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WPS in So Cal? 2012 ... maybe sooner

11/18/2010

A bid by a group headquartered in the Bay Area to bring FC Gold Pride to Orange County fell through, but Women's Professional Soccer could be headed to Southern California soon. Perhaps real soon.

A meeting of the group's chief investors and strategists is scheduled Friday, and on the agenda is discussion whether to wait until 2012 to start a WPS franchise -- the likeliest option -- or make a play to bring in a team next season.

WPS announced Tuesday that it had six clubs, all on the East Coast, lined up for its 2011 campaign and was giving the Chicago Red Stars another month to secure the necessary funding to continue. Gold Pride, which scorched the competition en route to the championship in the league's second season, folded Tuesday, and its players -- including Brazilian superstar Marta -- became free agents.

Gold Pride's potential survival, with a move likely to Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium, fell apart apparently over financial matters, although a league official offered no such reasons during a teleconference Wednesday.

"We did have several conversations with a group, a couple of groups in Los Angeles and Orange County, [about trying] to take over Gold Pride," said T. Fitz Johnson, owner and CEO of WPS's Atlanta Beat, chairman of the league's board of governors and head of the league's expansion committee. "We just couldn't get over the hump of getting everybody on the same page in time for 2011."

The league likely would accept an Orange County expansion team for 2011 if the group had the funds to acquire a franchise and pay the "liquidation" fee to fund a full season. That fee, a league source said, was slightly more than $1 million.

Details about the Orange County group are slowly emerging. There apparently are a large collection of investors -- as many as two dozen, possibly more -- and it is headed by Bay Area-based Paul Haley, its chief financial officer. Abner Rogers, the president and technical director of Laguna Hills Eclipse, one of the nation's top girls soccer clubs, is involved and likely would take the reins of the team.

Rogers was head coach of the L.A. Sol, which posted the best regular-season record and reached the title game in WPS's inaugural season two years ago, then folded last January.

"They've been excellent," Rogers said. "I think their [business] model is something WPS can learn by if they support it. It's community-based, not just one owner. When you have one owner, and he pulls the plug, the team disappears -- we saw that with Gold Pride, we saw that with L.A. Sol.

"But if you lose a couple of investors and you have 20 to 30 investors, it's much easier to replace them."

Rogers acknowledges that 2012 is the "logical approach" but that there is a "slight possibility" the group could decide to try for next season.

Said Johnson: "In Orange County we have a group that has done an excellent job of putting together a business plan and business model that we think can move forward. We feel pretty good about them ... being ready for 2012."

Another group, led by Santa Clarita Blue Heat owner Carlos Marroquin, is interested in bringing a WPS team to the Santa Clarita Valley, but there's far more ground to cover before they'll be ready to make a serious bid.

As for Marta, there's no certainty she will return to WPS. The league has undergone restructuring as it strives for sustainability, with the San Francisco-based league office surrendering power to the clubs. The Brazilian forward, the top scorer and MVP in each of the WPS campaigns -- she played for the Sol in year one -- makes a reported $400,000, and that might be a luxury for clubs looking to trim excess expenses.

WPS CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas, the league's top official following Commissioner Tonya Antonucci's departure, said on the teleconference that Marta's agents were "engaged in discussions with some of the teams, and we hope to see her stay in the league, but the league is bigger than one player. ... We'd like to see her stay, but that remains to be seen."

Marta played for Swedish powerhouse Umea IK before coming to WPS.

"Every team in the world would want to have Marta," Thomas Hofstetter, president of New Jersey-based 2009 champion Sky Blue FC and a member of the board of governors, said on Wednesday's teleconference. "She's a huge difference-maker, and, yes, her salary is very high. I think next year, even more so than in the past, each team has to evaluate whether they can afford it or not. Each team makes decisions on 'does it make business sense.' We have to see if Marta is with one of our teams. I know teams are interested, but each team must make the decision.

"We [at Sky Blue] looked at it, seriously considered it, and made the decision that most likely she is about our pay scale."