Women's Professional Soccer CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas has resigned, effective Sept. 18, to accept another opportunity that allows her to spend more time with family.
Eileraas joined WPS as general counsel and is returning to the legal field to work for the technology firm Avanade.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Eileraas said the league far exceeded its goals for the season, and that she felt comfortable handing over the reins in a smooth transition after one year as CEO.
"I do feel incredibly positive," Eileraas said. "I talked with our other staffers after the championship match [Saturday], and we feel 180 degrees different than we felt exiting last season in terms of our confidence in the potential of the league and the fundamentals, the foundation of the league."
The league's owners have already started a search for Eileraas' successor.
"I know they've had a search process under way," she said. "They've identified one or two very capable candidates. They expect to have an announcement certainly before my last day and hopefully sooner than that."
"Any time you're trying to replace someone at the top of the pole, it's a very difficult decision," said T. Fitz Johnson, WPS board chairman and owner of the Atlanta Beat. "You don't want to cause any type of panic within the organization, especially one as public as ours is. We've very close to having a successor named. It's a difficult job to recruit for. You need a leader, a salesperson, someone that has business acumen to run an office and has a sports background."
Johnson lauded Eileraas' performance.
"She was perfect for the time that she's been here," he said. "Tonya [Antonucci] got us going and did an excellent job. When Anne-Marie stepped in, it was a time when we needed someone with a business mind. With her background in law and small business, she really turned around our front office to a point where we're profitable.
"She's done a magnificent job. There are so many moving parts to running that office. We hate to see her go."
The WPS hoped for a boost in publicity from the Women's World Cup. It didn't expect what it got: sellouts and record attendance at the final.
"The World Cup boost was much bigger than we had planned for," Eileraas said.
Still, Eileraas' tenure has been marked by a lot of tough decisions. After the 2010 season, she took over a league that was struggling to keep and add teams.
Defending champion FC Gold Pride folded and the Chicago Red Stars departed the league, bringing the list of defunct teams to four.
The league added the Western New York Flash, who won the championship in their first season. The Washington Freedom were sold to Dan Borislow, who moved the team to South Florida, renamed it magicJack and feuded with the league -- Eileraas, in particular -- throughout the season.
"It was a very tense offseason, in terms of lining those teams up," Eileraas said.
Philadelphia Independence coach Paul Riley said in a conference call Wednesday that he believes Borislow, who launched and later dropped a lawsuit against the league to stop a threatened termination of his ownership rights, will keep his magicJack team in the league.
"As crazy as he might be, I think we need him," Riley said.
Eileraas has been running the WPS on a shoestring, with the already-frugal league having only six full-time staffers, who no longer rent physical office space.
"When you think about what this team of six people has accomplished in running a professional sports league, turning it around in one year from having debt to a place where it can directly contribute to the teams, it's remarkable," Eileraas said. "It's about time they took credit for that."
Only one of those six, partnership marketing director Jill Coy, has been with the league since it started play in 2009.
That turnover mirrors the turnover among the league's teams. Only two teams, the Boston Breakers and Sky Blue FC, have played all three seasons in the same market. Sky Blue has committed to return next season; Boston is seeking a new majority investor.
Such turnover is fairly typical in new sports leagues. The NBA's early history is littered with short-lived teams, and the early NHL was reduced to the inaccurately named "Original Six" franchises. The Arena Football League churned through franchises for years, then ceased operations for a season just as all the movement seemed to be stopping. Lacrosse leagues also have been through changes in their early years.
Even Major League Soccer, which has lost only two teams in its history and relocated one, lost more than half of the original team ownership groups. Philip Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft each operated multiple teams to keep the league afloat through the late '90s and early part of last decade.
Eileraas sees the turnover as a natural part of the process when starting a league.
"It takes great patience to build a sports league," Eileraas said. "That's one of the symptoms that we're in our infancy. It's not a sign of a problem with the league."
Her successor will have a busy agenda from the start. Issue No. 1: sorting through potential expansion owners. Representatives for the WPSL's Orange County Waves and Chicago Red Stars, the latter a former WPS franchise, said by e-mail that their options are open for next season.
Philadelphia's Riley said an expansion group in the New York area is aiming for 2013, and he mentioned potential groups in Connecticut and the Washington, D.C., area.
None of this will be Eileraas' agenda.
After a year of whirlwind travel, controversy and unforgettable moments, Eileraas is happy to change roles.
"I'm looking forward to being a fan," she said.