapped up her Gonzaga University career eight years ago, and former D2 All-American Kira Sharp, from Metro State in Colorado, punching home 10 goals apiece. Their partnership is crucial to the team's success.
“Kira has a little more flair to her game and can do things you don't expect,” Burrows said. “Annie has some of those same abilities, but she's more a consistent player. They've got that intangible that makes things work.”
There's support from Erin Morrinson, who has five goals and a team-best four assists, and emotional leader Tasha Aiono and Seattle University sophomore Stephanie Verdoia in midfield. Salt Lake has scored 42 goals, although 26 of them came in three one-sided victories.
The team is even better at the back, with former Weber State goalkeeper Becca Ritchie and defenders Bennion, former University of Washington standout Alex Kirk and Utah State senior Natalie Norris, who will miss this weekend's games. Bennion and Ritchie were the heroines as Salt Lake United staved off San Diego's insistent attack to pull out a 3-1 victory in the West final.
|Salt Lake United players celebrate their third goal in their win over San Diego SeaLions
||Salt Lake United's defense, led by goalkeeper Becca Ritchie, frustrated San Diego's potent offense all day long
They'll be looking for an encore this weekend.
“I think we have to ride the high,” Burrows said. “Everyone's got confidence going ... and I've got to believe the two teams we played in California are every bit as good as any team you'll see in the country. If we can go out and get a win against those two teams, I have no doubt that if we go out and play out game, we can win.”
All photo credit: Stephen Prendergast
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