In Buffalo, where the Brazilian refers more often to a spa procedure than a person, the masses have yet to realize that one of Brazil's greatest athletes—Marta, the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year—is playing for the hometown team. But if the Western New York Flash has its way, that will soon change. Using the money of hot-dog mogul Joe Sahlen, the WPS expansion team has put together perhaps the most fearsome women's club soccer roster of all time, led by the electrifying Brazilian superstar. "We have some very good players on this team," says Marta, who at 25 is entering the prime of her career, "but we need to work hard to be good on the field, not just on paper."
The Flash (2-0-1), which defeated the Atlanta Beat 3--0 on Sunday, includes not only Marta but also U.S. rising star Alex Morgan; Canada's alltime-leading scorer, Christine Sinclair; Swedish national team captain Caroline Seger; and six other players from Marta's former club, the 2010 WPS champion FC Gold Pride, of northern California, which folded after the season. Gold Pride's demise marked the second time in two years that Marta's club had gone under—her Los Angeles Sol ceased operations in early 2010—but she has found a new home near Niagara Falls. "It's not good for the league to have teams shutting down," she says, "but the positive side is that every year I get to know new people."
In a league that no longer has a salary cap, the Flash anted up for Marta, compensating her with an estimated $400,000 salary, a new Mazda (one of the team's sponsors) and free living quarters in one of the two apartment complexes the team uses to house all its players. In many ways Sahlen's entry into WPS saved the league, allowing it to have a sixth team this season. The Sahlen Packing Company logo is now on all WPS uniforms as a league sponsor, and the new name of the Flash's home field in Rochester is Sahlen's Stadium. Sahlen's daughter, Alex, doubles as a player and team president, and her husband, Aaran Lines, is the coach.
Less than two weeks after Marta arrived in Buffalo, the coach is impressed with his star. "The way she involves everyone is exceptional, and her quality in front of the goal is second to none," says Lines, a New Zealand native who played four seasons for Werder Bremen in Germany's first division. In June, Lines will lose Marta for two games while she plays in the Women's World Cup in Germany, where she'll try to lead Brazil to its first major title after losing in the finals of the 2004 and '08 Olympics (to the U.S.) and the '07 World Cup (to Germany). "I would give up every personal award I have ever gotten to win the World Cup," says Marta.
The center of the women's soccer world will be in Germany in June and July, but before and after that it may well be in western New York. And if Marta plays like a hot dog on the field? It'll be fun to watch—and good for the hot-dog mogul, too.
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WPS's financial upheaval has turned the league from a seven-team bicoastal operation into a six-team league located entirely on the East Coast. One intriguing move in the off-season involved the Washington Freedom, which was bought by telecom entrepreneur Dan Borislow in November 2010, renamed magicJack after one of his company's phone devices and moved to South Florida. If the club seems unfamiliar, its biggest faces aren't: It features U.S. national-teamers Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone, Lindsay Tarpley and Abby Wambach, and the general manager is former U.S. women's star Briana Scurry.
PERRY MCINTYRE/ISI PHOTOS.COM (MARTA)
STAR POWER Five-time player of the year Marta hopes to win a WPS title for the Flash and the World Cup for Brazil.
JOHN DORTON/ISI PHOTOS.COM (TARPLEY)