I wrote a retrospective on Heather Mitts and the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer last week. The comments section quickly shifted over to a discussion of Mitts’ USWNT teammate Hope Solo, so I figured I’d give a headlining spot this week to Solo and her former WPS club, St. Louis Athletica.
First of all, thanks to Maire Ryan, former member of the club’s Laclede’s Army supporters group, for contributing this rare scorecard from the final days of the Athletica franchise. Unfortunately, this May 8th, 2010 2-1 victory against the Philadelphia Independence at Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri turned out to be the penultimate match in Athletica’s short, chaotic history.
The team played one more match at home on May 16th, before presumed club owner Jeff Cooper informed WPS officials that he could no longer make payroll and operate his team. The news was startling and the reason was an even bigger stunner: Cooper claimed he no longer owned the team. It seems the St. Louis mesothelioma litigator quietly sold controlling interest in Athletica to Sanjay and Keemal Vaid, a pair of British commodities traders and Subway sandwich shop owners, in December 2009. Cooper never informed the league of the change in ownership and continued to serve as his team’s front man and spokesman as he had since founding the club in 2007. The story gets much stranger and is still shrouded in mystery two years later, but it would serve little purpose to delve further here, when you can just read the terrific forensic autopsy of Athletica, Cooper and the Vaid Brothers conducted by the blogger Fake Sigi back in 2010.
Athletica shut down on May 27th and all of its players were rendered free agents. Most of the top players signed with WPS’ remaining seven franchises. Lindsay Tarpley headed to Boston and her U.S. Women’s National Team teammate Shannon Boxx went to FC Gold Pride, where she helped that Bay Area-based club win the 2010 WPS Cup. Most of Athletica’s other stars signed with the last place Atlanta Beat, including Solo, St. Louis native Lori Chalupny, English National Team striker Eniola Aluko and stalwart defender Tina Ellertson. WPS fans jokingly referred to the upgraded Beat side as “Atlantica” for the rest of the 2010 season. For many of Athletica’s rookies and role players, there was nothing to laugh about. Unable to generate interest and hook on with other clubs, their professional soccer careers simply came to abrupt end.
Athletica was the second WPS franchise to go down, after the Los Angeles Sol folded during the league’s first offseason in January of 2010. But the midseason collapse of a member club was far more damaging for the fledgling league’s credibility and confidence. I asked Chicago Red Stars managing partner Arnim Whisler to reflect on the impact on his club, which was aggressively courting new investors at the time Athletica folded:
“You know, I think the departure of the Los Angeles Sol was survivable because we all knew AEG (Sol owner Anschutz Entertainment Group) was in it for one year only. We sincerely thought we had other investors that would quickly step into that franchise and market, though we needed a bit more time,” recalled Whisler.
“When St. Louis went down mid-season — with absolutely NO warning – it shook the foundations of what we had all built. It was technically survivable because we had independently owned franchises but it completely changed the willingness of investors to finalize investments that were long discussed — and not just in Chicago. It rippled through the league and shut down some discussions that other franchises were having with investors and gave pause to some of the expansion candidates and potential sponsors to wait one more year to see how it all shook out.”
“It just really put a lot of stress on the rest of league too,” says Whisler. “After the Sol folded, and then Athletica, we had to all step up on a pro-rata basis to fill the funding gaps of lost contributors — from 1/9th, to 1/8th to 1/7th. And then within a matter of months more clubs followed and it was 1/6th, 1/5th etc.
“Ultimately we all have to admit that the model wasn’t sustainable as constructed in the beginning — what many don’t know is how aggressively we were moving to a new cost structure and each year taking further steps to stabilize — but with no new investors and a continued loss of teams it became increasingly difficult. There were many issues — some governance, some financial, some legal that added pressure but keeping that franchise intact would have reduced the strain on all.”
After Athletica’s collapse, Whisler’s Red Stars never did secure the additional investors needed to stay in WPS. They withdrew from the league seven months later in December 2010. But rather than fold as other WPS franchises did, the Red Stars dropped down to the semi-pro Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) where they continue to play in 2012 alongside two more recent WPS refugees, the Boston Breakers and the Western New York Flash. Those two clubs entered the WPSL after WPS folded on January 30, 2012.
“I want to emphasize though that there is still a deep and resilient reserve of owners and supporters for Elite womens soccer in the US,” said Whisler. “Chicago Red Stars retooled and are happy in the WPSL. Boston and Western New York and numerous others are part of this discussion and will show that once we redesign a bit, the commitment remains to get this sport set up in a sustainable way.”