Sol players, GM cling to hope
The search for new ownership for Los Angeles' professional women's soccer team had succeeded, and the 2010 season -- in doubt after Anschutz Entertainment Group withdrew its deep pockets this past fall -- was on.
Or so Los Angeles Sol officials thought.
Now, one day after Women's Professional Soccer pulled the plug on its marquee franchise, there exists a tiny bit of hope that maybe it's not over yet.
The Sol could use a miracle, but nothing appears to be on the horizon.
"I don't want the message out there, there is hope out there," Sol general manager Charlie Naimo said Friday. "We're all praying there's some white knight somewhere, but the reality is the team has folded."
The demise arrived after club losses in the neighborhood of $3 million -- one team source said it was more than $3 million, another pegged it as "close to $3 million; I don't think it went over" -- and the exit of both owners after defeat in WPS' first championship game.
Everybody knew AEG would be gone after Year 1 -- its mission all along was to give the L.A. team a kickstart, then move on -- and Blue Star LLC dropped out because it didn't have the means to run an enterprise this expensive.
"We would have liked to go forward, but it was a question of money," said Ali Mansour, a Southern California soccer promoter and one-quarter of the Blue Star partnership. "We could not afford to lose the type of money that was required to run the team."
AEG, Colorado billionaire Philip F. Anschutz's multifaceted venture -- its properties include the Lakers, Kings, Staples Center and the Home Depot Center, the Sol's home, and it was behind Michael Jackson's planned "This Is It" concerts in London -- could afford it. The company was Major League Soccer's savior, operating as many as five clubs as the men's pro league sought permanence several years ago. AEG controls the Galaxy, who play at HDC, and half of the Houston Dynamo.
AEG and Blue Star, in which Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia ("Without A Trace") is a partner, owned an equal share of the Sol, but Mansour said AEG paid most of the bills.
"AEG was very nice to absorb 90 percent of the loss," he said.
The league took control of the club in November, and negotiations were soon under way with a local man, "an individual who was in charge of a family trust in this area," according to Mansour.
The negotiations, which began in late fall, were handled by the WPS' ownership/expansion committee, chaired by Jack Cummins -- part of the Chicago Red Stars' ownership group. Naimo provided assistance as needed. By late last week, everything seemed to be finalized.
"In my eyes, we were done. Like it was a done deal," Naimo said. "That's why, when I got the news [the deal had fallen apart] -- 'What, is it April Fools'?' I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. You know?
"That's just the way the world is. Until it's all signed, it's not final. I never thought for a second we would fail."
Naimo got the bad news Sunday. The players, some of whom had heard rumblings that there might be no owners, heard about it on a conference call Wednesday. The league, needing to move forward with the 2010 campaign slated for an April 10 start, made it official Thursday after word had been leaked.
"We are no longer negotiating with the potential ownership group," WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci said. "We worked incredibly hard for several weeks on it, and it just didn't happen in time. We don't really have insight into [potential ownership's] decision-making process."
"I'm definitely in shock -- still. And, I think, mostly really sad," said defender Stephanie Cox, who has been training this month with the U.S. women's national team at the Home Depot Center. "After what a great season we had last year, it's hard to imagine the Sol may not be playing next season. And as we go further along in the process, just the reality of the team having to split up is sad."
The Sol, led by four-time FIFA player of the year (and WPS' top scorer and MVP) Marta, U.S. national team midfield anchor (from Redondo Beach) Shannon Boxx and French midfielder Camille Abily, stormed to the inaugural regular-season title, losing only one of their first 16 games en route to a 12-3-5 mark. The team faded at the finish, winning only one of its final five games and falling at home, 1-0, to New Jersey's Sky Blue FC in the title game.
Naimo had been reconstructing the club.
Abner Rogers, WPS' coach of the year, had been dismissed just before Christmas (the news wasn't announced until mid-January); several trades had been made -- the biggest sending Abily to San Jose's FC Gold Pride for former UCLA All-American Tina DiMartino -- and the Jan. 14 draft had added eight players to the roster, including University of North Carolina stars Nikki Washington and Casey Nogueira.
Five days later, the Sol signed Danish defender Julie Rydahl Bukh and midfielder Cathrine Paaske-Sorensen and Czech forward Pavlina Scasna.
Said Boxx: "The team Charlie had put together this coming year -- we were excited."
Then reality set in.
Boxx's reaction? "Saddened. I wasn't too shocked because I was hearing little things happening and keeping in touch with Charlie. We have such a great market, and our community was behind us. We had such great fans. And now to realize we're leaving L.A. is sad, but it's also professional sports. And it's the way it works, so you say OK."
The players hope that a miracle will arrive, that anything is possible until Thursday's dispersal draft divides them among the eight remaining clubs.
"I think Charlie is still working hard," Cox said. "He's still hoping that things can come together before the draft. I know that the league has to take steps to move forward, but I think Charlie as well as the players, we're still hopeful. He has some leads; he has some prospects and some people that he's talking to. Until we're all on different teams, I think we're still holding on to hope."
It's a long shot, at best. Worse than that.
"There's really nobody we're talking to," Naimo said. "We're just praying for a miracle. But the reality is it's unlikely, and we say things to give the girls some hope. That's it. We all want to believe there's s shot.
"But the league folded up the team. What can we do?"
Scott French is a veteran soccer reporter who covered WUSA and two Women's World Cups in addition to WPS' first season.
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