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Jerry Zanelli
Jerry Zanelli | United States Adult Soccer Association, USASA, Jerry Zanelli, WPSL, USL

Jerry Zanelli

Women's Soccer News: Champions of the Women’s Game

Great Women's Soccer Spotlight on Jerry Zanelli - Warrior for the Women

SN Salutes Women's Soccer and those exceptional leaders, coaches and players who have made a difference in honor of the FIFA 2011 Women's World Cup, most important international women's soccer competition. Held every four years since 1991, this soccer competition will be held in Germany starting on June 26th. This is the first part of the series on Great Women's Soccer. 

Some people’s lives can be summed up in a single moment. One moment in time when something was experienced that changed the course of their life, where a purpose became clear and a path was defined. Jerry Zanelli is one such person.

A resident of Sacramento, California, Zanelli moved to the Bay Area in 1980. At the time, he had decided to get out of coaching until he went to the high school down the street to watch a game. During a conversation at the game he was told that there weren’t any girls born in 1971 that were good enough to play soccer. Hearing that comment stirred something inside of Jerry. In that moment, Jerry Zanelli became more than just a coach and father of three, he became a crusader of women’s soccer. Soon after he started coaching the River City Rowdies who went on to win the CYSA U19 Championship.

SoccerNation: Jerry ZanelliCurrently, Zanelli is the owner and operator of the California Storm, one of the longest-running women’s soccer teams in the Country. A team he started in 1989 that served as training ground for soccer stars such as Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. Zanelli is also the Founder of the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL), which began as a California-based league then grew to become an independent National League with over 60 teams.

SN Salutes Women's Soccer

SoccerNation on Women's Soccer
Mia Hamm, Steffi Jones took the stage at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 promotional tour at the Westin Grand in Washington, DC on March 28, 2011

A champion of the women’s game for over 30 years now, Zanelli answered a few questions for SoccerNation about the origin of the WPSL, how it fits into the pyramid of women’s soccer and what the future holds for the league and for Women’s Professional Soccer.

SN: How did you get involved with soccer? 

Jerry Zanelli: “I had just gotten out of the Air Force and I was watching a game at the back of Griffith Park in L.A. It looked like fun so I started to play here and there. I later read a book on how to play soccer and became the coach of a local team. Years later my daughter started playing.”

SN: How did the WPSL come to be and what was your role? 

Jerry Zanelli: “ I was a founding member of the  W-league which is administered by the United Soccer League (USL), which also oversees the men's USL Pro and USL Premier Development League. My team was the first national champion of the new league, but I was frustrated with the ladies being an afterthought and having the USL spend 99% of the time on men’s soccer. I traveled to Northern California and spoke with management of the team there who were pushing for a new league. We all met in an Italian restaurant in Pleasanton, California and formed the WPSL. We decided to be a stand-alone Women’s league. I was commissioned at the first meeting.

SN: How does the WPSL fit into the United States soccer pyramid?

Jerry Zanelli:“The only league above the WPSL is the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). Currently two of our teams serve as farm clubs for the WPS. Most of our teams have direct affiliations with youth clubs. Some of the teams have affiliations with more than one youth club. We are sanctioned by the Unites States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) as an affiliate of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).

SN: What is the difference between the WPSL and the W-League?

Jerry Zanelli:“The WPSL is a stand-alone women’s league and the USL W-League is affiliated with the men’s league. I have found just about every soccer association from youth to adult always has a stronger emphasis on the men’s side. Since we started the WPSL we have found that a primary motivation for teams to play for us is the fact that we are women-only, and the cost to join our league is very reasonable. Our emphasis is on preserving our teams. Our growth has been unprecedented. We started with six teams on the West Coast in 1998, and now we have over 60 teams across the Nation. We are surprised that we have been able to continue to grow during the recession.

SN: I understand that when the first professional women's league (WUSA) was formed in 2000, most of the players came from the WPSL. Is this true? Who were the notable players?

Jerry Zanelli: “That’s a tough question. All I remember is that from the California Storm, 17 players entered from the team and played in the WUSA. I know many other teams had players go, we held tryouts and many of the players at tryouts were picked up as well. I think WUSA was formed with a combination of WPSL, W-League, and college seniors or recent graduates as well as most of the national team players.”

SN: Does the WPSL currently work together with the new pro league (WPS)?

Jerry Zanelli: “Yes. We have brought two professional teams into the WPSL with the purpose of helping them become members of the WPS. The Bay Area Breeze and the Orange County Wave will compete in the North & South Divisions of our Pacific Conference. ”

SN: Isn't the WPSL technically and amateur league? How does this work?

Jerry Zanelli: “We have found out that we can be a pro and amateur league within the guidelines set down by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA). We have also checked with US Soccer and found out that the pro teams can register with them and play within the WPSL. Two of our teams have had professional players playing on their team without any college players that have NCAA eligibility left. We set this precedent two years ago by changing our by-laws and allowing Ajax and the Boston Aztec’s to be farm teams for the Pro’s. We are excited to have the pro teams in the league because it forces all of us to bring our games to a higher level.

SN: Now that the West Coast teams along with the St. Louis Athletica have folded, are you concerned that the league will not survive?

Jerry Zanelli: “I think the WPS has a very tough road ahead. The recession has really hit the pros hard. I think the leadership of the WPS is working hard to cut costs and survive. We’re doing everything in our power to help the WPS and want it to survive.”

SN: What do you envision for the future of the WPSL? 

Jerry Zanelli: “That is an interesting question. Never did I believe when we first started we would be where we are today, with over 60 teams and among them two pro teams. A few years ago someone wanted to know what our end game was. At the time we had 20 teams in the league. And my answer was, there is no end game. We have really become a national league and our growth is probably endless. If you keep an organization growing you will continue to cultivate new ideas and new areas that will ultimately help the league. We still have work to do establishing ourselves in the Southeast. We’d like to have teams in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, the Carolinas and West Virginia.

SN: Why do you think it's so hard for female athletes to get the attention they deserve? 

Jerry Zanelli: “Well we can go back to Adam and Eve. Nobody ever talks about Lilith who was the first independent woman. And because history is written by men, the women have only very recently in history been considered equals. I have fought through youth soccer and adult soccer to show that women can be successful athletes if they are given a chance to play."

"I take great pride in our league, that the majority of the players are college graduates or are currently in college. We are guaranteed the best and the brightest female athletes. Again, I go back to the fact that we are a stand-alone women’s league and do not have to deal with any male dominated soccer organizations.”

SN: What can we do better as a country to gain additional support for our female athletes?

Jerry Zanelli: “Find ways to have independent women organizations and find sponsors that are willing to support these organizations. That’s independence plus money.”

About the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL): The WPSL is a 60-plus team national league for the Summer 2011 season competing in five conferences and is the largest women's soccer league in the world. The league is sanctioned by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) as an affiliate of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The WPSL's mission is to provide the highest level of soccer in our effort to: bring affordable & quality family entertainment to the community; display positive role models for our youth; while, being a stepping stone for aspiring professional & international-level players.

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