May 31, 2010


The discontinuation of operations for Saint Louis Athletica is a sad day in women's soccer and a blow to both WPS and the city of St. Louis. WPS will soldier on with 7 teams for the remainder of the 2010 season, with a reconfigured schedule to be released shortly.

Even more sad is that some of the classiest athletes in the world have been let down by the powers that be. The one group of people that had no blame in this will suffer the most. The twenty-two players that formed Saint Louis Athletica are out of a job, albeit some only temporarily. Three of the players, Shannon Boxx, Aya Miyama, and Tina DiMartino, have had to suffer through two teams folding in a very short period of time.

The thing is, the players of Athletica not only had to worry about their play on the field, they also had to do most of the team's promoting off the field. If anyone driving around in St. Louis or watching television in St. Louis can show me one promotion that the organization did for this team, I'd like to see it. If you did see the team being promoted, it was the players doing public appearances for both the team and local charities. In the case of USWNT player and Athletica captain Lori Chalupny, she was often the spokeswoman for the whole organization in absence of anyone else. Not only are these women classy athletes, but classy human beings.

So now, some of the best people the sporting world has to offer have been let down and abandoned. And the hand-wringing has begun. The convenient scapegoat is the Vaid brothers, the dynamic sibling duo from London who took over the organization from founding owner Jeff Cooper over the winter. And make no mistake, their financial problems and subsequent exit dealt a lethal blow to the organization. But what led to that point?

During the winter months, while very little was being done to promote Athletica, Mr. Cooper was hard at work trying to bring men's soccer to St. Louis in the form of the nascent NASL. There were a few of us that wondered out loud whether the efforts for AC St. Louis and the NASL were distracting staff and detracting from Athletica. Furthermore, many staffers served both teams. I can understand the theory....two teams, one staff, save costs, but it apparently wasn't working.

Enter the Vaid brothers. When they were presented to St. Louis soccer fans, most of us got the impression that they were additional investors and not taking over control of operations for the two clubs, certainly not for Athletica. To my knowledge, they were never presented as such at the time.

In fact, several sources are reporting that WPS did not learn of the transfer of ownership to the Vaid brothers until early May and that the proper paperwork for such a transfer was never filed. This appears to be the case. Generally, while conversations among members of governing bodies regarding new ownership tend to be very private, that actual fact that the matter of new ownership is being considered is very public.

Although details are lacking, the Vaid brothers apparently ran into financial difficulty very quickly, both with the soccer clubs and with their other investments. This evidentally happened with the swiftness of a Eni Aluko run on goal.

At that point, Mr. Cooper re-entered the picture in an effort to save the teams, which in AC St. Louis' case has temporarily succeeded, but in Athletica's case ultimately failed. The nature of those efforts is unclear and Mr. Cooper was pretty vague and succinct in his statement on the issue, stating that "I've given this matter my complete attention since returning to a more active role in the last few weeks, and numerous parties have spent a lot of hours during that time exploring what options or solutions might be available. Despite best efforts, nothing was found that would answer the immediate needs of the franchise."

Various degrees of blame have been assessed to WPS in Athletica's demise. In looking at the WPS and their role, it's hard to assess much of the blame in their corner. One always had the feeling that Athletica was more of a secret intelligence agency than a soccer club and it appears that WPS was getting very little information out of the organization until the final days before it folded. To be fair, by the time they learned of the organization's financial problems, the situation was so dire that the remaining options were few and time was short.

There has been quite a bit of misinformation that has been making the rounds. Some outlets have been reporting that NASL required a bond, while WPS did not and have pointed to that as one of the reasons why AC St. Louis survived, while Athletica folded. However, WPS league sources have confirmed that there was a bond in place and that it was used to cover Athletica's payroll for the month of May to keep the team running. This bought Athletica a little time to seek options, but unfortunately, none were found. Perhaps if the league had been made aware of the entire situation at an earlier date, more could have been done.

Then we have the USSF, the controlling body of soccer in the United States. While I agree that the USSF can't save every failing soccer team in this country, I wonder if they couldn't be doing more to support the league. The USSF has reaped the benefits of having a strong, competitive women's soccer league in the United States. Many players are getting a chance with the USWNT primarily because they have proven themselves against world class competition in WPS action.

Part of the blame also has to rest with the soccer community in St. Louis, the city I call home and a self-proclaimed soccer town. Support for Athletica has ranged from very good at times to tepid and AC St. Louis' overall support hasn't been all that strong either. Fighting among the various soccer clubs in Saint Louis has built up a strong resentment, which definitely hurt Athletica's attendance. Corporate support locally was lukewarm at best and the team was one of the few that was never able to secure a jersey sponsor. While I respect the soccer community in St. Louis, many are very picky about what they'll support. For many, there seems to be an attitude that if it's not EPL, then it isn't good enough for them. A true soccer town should be a soccer town always, no matter what the level of play, men or women.

That is not to say that Athletica did not have a group of hardcore fans. Indeed, the team had some of the most dedicated fans I have ever met, many of whom I am proud to call my friends. They followed the team on road trips, supported the team in public appearances, and created an atmosphere that made the games more enjoyable for fans and players alike. And all of this was done by people who do not have the riches of would-be owners, but have a thousand times more imagination, enthusiam, and guts than those with deep pockets. As I have often said, money is wasted on all the wrong people.

Finally, I cannot escape blame. I have purchased two season tickets to Athletica games for both the 2009 and 2010 season. But maybe I should have purchased four or even six tickets and supported the team more. Maybe I should have purchased more merchandise from the team. Maybe I could have done more. As I said a little over a year ago, when I started writing here, I am a fan first.

There are a lot of unanswered questions, some of which we'll probably never hear the true answer on. How much did the forming of AC St. Louis and the NASL distract the organization from promoting Athletica? Why wasn't WPS informed earlier, both of the change of ownership and the financial difficulties? Why did AC St. Louis survive, while Athletica did not, given both teams had bonds, attendance was comparable, and Athletica was likely less expensive to operate? Not to mention, Athletica was the established team of the two. If it was truly a business decision, then what logic was used to arrive at that decision?

And there are questions for others involved. Is there anything that WPS can do to prevent this from happening again and if so, what? Should USSF be doing more to support WPS and women's soccer? Is St. Louis the soccer town it has always prided itself on being? Why doesn't soccer get greater corporate support locally?

Starting June 1, some of Athletica's players will be finding new homes. But obviously, given team budgets and roster restrictions, not all of them will. The loss of Athletica is my loss, it's the fan's loss, it's the city's loss, and it's the league's loss. Good luck to the players of Athletica! You deserve all the best, because you always gave your best!

Red Stars to Honor Athletica Tickets
The Chicago Red Stars have graciously offered to honor Athletica tickets at Red Star home matches for the remainder of the season. From the Chicago Red Stars front office:

"Fans of Saint Louis Athletica,

We’ve had some memories together over the past two seasons of Women’s Professional Soccer. From our inaugural match of the 2009 season in Saint Louis to a hard fought tie to start the 2010 campaign in Chicago at Toyota Park. Our regional rivalry was growing and budding into something that makes all sports fans proud. But we know things have unfortunately changed and you are now without exciting WPS soccer for the remainder of the 2010 season. We can’t imagine how it must feel but want to do all we can to keep your passion and dedication for the league alive. You deserve it and we think we can help.

Starting today the Chicago Red Stars will honor all unused Saint Louis Athletica home match tickets for the cancelled 2010 home matches. Make a trip up I-55 this summer to watch the Red Stars take on another WPS foe and you can use your Athletica tickets for entry into the game. Feel free to proudly wear your Athletica gear, we understand and support you. If you want a Red Stars flag to wave or deep discounts on the Chicago gear to get started just let us know. We miss you Athletica!

For more information on how to redeem your Athletica tickets for a Red Stars match please call 708.496.9500, chat online, or send us an e-mail to tickets@chicagoredstars.com. We look forward to seeing you at Toyota Park this season.

Soccer is not just a game, it is a way of life. Keep your passion alive in whatever way you can.

Yours in WPS,
The Chicago Red Stars front office"

Which Athletica Players Will Sign Elsewhere?

Tomorrow will be the first day that Athletica players can sign as free agents with other teams. Had this been in the offseason, when rosters were fluid, most of Athletica's players would have been signed. However, with many teams hitting the ceilings of their budgets already, teams will likely be very selective about who they sign.

There have been talks about expanding roster sizes and international roster limits at WPS. While this will certainly help the situation, the problem is still money, which is what got us into this situation to begin with. There is also the question of whether some of the players will even want to continue in WPS this season.

Eniola Aluko - She is one of the most exciting offensive players in the league and is presently leading WPS in scoring. Given an extra international slot, many teams should be after her. Look at the teams that have had trouble scoring...Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago being the most likely, with Philadelphia being another possibility. Philly coach Paul Riley spoke of how Aluko was "a thorn in our side" after their match against Saint Louis. Boston and Chicago already have two of Aluko's English teammates each, while Philadelphia has one.

Shannon Boxx - She's a great midfield player, who even at age 32, can control a game in the middle. And if it's possible, her offensive game seems to be improving, making her a force at both ends of the field. If I were guessing, I might think FC Gold Pride. She's based in California and Gold Pride could use some additional experience in their midfield, but do they have the money to sign her.

Hope Solo - She's one of the few goalkeepers who can be called a true difference maker and probably the best in the world, bar none. Rumor has it that she is headed to South Africa to watch the World Cup, which means she wouldn't be immediately available. She is also likely to be one of the more expensive of the free agents. The other problem is that there are only 7 spots for starting keepers in this league. I don't even have a guess here.

Lori Chalupny - Of all Athletica players, the last two weeks had to be hardest for Chalupny. She was the hometown girl and pretty much the face and spokesperson for the organization. It was not only on the field that she gave everything, she gave her all off the field as well. She's also probably the most unsung top player in the world. A lot of teams could use an outside defender or midfielder and Chalupny shines at both.

Tina Ellertson - Ellertson is a strong, physical central defender and one of the few that can close on strikers once they have a step on her. Several teams could use such a player. But Ellertson, the mother of two young girls, will also be thinking of her family when she makes her decision.

Aya Miyama - There is no doubt as to Miyama being one of the most talented midfielders in the world, although she has been fairly quiet so far this season. She's an expert at placing free kicks and corners. But there are a lot of complicating factors here...being an international, her salary, etc. The good-natured midfielder also has to weigh whether she wants to go through this again, considering the fact that's she's already had two bad experiences in the states.

Lindsay Tarpley - Tarpley appears to be back at full speed and was becoming a force along side Aluko. She's tactically solid and is just as willing to pass as she is to shoot. I would give a return to Chicago a possibility, especially if Aluko ends up elsewhere.

Anita Asante - Another solid central defender, but just coming back from an ACL injury. I might say Sky Blue would be her destination, except with Rampone back, Sky Blue almost has too many defenders now. One also has to wonder if she might give her leg more time to strengthen, now that getting back on the pitch isn't as urgent.

Elaine & Madelaine Edlund - As talented as they are, I think it's going to be a good deal tougher for these two players to be signed. Again, you're dealing with international players and salary issues. Elaine has been injured off and on this season, although she was playing full speed in her last match against Sky Blue. Edlund has pretty much been relegated to the role of 2nd half substitute the last few matches.

Others -
Elise Weber - She's been a pretty solid outside defender for Athletica. She's from the Chicago area and went to Notre Dame. The Red Stars could use some depth on defense, so that is a possibility.
Kendall Fletcher - Her ability to play defender and defensive midfielder help. Atlanta would not surprise me, but really that would be a guess.
Tina DiMartino - Perhaps back to Gold Pride where she started or to Philadelphia where her sister Gina plays.
Niki Cross - She's from Pembroke, Massachusetts and has played extensively in Connecticut both in college and WPSL. Her size and versatility make her a nice player to have on the bench. Boston would appear to be a possible fit.
Carolyn Blank - She's from New Jersey and played for the Hudson Valley Quickstrike Blues two years ago, leaving me to believe that Sky Blue might sign her. Still, their roster is mighty crowded already.
Ashlyn Harris - She's not seen a minute of WPS action yet and many teams already have young backup keepers, so it's probably not going to be easy for her to catch on anywhere as a full roster player and she might have to settle for being a developmental player for the remainder of the season.
Kristina Larsen - Larsen is still recovering from her foot injury and probably won't be full speed for a few more weeks. That might work against her being signed for 2010, unless she's added as a developmental player.


Anonymous said...

well said. Too bad no one is following up in the media to shed light on how this transpired.Jeff Cooper should not be allowed to slink away that easily.