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#42 FC Gold Pride

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FC Gold Pride was a short-lived franchise in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), which played at multiple locations in the Bay Area of California over two seasons from 2009 to 2010.  Although the club never caught on with Bay Area soccer fans or corporate sponsors, the club did engineer a stunning worst-to-first turnaround from its debut season in 2009 to its swan song in 2010.  FC Gold Pride’s 2010 WPS Cup championship side is widely considered to be one of the finest women’s club teams ever assembled.  However, the club folded little more than a month after winning the Cup.

FC Gold Pride came into existence on September 3, 2008 as a last minute franchise for the inaugural season of WPS, which planned to kickoff in March 2009.  The other six WPS franchises had each been in place for more than a year when the league introduced the FC Gold Pride club, owned by tech entrepeneur Brian NeSmith and his wife Nancy.  In fact, WPS had already awarded two expansion clubs for the 2010 season by the time the NeSmiths signed on for 2009.

WPS needed the Bay Area club to replace its moribund Dallas franchise, the league’s seventh club which existed on paper only.  The purported Dallas investors had made zero progress securing a stadium lease and had neglected to hire a coach or front office staff by the late summer of 2008.  With FC Gold Pride’s entry, Dallas was quietly removed from league plans.  WPS could now move on to the process of allocation – the distribution of U.S. Women’s National Team players to each of the seven founding franchises.  The USWNT had just defeated the powerhouse Brazilians for Olympic gold in Beijing on August 21st, 2008.  WPS would allocate three of the U.S. gold medalists to each club, who would serve as the marketing tent poles for each local franchise.

In allocation, each of the two dozen or so eligible USWNT players would choose and rank their top three WPS cities to play in.  The seven WPS clubs would submit a wish list of the three USWNT players they wished to bring into market.  Commissioner Tonya Antonucci and her league staff would serve as matchmakers, aligning the player and team preferences as closely as possible.  In a preliminary ballot, not a single USWNT player listed Dallas among their three choices.  With the entrance of Bay Area into the league, the players received new ballots and the results shifted dramatically.

Sixteen players – nearly two-thirds of the pool – ranked Bay Area on their list of preferred cities, making the two-week old franchise the most popular destination in the league.  This included the Americans’ greatest star, Abby Wambach, who ranked FC Gold Pride as her top choice.  Wambach had started her pro career in the previous pro league, the WUSA,  in 2002 and 2003 with the Washington Freedom, owned by John Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel.  Alone among WUSA investors, Hendricks kept his team alive after that league folded in 2003.  From 2004-2008, Henricks funded a low-budget version of the Freedom, which played an amateur schedule without its former stars such as Wambach and Mia Hamm.  That legacy gave Hendricks great credibility as the dean of WPS owners and he insisted on the return of his erstwhile superstar.  Wambach got her second choice and was allocated to Washington.  In the allocation event on September 16, 2008, FC Gold Pride received three players with local ties: defender Rachel Buehler and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart of Stanford and midfielder Leslie Osborne of Santa Clara University.

As Head Coach, the NeSmith’s quickly appointed Albertin Montoya, a former college assistant at Stanford and Santa Clara.  The club did not undertake a comprehensive coaching search and Montoya had a thin resume by WPS standards.  Skeptics of the hire pointed out that Montoya’s key credential seemed to have been running the Mountain View Los Altos Girls Youth Soccer Club where the NeSmith daughters played as teenagers.

FC Gold Pride signed a lease to play at 10,000-seat Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University, a facility shared with the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer.  Gold Pride debuted at home on April 5th, 2009 against the Boston Breakers in a game televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.  The crowd of 6,459 went home happy after former U.S. National Team star Tiffeny Milbrett came off the Gold Pride bench to break a 1-1 tie in the 90th minute.

Carrie Dew and I would call that our ‘Glory Day’,” recalled forward Tiffany Weimer, who assisted on the franchise’s first goal that afternoon.  “It was the best we played and we thought we were going undefeated after that.”

The glory didn’t last.  Gold Pride won only three of their remaining 19 matches in 2009.  At 4-10-6, Gold Pride finished last in the seven-team league and their total of 17 goals in 20 matches was the weakest offensive output in WPS.    Bright spots included the Canadian international Christine Sinclair (6 goals) and Tiffeny Milbrett (4 goals), who combined for ten of the club’s seventeen goals and were both selected to play in the postseason WPS All-Star game.  The All-Star nod must have been sweet vindication for the 36-year old Milbrett.  The former WUSA Most Valuable Player (2001) had scored 100 goals for the U.S. National Team from 1991 to 2006 but was passed over by every WPS franchise in the league’s January player draft before latching on with Gold Pride as a free agent in March.

FC Gold Pride’s announced attendance dropped substantially after the home opener.  Only one of Gold Pride’s remaining eight home dates in 2009 drew over 4,000 fans.  The club started the season with the highest ticket prices in WPS ($18 – $45 per seat).  Halfway through the summer, the team slashed those prices, angering some season ticket holders and advance buyers.  Unlike other WPS clubs, Gold Pride offered few comp and deep discount promotions to pad attendance.  In fact, the club’s internal sales figures actually stacked up much better within WPS than the league’s announced attendance figures indicated to the public.  Gold Pride sold 885 season tickets – 4th best in WPS – and their total 2009 ticket sales revenue of $644,000 ranked third, trailing only the Boston Breakers ($646K) and the Los Angeles Sol ($854K).

Despite the last place finish, the NeSmith’s retained Montoya for Gold Pride’s second season in 2010 and the rebuilding began.  41-year U.S. National Team legend Brandi Chastain, the league’s oldest player, was released.  Team captain Leslie Osborne was allowed to depart via free agency, as was the Brazilian midfielder Formiga, whom Gold Pride had selected with the #1 overall selection in the international player draft prior to the 2009 season.  Formiga’s rumored $75,000 annual salary made her easily expendable after an unexceptional campaign.

The club’s fortunes began to turn at the WPS college draft on January 15th, 2010.  Montoya stockpiled three of the first twelve picks and then shrewdly chose Stanford teammates Kelley O’Hara (#3 overall) and Ali Riley (#10) as well as Florida State’s Becky Edwards (#12).  O’Hara would score six goals and earn an All-Star nod as a rookie.  Riley would take home WPS Rookie-of-the-Year honors, while Edwards would emerge as a key contributor in the midfield.  Beyond their skill, Stanford products O’Hara and Riley could be expected to add local appeal at the box office in the Bay Area – in theory anyway.

FC Gold Pride’s make-or-break moment as a franchise came two weeks after the college draft on January 28th, 2010.  Shockingly, the league’s flagship franchise, the Los Angeles Sol, folded after a single season of play when a new investor solicited by the WPS league office backed out at the 11th hour.  The Sol had posted the league’s best record in 2009 and now the key components of that club would be parceled out to the remaining WPS clubs in a disperal draft in early February.  All except one.  The 23-year old Brazilian superstar Marta was league’s greatest star – and its greatest burden.

In a league where the average player earned $32,000 in 2009 and where most clubs generated less than a million dollars in annual revenues, Marta had a three-year guaranteed contract worth a reported $500,000 per annum.  A special mechanism was created to dispose of her contract.  Any interest club could submit a bid, with the minimum offer set at 75% ($375,000) of Marta’s 2010 salary.  If the highest bid was less than $500,000, the remaining eight clubs would collectively make up the difference to fulfill the contract.  The great question was what would happen if no one was interested.  Across the board, WPS owners were reeling from far greater than expected losses during the inaugural season.  Boston, with its large Brazilian population, passed, as did Chicago, New Jersey, St. Louis, Washington and the new expansion team in Philadelphia.  The Atlanta Beat expansion club, in need of a star attraction for its new soccer specific stadium, placed a bid.  And then the NeSmith’s, whom no one expected to be a player in the auction after losing $3 million in 2009, stepped in and bid the full $500,000.  Marta would play in the Bay Area.  A couple of days later, with the deal already done, FC Gold Pride went through the charade of selecting her with the third overall pick in February 4th dispersal draft.

“Our plan is to sell out every game,” owner Nancy NeSmith declared to The New York Times after WPS announced the dispersal draft results.  “If we get into a smaller stadium and sell out, the demand grows and sponsorship grows.”

The Marta acquisition aside, budget cuts were the rule of the day as Gold Pride headed into year two.  The team departed Buck Shaw Stadium and signed a cheaper deal to play at Pioneer Stadium on the campus of Cal State East Bay.  Necessary renovations to the 5,000-seat facility would not be complete until June, so Gold Pride would play the first two months of the 2010 season at Castro Valley High School Stadium.

The team also slashed its already lean marketing budget to near zero, meaning that many Bay Area soccer fans never got the memo about Marta’s arrival.  Only 3,757 turned out for the 2010 home opener at Castro Valley High School on April 17th, 2010.  An early June match-up against the visiting Washington Freedom featured the two greatest stars of the women’s game – Gold Pride’s Marta versus Abby Wambach of the Freedom.  The same pairing drew 14,000 to the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles the prior season.  Only 3,442 turned out in the Bay Area.

On the field, the rebuilding campaign led by Montoya and GM Ilisa Kessler was a wild success.  After dropping the 2010 season opener on the road to St. Louis Athletica in April, Gold Pride reeled off five consecutive victories.  In June, the St. Louis franchise folded abruptly in midseason and its players were dispersed.  Gold Pride added long-time U.S. National team stalwart Shannon Boxx to an already fearsome line-up that included world class internationals Marta, Sinclair, Milbrett, Buehler, Barnhart, French midfielder Camille Abily, Canadian defender Candace Chapman, and the outstanding rookie trio of O’Hara, Riley and Edwards.

Gold Pride rampaged through the WPS regular season with a 16-3-5 record, outscoring its opposition by a margin of 46-19.  Marta paced WPS in scoring with a record 19 goals.  Sinclair led the league in assists with 9 and also finished fifth in goals with 10 of her own.  Barnhart allowed a miserly 0.77 goals against average with eight shutouts, both tops in the league.  By virtue of finishing with the best record in the league, Gold Pride earned a bye through the WPS playoffs and the right to host the WPS Cup Final at Pioneer Stadium on September 26th, 2010.

The final was anti-climactic.  Coming off a two-week layoff, Gold Pride easily defeated a tired Philadelphia Independence team, playing their third game in eight days, by a score of 4-0.  Sinclair scored a brace, Kandace Wilson got one, and Marta added a garbage time goal in the 90th minute to give the hometown fans a final thrill.   WPS announced a sell-out crowd of 5,228, but Nancy NeSmith later told blogger Jeff Kassouf of Equalizer Soccer that the team only managed to sell 2,900 tickets for the final.

“If you can’t even sell out a championship game, that’s a wake up call for us…that people had better things to do or they are just not that interested,” NeSmith told Kassouf.  “It’s kind of like Field of Dreams.  You build it and people will come.  And no one came.”

Gold Pride owners Brian and Nancy NeSmith lost a reported $5 million on the team during its 26 months of operation.  Dismayed at the response to the championship game by the public and the media, and by the lack of sponsorship and season ticket interest in the weeks immediately following the Cup victory, the owners decided not to post the required security bond to play a third season in 2011.  FC Gold Pride officially folded on November 16th, 2010.


After FC Gold Pride’s demise, the 2011 WPS expansion franchise Western New York Flash opened up its checkbook in an effort to re-assemble the core of Gold Pride’s championship team in Rochester, New York.  Flash owner Joe Sahlen took on the final year of Marta’s $500,000 annual contract.  The club also landed Gold Pride vets Sinclair, Ali Riley, Candace Chapman, Becky Edwards, Kandace Wilson, and Brittany Cameron.  The Flash lost a bidding war with Boston for the rights to Kelley O’Hara.

Like Gold Pride a year earlier, the Flash breezed through the regular season and earned the right to host the 3rd WPS Cup at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester on August 27th, 2011.  Once again, the opponent would be the Philadelphia Independence.  This time the match was a thriller, with the Flash winning on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie held up through overtime.

Young UC-Berkeley filmmaker Jun Stinson produced a mini-documentary on the demise of FC Gold Pride entitled the 90th minute in 2011.  The 20-minute film has screened at several symposiums on the West Coast and in Hawaii, often with live commentary from former WPS and WUSA players.


2011 General Manager Ilisa Kessler Interview
2011 Tiffany Weimer Interview
2009 FC Gold Pride digital Media Guide
WPS Standard Player Contract


Written by andycrossley

October 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

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