With the 4th NWSL season now upon us, California’s women’s soccer fans are still waiting for a professional team to support. The lack of a professional women’s franchise in California, and more specifically in the Bay Area, is one total head scratcher to any women’s soccer supporter in the US.
The Bay Area boasts some of the most accomplished college women’s soccer programs, including Stanford, California, USF, and Santa Clara, among others. As well, the USWNT is made up of countless California stars and the Bay Area is one of the most diverse and socially accepting places anywhere in the world. So when will NWSL return to the Bay Area? The soccer support is second to none.
FC Gold Pride
The FC Gold Pride was the last women’s pro team to play in the Bay Area. They played in the now defunct WPS, and won the 2010 WPS Title before folding in the following season. The reasons for folding however, had absolutely nothing to do with the team on the field.
Many would even argue that the 2010 Gold Pride was the greatest women’s professional club team in any league ever. They opened for the 2009 inaugural WPS season at Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University, also the San Jose Earthquakes’ home at the time. The next year they moved to Pioneer Stadium on the campus of Cal State East Bay, the new home of the NPSL East Bay FC Stompers.
Cal State East Bay Pioneer Stadium
The 2010 FC Gold Pride should never be forgotten for their play on the field, as they featured some of the biggest names and best players in world soccer. The first player to talk about when looking back at this team is no question five-time FIFA women’s player of the year, Brazil’s own Marta. Marta has been recognized as the World Player of the Year more times (5) than all the USA winners combined (4). She would go on to win the Michelle Akers Player of the Year Award in 2010, as well as win the League’s Golden Boot for bagging 19 goals in just 24 matches, 6 more than runner up Abby Walmbach.
Marta played up top in a front 3 with 2 other legends of the women’s game, Christine Sinclair and Tiffney Milbrett. Sinclair is Canada’s captain, Canadian soccer’s biggest legend and was the League’s top assist creator, providing Marta with the service she needed. She led the League with 9 assists, but also bagged 10 goals of her own, placing her 5th in the League’s Golden Boot race. Milbrett was a key member of the 99er’s World Cup team, leading the USWNT in scoring during the 99 Cup run with 3 goals in the tournament. She was also a member of both the 95 and 03 World Cup teams. The best part of this attacking trio might have been the fact that they had a young Kelley O’Hara who could come off the bench for any of the 3. O’Hara who would go on to star at the 2015 World Cup for the U.S. The attacking group finished with 4 of the top 10 scorers in the League.
The team was not all about attack, and were very well balanced. The creator for the team was French star, Camille Abily. Abily currently has more than 140 international caps and wears the number 10 for the 3rd ranked team in the FIFA world rankings. She played alongside USWNT star and veteran of 4 World Cups, Shannon Boxx. The combo would go on to be 4th and 6th, respectively, in the League’s assist count. Not a bad one two punch at all.
At the back, this team was no slouch either. The back was built around Captain Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke. Buehler was a key member of both the 2011 USWNT World Cup 2nd place squad and the 2012 Olympic gold medal squad, and has more than a 100 caps to her name. She played alongside Candace Chapman one of the most capped defenders in Canadian history. Ali Riley was another standout defender for the Pride, who like O’Hara was fresh out of Stanford and won the League’s Rookie of the Year Award in 2010. Riley is a member of the New Zealand National Team and is nearing her 100th cap. She is also a current member of FC Rosengard, the 3-time defending Swedish league champs.
The last line of defense for this team was Nicole Barnhart. Barnhart is a veteran of 2 World Cups and the current goalkeeper for the 2-time defending NWSL champs, FC Kansas City. She also won the Goalkeeper of the Year in 2010. This defensive unit would post the best goals against average in the League for 2010, making them unstoppable in attack and unbeatable in the back.
There was no single ingredient that led to the downfall of FC Gold Pride. There were however, several contributing factors, none of which should be scaring off future Bay Area NWSL investors. The first factor had to do with the stadium locations. The 2009 Stadium, Buck Shaw, is in Santa Clara and the 2010 Stadium, Pioneer, is in Hayward. While both are decent venues for a pro soccer franchise, neither is close to any major public transportation, and neither is in the city proper of any of the 3 major Bay Area cities: San Fransisco, San Jose, or Oakland.
The next and maybe biggest contributing factor to the Pride’s downfall was the Marta contract. At the time, clearly the best player in the world, Marta was offered the equivalent to a Designated Player contract of MLS. She was paid around $500,000, whereas the league average was close to $27,000. While not undeserving of a higher paying contract, she couldn’t single handedly sell enough jerseys or put enough people in seats for the contract to be a financially beneficial business model for the Gold Pride. The creation of the MLS Designated Player was for David Beckham, a player whose brand worldwide made his LA Galaxy jersey the top seller in the world, and brought in thousands of new Galaxy fans. Marta’s jersey wasn’t even the top seller of the WPS.
Another contributing factor was the lack of a notable American star. While world class players, the top Gold Pride players were not the ones that young aspiring American girls look up to, like an Alex Morgan or a Carli Lloyd. The best American players for Gold Pride were some of the lesser appreciated players (Boxx and Barnhart), or either past their prime (Milbrett) or before their prime (O’Hara). This left many fans without a strong connection to an individual player.
The final factor was the sustainability of the League as a whole. The WPS top to bottom was not as well managed as it’s successor, the NWSL. Following the 2009 season they had 2 of their 7 teams fold, including Anshutz Entertainment Group owned LA Sol. This should have rang some serious alarm bells. Anshutz Entertainment has continuously dumped money into US Club Soccer, owning at one time 6 MLS franchises in times when people questioned why, only to see that money returned to them some years later as MLS is now one of America’s top leagues. If they didn’t see an LA team in the WPS as worth the risk, every other team in the League should have pulled out immediately.
The following season again saw the collapse of both the defending Champions FC Gold Pride and the Chicago Red Stars. With back-to-back years seeing successful on-field franchises fold, the WPS should have taken a serious look at their business model before beginning the 2011 season. The fact that the WPS folded following the massively successful 2011 Women’s World Cup says the league failed more due to its management than the product of the players on the field.
As both northern and southern California women’s soccer fans wait for their own NWSL franchise, they must hope for the sustained success of the NWSL, as well as watch, support, and hope for the success of the newest NWSL expansion, the Orlando Pride. If the new Orlando franchise have a successful first campaign, it would seem likely that we could see other MLS owners taking the risk of an NWSL franchise to help fill dates in all of their new soccer-specific stadiums across the country.
The hope is that if Orlando Pride is successful we could see 2 or 3 new NWSL franchises next season, including 2 in California. However, for the Bay Area, a Lew Wolff run NWSL ownership (owner of the San Jose Earthquakes) would immediately turn many East Bay residents off to the team before it starts. This is because he is disliked by many in the region because he bought the Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball with the sole purpose of moving them to San Jose. East Bay residents would be unlikely to support another team that he owns.
There are some fans taking their own initiative to bring NWSL to the Bay Area. There are already Twitter accounts and a new supporters group dedicated to supporting a future Bay Area NWSL team. They are bringing attention to potential investors and the League that the NWSL needs multiple California teams to really be the best women’s league in the world.