Charlie Naimo talks Los Angeles Sol, Pali Blues

Jeff Kassouf April 22, 2010 0

On January 28, the Los Angeles Sol, Women’s Professional Soccer’s most dominant team throughout the inaugural regular season and home to high-profile players such as four time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta, ceased operations.  Charlie Naimo was the general manager of the team and helped guide the team through year one.

While building a dominant WPS team, Naimo also won his second-straight undefeated W-League Championship as head coach of the Pali Blues just down the Pacific Coast.  Recently, he sat down to talk about his feelings on what happened with the Sol as well as what he is looking forward to in Pali in 2010.  He also discusses the idea of promotion and relegation as well as a league cup and open cup in WPS in this three part series.

Kassouf:  How are you feeling these days looking back on the LA Sol situation?

Naimo:  It’s the end of a chapter for me.  Whether there is a new chapter with WPS in it remains to be seen but it’s not like it was a sleepover not being resolved right now.  I put a lot of time into – more time than people know into the league in some way or another dating back to the (New Jersey) Wildcats.  That was always my vision with the Wildcats was helping Thomas (Hofstetter) start Sky Blue and coming out here to pursue this, so it is something to watch it fall to pieces so quickly in front of your face.  You know, I’m not getting any younger here, so I need to think about security.  I feel good.  I’m not too worried.  I’m looking at basically how I want to live my life and how I am going to get there right now.

Kassouf:  So you are looking at a lot of non-soccer stuff?

Naimo:  I’m not necessarily looking at just soccer stuff.  I’m looking at stuff in sports and entertainment and some other things.  I’m not opposed to taking the things that have made me a successful soccer person and applying them to a different trade that is a little more secure and maybe a little more lucrative at this point.  I have time off and that is how I want to spend it – looking for something like that.  And the good news is that I have a great organization in Pali that I can work for and I still get to coach kids and build teams and continue developing relationships with top players.  I’m keeping the value of having me involved in the program however I can.

Kassouf:  And you didn’t really see anything coming with what happened in Los Angeles?  Commissioner Tonya Antonucci said that this happened at “the eleventh hour.”  Did it feel like that to you?

Naimo:  Well, I mean, obviously AEG had given the team back to the league.  What I have learned is that nothing is ever done until there is signatures in writing.  We felt we were in a great position with a capable owner and so through experience I wasn’t comfortable until the day that we had signatures and money in the account but I was very hopeful and cautiously optimistic.  So, it wasn’t a complete shock to me, but I guess that I really had faith that everything was going to work itself out, because I felt that we were dealing with somebody who was going to do everything they said they were going to do.

Kassouf:  It was just a local ownership group that you were talking to?

Naimo:  Yeah, pretty much.  And nowadays people ask me and there are some people that I know that are interested in it.  Outside of somebody offering me consulting fees to help them put it together, I am not even ready to go that far.  I answer questions and people have expressed interest in having me involved or getting me involved and I am one of those people now who sit back and say, ‘OK, well if you get it going and I like your offer I’ll consider coming back.’  But, you know, I look at it like I don’t have anything left to prove to anybody and I have had a great career and if I never get back in the league again, I am proud that the league is going well.  I’m proud of any involvement I have had in it.  I am happy that our team out of the gates was as good as it was and I am very proud of the prospect of what we would have been in 2010.  I am very proud of that – probably the most proud of that.  Being the first year, being a part of a professional league with trades and tough decisions and a lot of things that we decided to do all was according to plan with our roster this year.  So, no I mean, I liked working with AEG.  It was a great experience.  No regrets and you know, it’s hard.  I don’t feel bad about it.  Everything happens for a reason and I’m happy that the players have landed on their feet in other organizations and they all seem happy and everybody seems to have been taken care of, which is good – which is cool.  And like I said, I am excited to have Pali again.  I still get to compete a bit and we are going to go for the unheralded three-peat.  Nobody has ever three-peated before.  A lot of kids still view us as the place to play and we are flattered by that.  A couple of players that had WPS opportunities are going to play for Pali just because it suits their life better.  I didn’t encourage them one way or the other, but again it is relationships.  If you want to come play I am not going to say no.  It is quite a draw here living on the West Side and playing a short season in between here and the national leagues.  So, we are looking forward to a great year and I am looking forward to getting busy again.

Kassouf:  What was your interaction with AEG?  They have taken some harsh criticism for the way they handled the Sol situation, from me included.  Should people be upset?  There seem to be a lot of feelings that AEG abandoned ship?

Naimo:  No, I mean from what I know is that they were always in it for a year.  I think everybody just thought that because of how big the company is and how successful it is that it would just stay and continue to operate the way that it was and I think that was a bad move on all of our parts to assume.  I have nothing but good things to say about AEG.  They did everything they said they were going to do.  They ran a first-class operation that I was pleased to be part of.  And, I think the economy changes and the economy changed for a lot of people – a lot of huge companies.  And, they had to shift their focus to the entertainment side of AEG.  We weren’t the only casualty of that shift, I am sure.  But, I have no ill feelings toward AEG or any of the people that I work with there.  They are all great.

Kassouf:  What about 2011?  There is a lot of talk of multiple ownership groups looking to get a team back in LA in the next year.  Is that realistic?

Naimo:  Absolutely.  I don’t know if it will be as LA Sol because there is somebody that might want to come in and put their own brand on the team.  But I think it is absolutely realistic to come back in 2011.  I think that the existing teams are doing a fantastic job of reworking their budgets and creating revenue and sponsorships.  I think they are running great businesses and when those teams do well, it encourages other folks out on the sidelines to get in.  In this community down here there are plenty of folks that can afford to jump into a great organization like WPS and like I said, I’ve heard from  – I can’t mention names – but I have heard from a few sources that asked me if I would be interested if they would get involved and there is certainly interest here.  To me it’s 50-50 that they’ll be in LA, but I think some people are waiting to see to confirm success of the first couple months of this year’s season.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some big numbers at the home openers and things like that, that will encourage these folks – not only in LA but in these other cities.  Those are all rumors to me.  I hear what you hear, but I heard there are a few cities whether for now or 2011 or even 2012.  So, I’m convinced that this league is going to last for a long time.  Just like MLS did, I wouldn’t be surprised if it lost another team at some point, but I would be more surprised if there wasn’t more expansion.  It took the MLS four or five casualties I think before it got to where it was today.

So, I am pretty convinced that everybody is doing a great job from what I hear and I’m looking forward to supporting it and watching it on TV and if things get a little better here with what I am working on and I can afford to go out and visit my old friends and see some of them play I am going to do it.  I’d love to go to the All-Star Game, I’d love to go to the Chicago opener.  I’d love to get up to the Bay Area to see a match.  I plan on continuing to support the league however I can, of course.  Hopefully one day if I have a daughter and it is still around she can be a part of it if she is better than I was (laughs).  Again, I have no bad feelings toward WPS, AEG – it is what it is.  Sometimes you can do a good job and it doesn’t go your way and absolutely sometimes you can do a horrible job and you get lucky.  So, I think it was a matter of we didn’t have that second year to scale things down and focus on how to close the gap in that area.  Our revenue was good, our ticket sales were good – not great – but we led the league in those categories.  But, we also spend money too and it would have been nice to have that opportunity to cut those expenses, increase the revenues a bit and make the business as good as the product on the field was.  But, like I said, everything happens for a reason.  All the girls ended up on teams and I think every team got stronger after this and that made me feel good about the crew that we had coming in.

Kassouf:  So you stay in touch with the players?

Naimo:  I try not to, because – I try to and I try not to because I really don’t want anyone to have the perception because I was so closely involved in the league that I am advising the players or that I am spying on teams or any type of potential petty stuff that can come up.  The players that I was extremely close with, yes.  But, you know, I don’t call in.  I don’t want my caring for them to be misconstrued as me sticking my nose in other team’s business.  If I was involved in the league it would be a no-brainer, especially now that they are all done with their contract negotiations.  I didn’t want to talk to them in that process either because again, I don’t want anybody to think that I am more involved than I am.  Like I said, a lot of those kids I worked close with, especially the draftees and some of the older existing players.  So, I like to keep my distance but they know that I am here if they ever need anything for advice or whatever – whatever I can do for them.  Once the season starts, obviously, and camp is over I am sure I’ll have more conversations.  But this is the time of year when they are trying to make teams and GM’s are doing contracts.  That is a time I felt that you disappear and you let teams do their things.  Today, as you know, I know quite a bit of them through the W-League teams.  I don’t know the number but I am sure it is quite a high number of players in the league that have played on my team.  It has got to be maybe 20 percent, I don’t know.  But at any time I just don’t want to step on teams or be that guy.

Kassouf:  What about Pali?  I saw you were able to get some of the would-be LA players to stay.  Do you think the Pali Blues are shaping up better than ever?

Naimo:  Well you know, it is hard to say better than ever because you look back to the Wildcats and that team was unbelievable.  The ’05 team was great, last year’s team was great, and there are so many good ones.  You really can’t tell until the end.  I think we have a roster as good as any of the teams that I have had.  This is my seventh year of very good teams.  I think what is going to be the judge is juggling and managing the schedule for the national team players because we have a Belgian international, a Finnish international, two Danish internationals, a handful of kids on the Under-23’s.

I tried to not take too many kids that are on the Under-20’s because they are pretty much done for the summer with the World Cup.  Alex Morgan is set to sign with us.  She has full team duty.  So, there is a lot of juggling but I will say that I do think that this particular group could be the deepest if everybody is there consistently.  You have a player like Paaske-Sorensen who is one of the greatest attacking midfielders in Europe in the past 10 years.  You have senior leadership in the back with (Christie) Shaner and a couple of internationals.  I haven’t finalized her yet, but another international goalkeeper and all kinds of attacking weapons like Dani Toney, and (Christen) Press and Alex Morgan and Chelsea Cline is going to join us from UCLA.  So we are pretty deep and again now we just have to make sense of it all and try to juggle and manage these national team schedules.  That’s always the hard part.

Kassouf:  I remember the problem with the college schedules interfering with the W-League season last year also.

Naimo:  Well this year the league was smart enough to go back to the old format.  I was a huge proponent of keeping the format last year, but I think what ultimately won Pali the championship last year was I was a little bit of a realist as to what was going to happen and I prepared for it.  We prepared for it and others didn’t.  I still think we were the best team last year because if you look at the team that we had in the semifinal, had we had that team in the final against anybody I think we would have been successful.  The team would just get better every single game and I think traveling in horrible weather and showing up the next day and playing the regular season champions in the 16th minute, having your starters on the bench is a pretty convincing victory and said a lot about that crew of kids.  But I think the W-League is always going to be run by primarily college players.  Unless WPS fails again and a couple of more teams decide to go pro, the best players left in the country are obviously our college talent.  So, I believe that you need to focus on your strengths – working with college coaches and not stepping on the toes of their seasons and their goals.  And the facts are that their seasons are more important than the W-League at the moment because they pay for their education and they have to protect themselves, so we as W-League coaches have to protect that interest as well.  So, we are very lenient with our kids.  If a kid needs a week off I give it to them.  The rule here is I need notice.  Whatever you need, leave me notice so we can prepare.  That is why we keep a big roster.  We even towards the end of the season come playoff time scaled down on training instead of scale up to get ready for playoffs.  We want them to rest and feel refreshed for college so that they are not injured or burnt out and it is just the way we kind of, I want to say, almost moved in reverse.  And again, you have to play to what is going on and really be willing to think about the situation that we have and try to make as many people supporters of the program as we can.

Kassouf:  So how does the different playoff format affect Pali?

Naimo:  Our goal is to try to win another regular season championship.  I think it is going to be extremely  difficult to do that, because I think the Western Conference is going to be probably as hard of a conference as I have ever seen in this league.  We lost the two bottom teams and we added the Colorado Rush, so you know they are going to put together a great side.  Vancouver will always be solid.  Colorado Force is good.  Seattle always does a good job and that is why the records are always where they are with the conference.  You can make the playoffs and 6-4, where in the Northeast if you are 6-4 you are done because one team is going to be 12-2 and the other team is going to be 13-1.

So, it is going to be difficult so it is a great goal for us.  We are hoping to have that weekend off.  And there is a rumor that a West Coast team bidding to host, which would be great for us.  So, we can go from a crazy, crazy playoff travel last year to an easy travel this year if we were fortunate enough to make it that far.  Quite honestly it is scary for us as a staff to get into this season not having lost a game yet, because no matter how good you are, you are going to lose eventually and so hopefully how cautious we are and how much we want to work and continue to do everything as good and better than everybody else, hopefully that formula will help us achieve the same success.  But, how long could it last?  We certainly don’t want to lose a game.  We don’t want to tie a game.  We want to be class and we want to get more people to WPS and continue to provide a good show for our community, which has grown pretty fond of the team.

(Note: That rumor was true and the W-League Championship will be in Santa Clarita, Calif., hosted by expansion team Santa Clarita Blue Heat, giving Pali a chance to win a title close to home.)

Kassouf:  With the Sol gone and so much success for Pali over the past couple of years, have you felt more anticipation to the build-up of this season?

Naimo:  I don’t think will know until the season.  I know we have sold some season tickets and that kind of stuff, but I think we will see the spill-over once the season starts.  It is a last-minute gig here because it is not an incredibly high priced ticket so a lot of people wait.  Also, we still have a lot of things in LA.  We weren’t just competing with the Sol.  We are competing with the Galaxy and Chivas and Lakers and they play into our season a little bit.  You’ve got the Dodgers and the Angels and there are just so many things to do in LA.  There’s vacations.  The Palisades is a great community but a lot folks leave for the summer.  So, I think that we’ll get better, but I don’t think that just because the Sol are gone we are going to double our attendance.  But I can say that our GM (Jason Lemire) is doing a great job getting into the community and if anybody can get them there it is him.

Kassouf:  Building off of Pali’s success, I wanted to pick your brain on a couple of things.  Commissioner Tonya Antonucci talked about – way down the line obviously – the possibility of a promotion/relegation system.  Is that something you could even see working?

Naimo:  To be honest, I think we are light-years away from that.  You can’t even feasibly see it in the W-League.  There are people on the sidelines that want to buy into MLS and there are too many teams.  How can you develop from there?  I just don’t know how it works.  I guess because it is an expense to be in the top league, how many people would want to bear that expense in the second division?  I don’t know.  Obviously I am hopeful.  That would be fantastic if our country could evolve that much in soccer.  I would be all for it.  I am also a big believer that the champion of any league where everybody plays each other should be the team that wins the table.  Like last year, in my opinion, the Sol were champions because we did it through the course of the season.  That is one thing that I would love to see soccer in this country have.  And then you can add a separate trophy like the league cup or the champions cup.  But the league champion is the league champion.  And it gives fans an extra thing to follow.

Kassouf:  That was actually my last question.  What do you think of developing more of a women’s open cup between WPS, the W-League and the WPSL?

Naimo:  Going back to the theory of college players burning their routines, I think schedule would be a challenge, because can you conceivably have the championship for an open cup in July?  And I think that to make it work, for a Cinderella to have a shot – like let’s say last year’s Pali Blues team.  If the right chips fell into place and they had all of their top 11 players, conceivably they could have challenged a WPS team.  But, the team we had in the final wouldn’t compete.  So it is all about scheduling in this country.  It really is when it comes to the open cup.  Two years ago when the GM’s sat down and discussed this, I was all for the open cup.  I was all for the dual championships – having the regular season champion be the champion of the league and having a separate league cup.  The top four teams play for it like they do in England.  You’ve got the League Cup, the FA Cup, it’s great.  There are more means to compete, but obviously there is one that is more recognized and I am a big believer that to show the measure of a great franchise is over time who has done it best and that is a league.  That is a league season.  That’s just my opinion, but I don’t know how much the American soccer fan understands that, but you have to start somewhere.  Have both.

But again, I am sure these great things will happen, but right now I think everyone is focused on just getting the business right and once the league is sustainable – which I think it is heading in that direction – I think there will be all kinds of unique opportunities and possibilities for the game to grow.  You have the best league in the world.  We have the deepest talent pool in the world.  We now have many of the best international players coming to play in our league because they recognize that.  It is just all heading in the right direction for WPS and soccer, but at some point we need to be a little more aggressive in things a little bit different and unique and tweak it and take some chances.

The Pali Blues kick off the 2010 W-League season looking for their third-straight championship on June 5 at home against the Santa Clarita Blue Heat.