O.C. soccer group has a pro vision

The Bay Area-based group that will field professional women's teams in Orange County and the Bay Area next year, with plans to place an O.C. club in Women's Professional Soccer in 2012, hopes to have a greater impact than just competing for championships.

They'd like to help transform women's pro soccer in America.

That's part of what's behind the venture announced Monday, to compete next season in the Women's Premier Soccer League. The OC Sol and Bay Area Sol would be the first fully professional clubs in the WPSL, one of two national semiprofessional women's leagues in the U.S., and their ownership group envisions a stronger connection among the leagues and WPS.

That could have a profound impact on the future of pro soccer in this country.

“I do [believe WPS is viable], but I subscribe to the view that there should be layers of professionalism -- and of semiprofessionalism, if you wish ...,” said Paul Haley, a Bay Area business consultant and the face of Soccer Partners LLC, the Walnut Creek-based group behind the new Sol enterprise. “We're motivated to see more than one league or division for professionals to play in.”

WPS, which will play its third season next year, already has lost three clubs -- the L.A. Sol dropping out last January, Saint Louis Athletica folding in May, and reigning champion FC Gold Pride dissolving earlier this month -- and likely will play exclusively on the East Coast in 2010. There could be substantial roles for the Sacramento-based WPSL, a 12-year-old league which last summer fielded more than 50 clubs in 10 regional divisions, and the W-League, the WPSL's rival, which is part of the Tampa-based United Soccer Leagues empire. (The Buffalo Flash, a pro club that won the W-League title last summer, has made the jump to WPS for next season.)

Haley said he would like to see promotion and relegation between WPS and the WPSL.

“I see the WPSL as a step in forming a professional league in the future ...," Haley said in the news release announcing the Sol. “In discussion with the league leadership, they see a very strong possibility of us involving ourselves in the future of women's professional soccer.”

“Hopefully,” WPSL commissioner Jerry Zanelli (also head coach of the California Storm, the WPSL's signature franchise) said in the release, “this will be able to serve as a template for an eventual new nationwide concept for teams to survive on a professional basis."

Haley, an Englishman who has called the Bay Area home for 16 years, said Soccer Partners LLC includes about a dozen investors -- some in the Bay Area, some in Southern California -- and there could be as many as 20 by the time the Sol teams hit the field next spring.

The larger investment base, he said, provides a foundation for survival that the L.A. Sol (which lost big-money investor Anschutz Entertainment Group after the first season), Saint Louis Athletica and FC Gold Pride (which had owners with not nearly deep enough pockets) were without.

“There's a wider pool [of investors] to go to,” Haley said. “It's easier to carry something when it's beyond one person.”

Haley says it's too early to identify investors -- another Bay Area business consultant, Scott Alford, is Haley's chief partner -- but noted the group favored “a traditional strong-GM/strong-head coach approach,” with a board of directors more concerned with the financial aspects of the club than the on-field product.

The technical aspects will be the responsibility of former L.A. Sol coach Abner Rogers and former Philadelphia Independence general manager and director of player personnel Terry Foley.

Rogers, the president and technical director of the Laguna Hills Eclipse, one of the country's premier girls youth soccer clubs, will serve as head coach of the OC Sol and technical director of both WPSL clubs, and he likely will be the head coach when the group makes its move to the WPS. He was inducted last month into the United States Adult Soccer Association's Hall of Fame.

Foley, who like Rogers played in England, is founder and president of FC Virginia and a former director of coaching at D.C. United's academy. (The director of coaching for FC Virginia: Cindi Harkes, former U.S. national team star John Harkes' wife, who played at the University of Virginia and in England.)

“I think true soccer people have respect for each other and understand what it takes to build an expansion team, especially a successful one,” Haley on Monday told the National Soccer Wire. “The chance to work with Abner was a key factor in my decision.”

Soccer Partners, which looked into purchasing a 2011 WPS expansion franchise or buying the rights to Gold Pride, say they will have a WPS team in Orange County for 2012 -- likely calling Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium home -- and the WPSL sides continuing to compete within the club development structure.

“What's attractive to us in Orange County,” Haley said, “it really is a fantastic soccer demographic at the youth level. A number of top professionals have come out of Orange County, and it also has Abner and all his work in youth teams. That's given us a network to other top youth teams in the area.”

Orange County has a considerable soccer base, especially in the girls and women's game. U.S. national team legends Julie Foudy (Mission Viejo/Mission Viejo HS) and Joy Fawcett (Huntington Beach/Edison HS) and current national-teamer Amy Rodriguez (Lake Forest/Santa Margarita Catholic HS and USC) are from O.C., which is home to nationally recognized girls clubs Slammers and So Cal Blues, in addition to the Eclipse.

Most of the details for 2011 still must be worked out. Conversations with potential players, Haley said, “are beginning to commence,” and the group is “looking into” home venues for the WPSL teams. The Bay Area Sol, he said, would be based in the East Bay, likely near Pleasanton, a youth-soccer hotbed.

Soccer Partners' desire is that other clubs will embrace their model and that that paves a path to professional women's soccer's stability.

“When you do something extremely well and others admire it, they're more likely to follow and join in,” Haley said. “We hope others will [follow what we're doing].”