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2010-2011 Philadelphia Independence

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Philadelphia IndependenceWomen’s Professional Soccer (2010-2011)

Born: 2009 – WPS expansion franchise.
Folded: January 30, 2012

Stadiums:

Team Colors: Yellow, Steel Grey, Light Blue

Owner: David Halstead

WPS Championships: None

 

The Philadelphia Independence soccer team enjoyed a brief two-season run in Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011), a league that briefly could claim status as the top women’s soccer league in the world before financial problems sunk the league after three seasons of play.

The Independence entered WPS as an expansion club during the league’s second season in 2010.  This would be Philly’s second go round with women’s soccer, following the Philadelphia Charge (2001-2003) of the defunct Women’s United Soccer Association.

The Independence and WPS’ other 2010 expansion club, the Atlanta Beat,  faced a challenging competitive landscape where the entire U.S National Team and dozens of the top international players were already to committed to multi-year contracts with existing WPS clubs.  An expansion draft permitted the Beat and the Independence to pick through other team’s leftovers, but there was only one impact player available: U.S. National Team midfielder Lori Lindsey, inexplicably left unprotected by the Washington Freedom.  Philly was fortunate to snap Lindsey up with the #1 selection.  (Click here to view the 2010 WPS Expansion Draft rules for league executives).  Atlanta never overcame the expansion disadvantage and fielded a distant last place club.  Philadelphia GM Terry Foley and Head Coach Paul Rileyin contrast, wheeled and dealed extensively, finding terrific value in overlooked and under-utilized players and shrewd international signings throughout the winter of 2009 into 2010.

Amy Rodriguez WPS MarksFrom the Boston Breakers, Foley acquired two U.S. National Team stalwarts in Heather Mitts and Amy Rodriguez.  Mitts was a former member of the WUSA’s Philadelphia Charge and a well-known figure in Philadelphia, owing to her skill, beauty and gossip page relationship with Pat Burrell of the Phillies and, later, her engagement to quarterback A.J. Feeley of the Eagles.  For all her marketing potential, Mitts seemed a poor fit with Head Coach Paul Riley and saw her playing time diminish late in the 2010 season.

The opposite was true for Rodriguez, the league’s #1 overall pick in the 2009 WPS Draft out of the University of Southern California who floundered in Boston under former National Team Coach Tony DiCicco.  A-Rod scored only one goal in Boston and started fewer than half the team’s matches.  But her club career would flourish under Riley in Philadelphia.  In 2010, the speedy forward finished third in WPS in goals with 12 and was named a finalist for the league’s Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year Award.

The Independence also scored internationally with Swedish playmaker Caroline Seger, Canadian National Team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, English forward Lianne Sandersonand bruising Icelandic defender Holmfridur Magnusdottir.  The Independence cultivated an intensely physical style of play under Paul Riley and the team was notably strong on defense.

Karina LeBlanc Philadelphia IndependenceThe Independence debuted in Philadelphia on April 11, 2010 playing fellow expansionists the Atlanta Beat to a 0-0 draw at Farrell Stadium on the campus of West Chester University.  The crowd of 6,028 was a highlight, but subsequent games drew small gatherings even by WPS standards.  The Independence finished with the worst attendance in the seven-team league with 2,938 per game in 2010.

On the field, though, the Independence excelled, finishing 3rd in the regular season table with a 10-10-4 record.  The Independence saved their best play for the postseason.  In the first round, Amy Rodriguez’s overtime goal in the 120th minute lifted Philly past the Washington Freedom before 2,378 in West Chester, PA.  Then it was off to Boston for the WPS Super Semi-Final, where the Independence fought back from an early 1-0 deficit to triumph 2-1 in overtime.  The game winner came on a header from Danesha Adams, a controversial goal that many Boston fans maintain to this day was a handball (see video below).

The semi-final victory over the Breakers vaulted the Independence into the WPS Cup final against FC Gold Pride, one of the most dominant women’s club sides ever assembled.  The final, played on Gold Pride’s home ground in Hayward, California would be Philadelphia’s third win-or-go-home playoff match in eight days, whereas Gold Pride enjoyed a two-week layoff to prepare for the match.  The Independence’s fatigue after two overtime matches in a week showed, and Gold Pride made quick work of the Philadelphians 4-0 in the Final.

Philadelphia IndependenceFor the Independence second season, the club moved to Leslie Quick Stadium at Widener University in Chester.  The club re-tooled on the field as well.  Gone were Heather Mitts and Karina LeBlanc.  New arrivals included emerging U.S. National Team midfield star Megan Rapinoe, former USWNT super sub Natasha Kai and Spanish striker Veronica Boquete.

Early season attendance plummeted throughout the league in 2011, due in part to an austerity program championed by Independence owner David Halstead, among others, which eviscerated the league’s national office and saw local administration and marketing cut to a shoe string.  Philadelphia’s own financial challenges were revealed when Halstead sold Megan Rapinoe to Dan Borislow’s controversial MagicJack club for a record-setting transfer fee of $100,000 in June 2011.  By this point, Borislow and Western New York Flash owner Joe Sahlen were the only WPS owners spending more than the bare minimums required to finish out the season.

The owners got a reprieve of sorts when the U.S. National Team went on an inspiring run through to the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final, drawing huge TV ratings along the way.  With most of the USWNT stars still playing in WPS, large crowds turned out in league cities to see Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach upon their return from the World Cup.

The Independence were even better in 2011.  The club’s 11-4-3 record was second only to the expansion Western New York Flash (13-2-3), who were basically the previous year’s champions, FC Gold Pride, re-constituted on the East Coast.  Paul Riley won WPS Coach-of-the-Year honors for the second year in a row and newcomer Veronica Boquete won WPS’ Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year award, despite appearing in only 11 matches.

The Independence hosted MagicJack in the WPS Super Semi-Final on August 20, 2011.  The game was played at the beautiful new 18,500-seat PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer.  It was the first home match the Independence ever played on a proper soccer pitch.  (Both Farrell Stadium and Quick Stadium were turf fields with stitched-in American football markings).  Ironically this coming out party at Philadelphia’s best soccer facility would also be the final home game the club ever played.  A modest crowd of 5,410 turned out for the match, despite the presence of Abby Wambach and other newly famous U.S. World Cup stars on the MagicJack team.  The Independence disposed of MagicJack 2-0 on goals by Natasha Kai and Amy Rodriguez to advance to their second WPS Cup Final in as many seasons.

2011 WPS CupOne of the largest crowds in WPS history – 10,361 fans – turned out at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York for the Final on August 27, 2011.  Unlike the year before, the Independence were rested and ready to bring their best game against the Western New York Flash.  The Flash had many of the top players from FC Gold Pride, the club that beat Philly to win the Cup a year earlier and then quickly went out of business.  In the 64th minute, Christine Sinclair put the Flash up 1-0 on a cross from Candace Chapman.  Both players were FC Gold Pride refugees.  Three minutes away from a loss in the 87th minute, Amy Rodriguez blasted home the equalizer to send the game into overtime knotted at 1-1.  Neither team scored during the 30-minute extra session.  The championship would be decided on penalty kicks.

One interesting note on the PK’s.  Riley left the notoriously inconsistent Rodriguez off his list of five shooters, despite the fact that she was the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.  Riley’s line-up was Lianne Sanderson, Danesha Adams, Leigh Ann Robinson, Boquete and Spanish international Laura Del Rio.  The first four shooters scored for Philly.  The first five scored for Western New York.  Del Rio had the chance to send the PK’s into a second round, but Flash goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris made tremendous save to end Philly’s season and deliver the WPS Cup to Western New York.

This proved to be the final game WPS ever played.  After a tumultuous offseason of legal battles with MagicJack owner Dan Borislow and an embarrassing public audit by U.S. Soccer to determine whether WPS still met the minimum standards to be sanctioned as a 1st division league, WPS folded up shop on January 30, 2012.  Several franchises dropped into a lower-level semi-pro league – the WPSL Elite – to continue playing, but Halstead opted to shut down his Philadelphia club.

 

==Philadelphia Independence Programs on Fun While It Lasted==

Season Date Opponent Score Program Other

2010

2010 4/11/2010 vs. Atlanta Beat T 0-0 Program Video
2010 4/18/2010 @ Boston Breakers T 1-1 Program
2010 5/8/2010 @ St. Louis Athletica L 2-1 Program
2010 5/15/2010 @ Chicago Red Stars W 1-0 Program Video
2010 5/30/2010 @ Washington Freedom L 2-1 Program Video
2010 7/17/2010 @ FC Gold Pride L 2-0 Program
2010 7/24/2010 vs. Sky Blue FC W 4-1 Program Game Notes
2010 8/4/2010 @ Washington Freedom L 2-0 Program
2010 9/23/2010 @ Boston Breakers W 2-1 (OT) Program Video

2011

2011 8/27/2011 WPS Cup @ Western New York Flash L 1-1 (5-4 PK) Program Video

 

Philadelphia Independence Video

The Independence take on the Boston Breakers in a thrilling WPS Super-Semi Final at Boston, September 2010

 

Links

August 2011 @TheGoalkeeper Q&A with Independence owner David Halstead

Women’s Professional Soccer Media Guides

Women’s Professional Soccer Programs

###

May 8, 2010 – St. Louis Athletica vs. Philadelphia Independence

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St. Louis Athletica vs. Philadelphia Independence
May 8, 2010
Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park

Women’s Professional Soccer Programs
8 pages

I wrote a retrospective on Heather Mitts and the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer last week.  The comments section quickly shifted over to a discussion of Mitts’ USWNT teammate Hope Solo, so I figured I’d give a headlining spot this week to Solo and her former WPS club, St. Louis Athletica.

First of all, thanks to Maire Ryan, former member of the club’s Laclede’s Army supporters group, for contributing this rare scorecard from the final days of the Athletica franchise.  Unfortunately, this May 8th, 2010 2-1 victory against the Philadelphia Independence at Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri turned out to be the penultimate match in Athletica’s short, chaotic history.

The team played one more match at home on May 16th, before presumed club owner Jeff Cooper informed WPS officials that he could no longer make payroll and operate his team.  The news was startling and the reason was an even bigger stunner:  Cooper claimed he no longer owned the team.  It seems the St. Louis mesothelioma litigator quietly sold controlling interest in Athletica to Sanjay and Keemal Vaid, a pair of British commodities traders and Subway sandwich shop owners, in December 2009.  Cooper never informed the league of the change in ownership and continued to serve as his team’s front man and spokesman as he had since founding the club in 2007.  The story gets much stranger and is still shrouded in mystery two years later, but it would serve little purpose to delve further here, when you can just read the terrific forensic autopsy of Athletica, Cooper and the Vaid Brothers conducted by the blogger Fake Sigi back in 2010.

Athletica shut down on May 27th and all of its players were rendered free agents.  Most of the top players signed with WPS’ remaining seven franchises.  Lindsay Tarpley headed to Boston and her U.S. Women’s National Team teammate Shannon Boxx went to FC Gold Pride, where she helped that Bay Area-based club win the 2010 WPS Cup.  Most of Athletica’s other stars signed with the last place Atlanta Beat, including Solo, St. Louis native Lori Chalupny, English National Team striker Eniola Aluko and stalwart defender Tina Ellertson.  WPS fans jokingly referred to the upgraded Beat side as “Atlantica” for the rest of the 2010 season.  For many of Athletica’s rookies and role players, there was nothing to laugh about.  Unable to generate interest and hook on with other clubs, their professional soccer careers simply came to abrupt end.

Athletica was the second WPS franchise to go down, after the Los Angeles Sol folded during the league’s first offseason in January of 2010.  But the midseason collapse of a member club was far more damaging for the fledgling league’s credibility and confidence.  I asked Chicago Red Stars managing partner Arnim Whisler to reflect on the impact on his club, which was aggressively courting new investors at the time Athletica folded:

“You know, I think the departure of the Los Angeles Sol was survivable because we all knew AEG (Sol owner Anschutz Entertainment Group) was in it for one year only.   We sincerely thought we had other investors that would quickly step into that franchise and market, though we needed a bit more time,” recalled Whisler.

“When St. Louis went down mid-season — with absolutely NO warning – it shook the foundations of what we had all built.  It was technically survivable because we had independently owned franchises but it completely changed the willingness of investors to finalize investments that were long discussed — and not just in Chicago.  It rippled through the league and shut down some discussions that other franchises were having with investors and gave pause to some of the expansion candidates and potential sponsors to wait one more year to see how it all shook out.”

“It just really put a lot of stress on the rest of league too,” says Whisler.  “After the Sol folded, and then Athletica, we had to all step up on a pro-rata basis to fill the funding gaps of lost contributors — from 1/9th, to 1/8th to 1/7th.  And then within a matter of months more clubs followed and it was 1/6th, 1/5th etc.

“Ultimately we all have to admit that the model wasn’t sustainable as constructed in the beginning — what many don’t know is how aggressively we were moving to a new cost structure and each year taking further steps to stabilize — but with no new investors and a continued loss of teams it became increasingly difficult.  There were many issues — some governance, some financial, some legal that added pressure but keeping that franchise intact would have reduced the strain on all.”

After Athletica’s collapse, Whisler’s Red Stars never did secure the additional investors needed to stay in WPS.  They withdrew from the league seven months later in December 2010.  But rather than fold as other WPS franchises did, the Red Stars dropped down to the semi-pro Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) where they continue to play in 2012 alongside two more recent WPS refugees, the Boston Breakers and the Western New York Flash.  Those two clubs entered the WPSL after WPS folded on January 30, 2012.

“I want to emphasize though that there is still a deep and resilient reserve of owners and supporters for Elite womens soccer in the US,” said Whisler.  “Chicago Red Stars retooled and are happy in the WPSL.  Boston and Western New York and numerous others are part of this discussion and will show that once we redesign a bit, the commitment remains to get this sport set up in a sustainable way.”

 

Written by AC

May 10th, 2012 at 12:58 pm

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