Saturday marks the five-year anniversary of FC Gold Pride winning the WPS Championship. This is their story.
September 26, 2010 was the latest a women’s professional soccer final had ever been scheduled, yet the last Sunday morning that September offered no relief from the heat of summer. But there was another phenomenon that day offering even less relief than the weather. As the sun torched the sunken field at Pioneer Stadium on the campus of California State University-East Bay, FC Gold Pride was torching the Philadelphia Independence to finish off one of the greatest professional soccer seasons ever seen on these shores.
“It was super-hot,” recalled Rachel Van Hollebeke, who was still Rachel Buehler back in her FC Gold Pride days. “Though not as hot as that one game when our cleats almost melted off.”
“The first 10 minutes I remember thinking, ‘oh they’re dead,’” Christine Sinclair said, a reference to the tough haul the Independence had, having to play twice on the East Coast in the week leading into the final. “It’s a lot to ask for a team to play that many games plus the travel.”
“I remember not having to do a whole lot,” Van Hollebeke said, adding a “wow” after being reminded of the 4-0 score line.
A year before they became queens of American soccer, FC Gold Pride was a team languishing at the bottom of the table with seemingly no direction. A month and a half after the coronation, they were gone.
FC Gold Pride were not even supposed to be part of the inaugural WPS season. Owners Brian and Nancy NeSmith were late to come on board and were planning on joining as a 2010 expansion team. When the proposed Dallas franchise fell through, the NeSmith’s were convinced to work double-time and become a founding member.
“We were the last at the table from a team building perspective. We really started very late,” Ilisa Kessler, who served as Gold Pride’s general manager, said. “I feel like the players we chose were not necessarily the best for how Albertin wanted to play on the field.”
Albertin Montoya coached FC Gold Pride and arrived preaching a Barcelona type system of possession through short, frequent passes. It didn’t work. The inaugural season was a disaster. The Pride won only four of 20 matches in a season that began 3-3-1 and finished 1-7-5. They finished with the fewest goals scored in the league and conceded the second most. It added up to a last-place finish.
“The funny thing about that first year was we were just barely getting beat,” Van Hollebeke said. “It was never like a killing or anything super terrible. We were just somehow not quite there.”
“We still had a lot of faith in Albertin and what he was doing,” Kessler said. “We realized that we probably didn’t give him the right tools to get the job done. And in that case it would be players.”
From the perspective of Van Hollebeke and Sinclair, who were among eight holdovers from the 2009 team to 2010, the players never lost faith in Montoya, either.
“I don’t think we ever lost faith at all,” Sinclair said.
“Albertin still provided a fun training environment,” Van Hollebeke said of the 2009 season. “But it’s hard when you’re not clicking or losing. That takes the fun out of it. But still one of our last practices of the year we all dressed up for Bad Kit Day. That was when we were not doing well. There was still that element of the base of the team enjoying the process.”
The bottom-of-the-table finish was not even enough to win the 1st pick for 2010. In an effort to assure the expansion Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence would be competitive straight away, they were handed the top two picks in the draft plus two additional picks at the end of the first round. For finishing last in a seven-team league, FC Gold Pride’s first two picks were the 3rd and 14th.
When Montoya, Kessler, and Brian NeSmith sat down to chart a course for 2010 they knew significant changes were required in order to move off the bottom of the table and closer to championship contention. And they knew some of the decisions would create uncomfortable circumstances. No decision was more trying than the one to let Brandi Chastain go.
Chastain had been a leader on the 2009 team. After the second game of the season a reporter (guilty as charged) asked Carrie Dew about Sky Blue stretching Gold Pride’s defense in the second half. Chastain, standing nearby, interjected. “I would just like to say,” she said referencing Heather O’Reilly and Natasha Kai, “that we’re talking about players that tear apart international defenses.”
But Chastain was also 41 and unlike her Gold Pride teammates, had far-ranging commitments that often pulled her away from the team during the week. (Chastain, by no fault of her own, was also part of one of the club’s naïve personnel decisions ahead of the first season. They used their 7th-round draft pick on Chastain even though it was virtually certain no other team would take her and that Gold Pride would be able to sign the Bay Area native as a free agent.) Even though the 1999 World Cup icon believed she could still play, the club elected to move forward without her.
“She had a lot of other responsibilities,” Kessler said. “And honestly we weren’t paying her enough to walk away from those other responsibilities. It just didn’t mesh with where we were going and what we wanted the locker room environment to be.”
As poor as the 2009 season went for FC Gold Pride, their 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Sol on May 24 unknowingly provided the first major building block to 2010. With Nicole Barnhart away with the U.S. national team, the start went to Allison Whitworth. The rookie lost the match but played well enough to draw attention as one of the top backups in the league and a target for the incoming expansion clubs. FC Gold Pride pounced on that interest on Oct. 29.
The Beat had extra interest in Whitworth as she had played for the Silverbacks with great success. So they dealt the 10th and 12th picks in the draft to FC Gold Pride for Whitworth and the 23rd pick. Hindsight being 20/20, the Beat could have kept the picks and used one of them on Alyssa Naeher, who went 11th to the Breakers. Instead they went with Whitworth who never took flight in Atlanta. By the end of 2010 she had been supplanted on the depth chart and traded to the Red Stars. Gold Pride used the picks on Ali Riley and Becky Edwards.
Another piece of the puzzle arrived, rather shockingly, eight days before the draft. At the request of Montoya, Kessler negotiated a deal with the Sol to acquire Camille Abily.
“I can’t remember what we traded though,” Kessler, who admitted that Abily struggled at times with Gold Pride, said. “I didn’t care. I just wanted Abily.” The cost was 2009 first-round pick Christina DiMartino and the 14th pick in the draft.
If there was ever a draft to be bumped down the line, the 2010 draft was it. No fewer than six players from the 2015 World Cup winning United States team were part of the 2010 draft class, including the first four picks. Had Gold Pride had the top pick, they may well have done what the Beat did and taken Tobin Heath, whose rookie season was hampered by injury. The Breakers traded for the No. 2 pick and took Lauren Cheney (now Holiday). That left FC Gold Pride to take the Hermann Trophy winner and local product, Kelley O’Hara (Whitney Engen went 4th to the Red Stars, and Naeher and Ashlyn Harris were the other future world champions taken that day). Holiday may have developed into the superior player, but of the top three picks, none turned out to be as pro-ready as O’Hara.
“We felt really, really good coming out of that draft,” Kessler said. “Albertin had the time going into year two to really research what needed to be done to know what players would fit into his system. He didn’t have that luxury going into year one. So he spent a lot of time figuring out exactly what that team would look like.”
The club had added an internationally renowned midfielder in Abily plus three rookies who would all thrive right out of the gate. They also signed Candace Chapman from the Breakers and parted with Leslie Obsorne and Formiga. Leigh Ann Robinson, then an unheralded defender, went to Atlanta in the expansion draft.
When the dust settled only eight players from the 2009 team returned in 2010. But the biggest dust storm had not yet formed.
Thirteen days after the draft the Sol folded. It was an event from which WPS never fully recovered. But in the moment, the remaining clubs scrambled to formulate strategies for a dispersal draft to find new homes for the Sol players. Much, if not all, of the chatter surrounded Marta. There was little doubt that Marta was the most coveted player on the planet. But she came with a pricetag upwards of $500,000. FC Gold Pride owned the third pick and decided they would not select Marta.
“We just spent an entire offseason cutting expenses because we were bleeding money so badly,” Kessler said. “The pro forma that our ownership group was given by WPS was nowhere near what we were making revenue-wise and expenses were higher than they were anticipated on that pro forma. We had to make a lot of off-field decisions around cutting cost.
“Albertin and I were building the team without Marta.”
Saint Louis Athletica traded for the top pick in that dispersal draft but both them and the Independence, picking second, were adamant they were not in a position to take on Marta’s contract. There was a growing thought, concern perhaps, that no team was in position to take on Marta. For starters, it would be a bad look to lose Marta. Furthermore, before the Sol were officially terminated the club had been turned over to the league. So WPS was on the hook for what remained on Marta’s contract. Several clubs negotiated to try and have the league offset some or all of her salary but as Kessler said, “The league was not really in a place either to be able to pay her salary.”
FC Gold Pride had already passed up an opportunity to draft Marta. The club held the first pick in the International Draft ahead of the inaugural season and took Brazilian midfielder Formiga. Marta went third to the Sol. On the day of the dispersal draft the NeSmiths did an about face and decided not to bypass Marta a second time.
“We were a bit shocked,” Kessler said.
Expenses aside, there was another potential roadblock to Marta joining FC Gold Pride. Wilson’s 2009 season ended on May 24—the same game that Whitworth impressed—when she was hip-checked off the ball by Marta and suffered a broken hip.
“There was a little bit of, ‘Ohh this is going to be a little awkward’ at first,” Kessler admitted. “But Kandace was great about it. And Marta was too.”
“I don’t think it was ever an issue,” Van Hollebeke said, though she admitted the team was upset in the moment after Wilson’s injury. “They are both really good people. They were fine.”
The club had made improvements on all three lines and with Marta in tow clearly had the best roster in WPS. All they had to do was go and show it across a six-month season.
“As you saw the roster being built for the second year,” Sinclair said, “you realize that we had a really good chance.”
In 2010, FC Gold Pride lost their first match, 2-0 to Saint Louis Athletica. “We got destroyed,” as Sinclair remembers it. It would not be the norm. The club won its next five before losing again, to the Red Stars. Then a draw and two more wins before a third loss, 2-0 to Sky Blue. That was June 27. They would never lose again.
“It’s hard to remember if there was an exact point,” Van Hollebeke said of the team’s transformation. “We were definitely confident in our abilities from the beginning of the season. But throughout the season we grooved more and more and our chemistry just continued to grow better.”
Edwards, a rookie, admitted not following the team or league much during her senior year of college. But she saw no signs of a team that had finished last in 2009.
“I don’t remember having much discussion about that (2009) team,” Edwards said. “I would like to think that Albertin kept his style of play the same. I just think he’s a coach like that and he wants to play attractive soccer.”
Van Hollebeke said the team mostly used the same formula in 2010 as in 2009 but that the defensive unit was far more organized the second year. “The first year we made a lot of little, small errors that maybe cost us that goal. The second year we were more on the same page and just didn’t quite make those little errors as much. And attacking wise we were just on.”
“We were dangerous, offensively,” Sinclair said, massively understating the point.
“I remember offensively and defensively it being a complete team effort. Our outside backs, Kandace and Ali, had so many assists. I think that was one of the things that was unique about that team where everyone was really for the cause.”
“I even remember getting some assists myself like hitting long balls over the top,” Von Hollebeke, then still a center back, said. “I think we played a very diverse style of soccer where we created from a lot of different areas. That’s what made us so dangerous. It was hard to figure out how we were going to make that attack.”
On gelling with Marta, Sinclair said they developed a near instant chemistry, something that comes, she says, when players are looking to combine rather than take matters onto their own feet.
“We just get each other on the field,” she said. “It’s nice to play with someone like that. She’s still maybe the only player in the women’s game that can single-handedly go score a goal—if she really wants to. But she’s just a complete player. She wants to get her teammates involved and see them succeed as well.”
The new pairing, plus the additions of Abily and O’Hara, suited Van Hollebeke and the defense just fine. “Huge. Having that, a) the more you keep the ball, the more you’re attacking, the less you have to defend. Then when you do have to defend you’re fresher, you’re ready — it’s not like you’re constantly being bombarded. And then b) if we did give up a goal or something we never lost faith because we knew that we would score one.”
But even with all of the big names that joined Gold Pride, the gel in the midfield was Edwards. Though she did not see the field right away, Edwards became the prototypical holding midfielder, expertly linking the backs to the attacking mids and forwards with nary a sign of being less than a year out of the college game.
“I was a bit intimidated by the talent,” Edwards said. “I knew that I had to work hard every day to even make the team and then get into the starting lineup.”
“She was a huge engine in the middle for us,” Van Hollebeke recalled. “She was such a good ball-winner as a defender. She was so solid, so consistent, both attacking and defensively. Like a perfect holding mid.”
Kessler agreed with the assessment that Edwards was the most underrated player on that team. Sinclair added, “She’s one of those players who gets very little recognition for the work that she does. She just does everything well. She doesn’t lose the ball. She plays the simple, right passes.”
On the other end, Edwards sent praise back to the veteran players for making her feel comfortable in a situation that started off a bit intimidating. Even the team’s other two marquee rookies, O’Hara and Riley, had been college teammates, leaving Edwards to navigate her own way through her rookie season.
“Rachel Buehler is an incredible person and we’re still friends to this day,” she said. “The same with Christine Sinclair. I remember Tiffeny Milbrett making me feel a lot more comfortable.” (This despite Edward exposing Milbrett’s age by showing her a picture they took together when Edwards was a kid and Milbrett on the national team.)
Edwards said that she has not been on a professional team since where the camaraderie quite measured up to what she found that rookie season the Bay Area. That appears to be a theme throughout the team.
“We just had so much fun,” Van Hollebeke said.
The fun never stopped. Following a rare offensive swoon that saw them play three consecutive scoreless draws, Gold Pride beat the Red Stars, 3-2 on August 22 to clinch the regular-season title and the right to host the final. They still had four matches to go plus a two-week break ahead of the final. But the well-oiled machine was chugging along merrily towards a championship that at times seemed more matter-of-fact than genuine struggle.
Sinclair scored two goals in the final, a match enhanced by the energy brought by a large, boisterous group of 1906 Ultras, the supporters group for the MLS San Jose Earthquakes.
“It was everything that I wanted from an environment perspective,” Kessler said. “You had a winning team on the field and amazing cheering going on in the stands—they even did a general manager chant. That was so cool.”
The other two goals were scored by, who else—Marta and Kandace Wilson.
After the trophy presentation, Nancy NeSmith was asked the all-too-common question: Will you be back next season? “Look around,” she said, motioning to a group of fans still cheering in the stands. “How can we possibly walk away from this?”
About a month and a half after the final, Kessler arrived at work for a budget meeting with Brian NeSmith. The cheers from the final match had long since faded and financial realities had set in. Marta brought the club instant credibility on the field but her presence was not enough to reach attendance and sponsorship goals off of it. Already, FC Gold Pride were slashing costs. Kessler was ordered to build the 2011 team without any guaranteed money or multi-year contracts. It seemed, however, like the club was preparing to carry on.
And then Kessler got to NeSmith’s office and he told her the club was shutting down. “I said, ‘Wow this is not the conversation I was expecting to have with you this morning,’” she said. “I was pretty devastated.”
Edwards was visiting the host family she lived with that summer (and remains in touch with today) and had to break the news to them that the team was no more. Van Hollebeke and Sinclair were at World Cup qualifying in Cancun.
“There were issues with contracts going on,” Sinclair said. “The plan was to qualify for the World Cup and be in the World Cup the next summer. There were some issues with contracts knowing that we were going to be gone. You sort of got the idea that I don’t think this team is going to be around.”
“It was just super sad,” Van Hollebeke said. “The thing with that league though was you didn’t know who was going to fold at any moment. So we were really sad and shocked but at the same time we weren’t shocked. It was the nature of that league.”
Asked if she thought there were signs the club was making inroads in the community, Kessler paused. “I wish there was, but I generally don’t feel like there was. We talk the Marta affect and she was amazing. She added a tremendous amount to our team on the field. But off the field it didn’t really tick that much. Merchandise sales, ticket sales, media attention…I don’t know…the Bay Area is a very difficult space.”
Kessler credited the players for their dedication both on and off the field—she called on them to do nearly 300 appearances over the club’s two seasons in the Bay Area. And she wondered if things might have been different had the team chosen a name (already in place when she was hired) that offered potential fans a geographical connection. Kessler went on to praise the NeSmiths for the manner in which they shut down the club. “Everybody,” she said, referencing the staff and vendors, “was paid in full. That was really commendable.
“When Brian and Nancy made the decision to pull out it was just as quick and just as serious as when they came into the league. Once that decision is made, it’s done.”
The announcement came on November 16, 2010. Just like that, one of the best clubs ever seen in women’s soccer was gone.