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Lauletta: The good, the bad, and the ugly of NWSL’s move to Salt Lake City

The National Women’s Soccer League is heading to Salt Lake City. The capital city of Utah is not a new name on the list of potential NWSL locations, but it comes as a surprise insomuch as it had fallen off the radar since owner Dell Loy Hansen first broached the idea in early 2015. And in fact the deal came together in about 15 days according to Hansen.

The new club, the name of which is still clearing some final legal hurdles before being released, will play at Rio Tinto Stadium and Hansen declared during Thursday’s press conference that the club will be treated exactly the same as Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake.

Conspicuously absent from the day’s proceedings was any mention of FC Kansas City. It is widely thought that Hansen has purchased the Kansas City franchise, but even the Real Salt Lake brass seemed a bit confused as to how exactly the transaction went down. Meanwhile an NWSL spokesperson told The Equalizer that discussions were still ongoing with FCKC ownership as to their status and plans for the future.

Here are some early thoughts about NWSL’s second franchise shift in 2017.

The Good: Salt Lake steps up to the plate

In getting Hansen and Real Salt Lake on board, NWSL pivoted into another partnership with a men’s club (there are now four MLS partnerships plus the Courage whose brother team joined USL earlier Thursday.) Not only does that add stability and credibility to a league that could use both but it’s great to see that four years after the Dash pushed their way in, other MLS clubs remain interested in doing the same.

Salt Lake City also fits my personal bill for what a strong NWSL market should look like. The other major sporting competition outside Real Salt Lake are the NBA’s Jazz who are dormant through much of the summer. The city has also taken to the MLS club that joined as an expansion side in 2005 and won MLS Cup in 2009. That said, attendance has dropped each of the last three seasons and this season represented a six-year low at the box office. The club has struggled on the field as well so it will be interesting to see what the next decade brings in terms of soccer culture in Salt Lake City.

The press conference was replete with an appearance from Utah governor Gary Herbert which may have clogged up the flow of soccer talk but added an air of importance to the day on a local level.

The main positive though is that NWSL franchises remain a commodity. Last year North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik announced a vision of bringing the highest level of women’s soccer to the Research Triangle and a few weeks later the opportunity to buy the Flash was presented. It sounds like this deal was cut on similar grounds with Hansen’s long-term vision or owning an NWSL club fast tracked by a call from the league office a little more than two weeks ago.

Harkening back to WPS, the first domino on the path to destruction was when a sale of the LA Sol fell through and the club abruptly folded. Four months later they were one-upped in abruptness by Saint Louis Athletica closing shop during the season. Later that same year (2010), no one stepped up to keep FC Gold Pride going. The only club to successfully sell was the Washington Freedom who went to Dan Borislow, an eccentric businessman the league never vetted and whose 11th hour save of the Freedom—rebranded to magicJack—only set the stage for a more explosive ending to the league itself.

In 2017 though, people want NWSL clubs. Even if former commissioner Jeff Plush either exaggerated about the number of interested groups or some of those groups lost interest, it is an excellent sign that for two straight franchise sales, someone was ready, willing, and able to take a struggling franchise and prop it up. And just like Cary, North Carolina and the Malik group was a near universal upgrade over Western New York, so should Salt Lake be over what was left of FC Kansas City.

The Bad: What happened in Kansas City?

I still remember sending this tweet…

…and the feeling I had attending the first NWSL match ever. That full figure by the way was 6,784 and remained the best attended FC Kansas City match outside Sporting Park. The club came in guns blazing saying they wanted to average 4,000 per game. That mission was locked in ahead of the home finale (leaning they could have taken a 0 and still hit 4,000) and they finished with an average of 4,626, second only to the Thorns.

Partly due to shifting venues, the Blues never averaged as much a s 3,200 again and wrapped up 2017 with an anemic 1,788 to pull up the rear in terms of fans through the gate. The true shame of the fading numbers was that on the field, FC Kansas City through 2015 could not have done more to entice fans to show up. Not only did popular national team players Lauren Holiday, Becky Sauerbrunn, and for a time Heather O’Reilly and Amy Rodriguez play there, they did so with a style that was impossible to look away from. Short of Beyonce suiting up for the club there was literally no better advertisement for local fans to show up. Whether it was citywide ambivalence, poor marketing, or both, the fact is that the club was not drawing fans.

Complicating matters was when news dropped that co-owners Brad and Greg Likens had been sending lewd emails, some of which involved pictures of players. The club was eventually sold to Minnesota businessman Elam Baer, but less than a year into his tenure, it appears to be over.

From my perch far away from Kansas City it never once appeared as if Baer had any firm vision for where to take the team. He brought in Jean-Yves Viardin from Minnesota to be general manager and time that should have been spent selling the club was instead spent familiarizing himself with the team and the city. When coach Vlatko Andonovski left for the Reign last week—after not being spoken to about a contract—the club released a terse statement usually reserved for coaches and players who leave in disgrace, not ones that led a club to two league championships and countless plaudits from around the soccer world.

For whatever reason, Sporting Kansas City never wanted any part of it, and word is the relationship between the clubs soured rather than improved over the years.

If there is a silver lining, I do not think Kansas City has been handed a women’s pro soccer death sentence in the same way Western New York was. There remains a vibrant interest in Sporting and maybe one day that club will want to add a women’s side.

At the end of the day though, people are out of jobs today, and a fanbase is without a team to support. And that is never fun.

The Ugly: Doesn’t anyone talk to each other anymore?

No sports league turns a joyous occasion into something skeptical quite like NWSL. While the move to Salt Lake City is almost certain to be a net gain for all involved (outside Kansas City), there was a major element missing from Friday’s celebrations. What in the world is really going on with FC Kansas City?

At this point enough credible WoSo journalists have reported on it that I am comfortable to add my voice to the idea that FCKC will cease to exist as an NWSL club. And multiple reports have the roster, draft slots, international spots etc. all transferred in full to the Real Salt Lake group. But isn’t that something you figure out before you make a grand announcement about a new team starting up? It almost seemed like the league was announcing the Salt Lake team before officially deciding what to do with FC Kansas City–sort of like hanging on to one significant other just long enough that you can find a suitable replacement.

Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel was asked how the team would be stocked and he came right out and said he didn’t know. Meanwhile, I’m told that no one in the FC Kansas City ownership group has yet communicated anything to what remains of a staff.

It certainly appears there are some legal reasons behind the careful omission of FC Kansas City from all releases and live statements (the word expansion was not used either.) and sometimes legal reasons trump rational ones. But Elam Baer is not exactly going out in a blaze of glory and NWSL in general continues to operate under the stupefying notion that secrecy is always the best option.

The questions

If the transaction was made in 15 days then what happened in October? NWSL managing director of operations Amanda Duffy acknowledged at the NWSL Championship that the Kansas City situation needed to be resolved soon. Does that mean another deal fell through? Did the first calls fall on deaf ears?

Who will be the coach? Others may have a better idea than I do, but it’s anyone’s best guess. So far as we know Laura Harvey is unemployed and I wouldn’t personally hire a coach without reaching out to her first. Waibel said there are interviews set up for next week and that the club’s top choice “is willing to listen.” Sports fans love coaching searches so this will give us all something to think about until a hire is made.

Can the roster be competitive? It is way too early to tell, but going straight off the existing FC Kansas City group, they certainly have a chance. But so much will depend on whether the new club really inherits that roster and which players decide they would rather play somewhere other than Utah. But it shouldn’t take too much tweaking to make the current roster into a playoff contender.

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