WUSA: Join the Party

Foreign arrivals - especially Chinese and Germans - boost the WUSA's star power.

When their players returned from their first seasons in the WUSA, China's soccer authorities were thrilled. The players were sharper, bolder, better.

"The area that stood out most was combativeness, physical risk-taking," reports Lauren Gregg, the WUSA's vice president of player personnel, whose persistence in China - and elsewhere - has brought a good deal of the world's best female players to America.

"Those are more traditionally American qualities," she says, "and you add [the Chinese's] exceptional technical and tactical abilities, and they were more complete players. [The Chinese] were pleased with how we treated [their players]."

It paid off this winter with the addition of three more Chinese stars - including flank midfielder Zhao Lihong, whom Gregg calls "by far the best midfield player I've ever seen" - for the professional women's league's second campaign.

Five Europeans - with more to come - also join a fine Class of 2002, although the two biggest names among them, Germans Birgit Prinz and Steffi Jones, may not be available until June. That's the price their club, FFC Frankfurt, exacted: Neither heads to America until the German champion's involvement in the first UEFA women's club championship is completed.

NEW COMPETITION. It's a better deal than the league could often get elsewhere in Europe. The addition of the European Women's Cup, and its prize money, and the prospect of a professional league in England has helped boost the transfer fees Scandinavian clubs were asking of the WUSA.

The league, for the most part, balked.

"I think what coaches found dealing with Norwegian and Swedish clubs were teams asking for huge transfer fees," says Washington coach Jim Gabarra, who picked up Jones and Pu Wei, a midfielder who, at 21, has already captained China's national team. "It was the difference between getting a player and not getting a player."

The WUSA acquired two Norwegians, striker Ragnhild Gulbrandsen (Boston) and flank midfielder Linda Ormen (New York), both 24, and is chasing another. Attempts to sign Swedish forward Hanna Ljungberg for San Diego and Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ragnhild's younger sister, for Carolina failed.

"We understand we're not going to get every player," Gregg says. "You've got players' needs, clubs' needs - sometimes it's not right for the individual or the club."

SAFETY CONCERNS. Ormen agreed to come to the WUSA only after scouting New York with her father and agent during the Power's October training camp. She also sought advice from Gro Espeseth and Ann Kristin Aarones, Norwegians who retired after playing for the Power in 2001.

"She wanted to see the city - I'm certain the Sept. 11 stuff had something to do with that," New York coach Patrick Farmer said. "And Gro and Anke tried to convince her that, in spite of what may appear in the foreign press, it is safe here."

Her father, Oivind, is "a down-to-earth farmer," Farmer said. "He wanted to make sure his little girl was being taken care of. It felt like a college recruiting trip."

Farmer has two remaining foreign slots to fill but only one discovery option available. He also could grab a foreigner in the Feb. 11 Global Draft. Oakland University midfielder Anita Rapp, Ormen's backup with the Norwegian national team, and W-League standouts Cheryl Salisbury (Australia) and Claire Scanlan (Ireland) are the top foreign players expected to be available.

Carolina is seeking a European midfielder to join Prinz, 24, a big striker who has scored 38 goals in 88 internationals. And San Diego, with both their discovery options available, is searching for an attacking player.

Washington's offseason moves, sending Brazilian forward Pretinha and defender Michelle French to San Jose, were made to free roster and salary cap space for Jones and Pu.

NEEDS PRIORITIZED. The Freedom's pursuit of the pair, as with most of the foreign acquisitions, began in early fall with a league-run procedure - several coaches called it a "draft"; Gregg was adamant that it was not - that prioritized which teams would go after which foreigners.

Jones, 29, a defender, won't count against Washington's foreign-player limit - her father is an American serviceman who settled in Germany.

"She's an orchestrator, like [WUSA defender of the year] Doris Fitschen," Gregg said. "What Doris brought to Philadelphia, expect that from Steffi Jones."

Jones was to have been paired with fellow German Fitschen in last year's international draft, but the WUSA was unable to work a deal with Frankfurt. Jones' desire to play in America prodded the transfer for this season.

Zhou, 29, will join countrywoman Liu Ailing in Philadelphia. The Charge also lured forward Marinette Pichon, 26, who has 36 goals in 54 games for France.

Versatile Chinese defender Wang Liping, 28, is off to Atlanta, where Sun Wen returns for a second season. Sun considered retirement during the fall but decided to return after the Chinese federation lightened her national-team commitments.

by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French

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