Forever Advocate For Women’s Soccer Dies
Jerry Zanelli, a pioneer in women’s soccer and founder of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, died in his Sacramento home on Wednesday night. He was 80.
Zanelli worked 47 years in women’s soccer as a coach, owner and league commissioner. He founded the WPSL in 1998, and within 20 years the league grew into the largest women’s soccer league in the world.
The 2018 WPSL season had 106 clubs competing for the Jerry Zanelli Cup, the championship trophy named in his honor before the start of the league’s 21st season.
“Jerry has been the leader of women’s soccer in the United States,” said John Motta, President, United States Adult Soccer Association. “He worked tirelessly to see that the women in this country had a viable competitive league to continue to play the sport they love.
“His vision and his understanding of what it took to keep a women’s competitive league going was beyond anyone’s comprehension. There are many females in this country that owe Jerry many thanks for what he has done.”
In his final media interview in early November, Zanelli was asked what he wants to be remembered by the most.
“That I fought for women’s rights in soccer — by desire and necessity,” Zanelli said to SoccerToday.
Zanelli founded and coached the California Storm, and the Sacramento club became a dominant force within the league. The Storm won three league championships (1999, 2002, 2004) and three additional runner-up finishes.
The list of players Zanelli coached at the Storms is extraordinary – notably FIFA Women’s World Cup stars Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Alex Morgan and Sissi.
“I want to say thank you to Jerry for all he has done to make women’s soccer a viable options for girls and young women who are determined to continue their careers once done with college,” Chastain said.
“Jerry has been a beacon of light in a dark place for so long, not for personal gain, but to give the opportunity and share the great game.”
“I couldn’t be any more grateful, and U.S. Soccer and fans around the world should praise his name as he helped give many national team players a field and team to play on when options were extremely limited,” added Chastain.
Inducted into the United States Adult Soccer Association Hall of Fame in 2009, Zanelli also founded the Men’s Premier Soccer League in 2003, which is the present-day National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
The NPSL had 98 clubs competing across the United States during its 2018 season.
Outside of soccer, Zanelli worked most of his career in politics.
He began in the 1960s as an anti-war and civil rights activist, and he ran assembly campaigns. He became an executive for the California State Senate from 1980-83 and later worked as a lobbyist for government advocates.
“Jerry Zanelli has done more to advance the cause for women’s soccer than most,” WPSL commissioner Rich Sparling said. “Besides having a hand in the establishment of the W-League and the NPSL, his drive and no-nonsense approach have resulted in the WPSL being the largest women’s soccer league in the world. It was a privilege to work with him as his associate commissioner and even more to call him my friend.”
SEAN JONES, WPSL President/Oklahoma City FC Owner:
“I am very saddened to hear of Jerry’s passing. I feel blessed to have known Jerry and to have had the opportunity to learn so much from the man whose vision and persistence has impacted women’s soccer so much.
“Jerry was truly a visionary and is owed a lot of thanks by all involved in women’s soccer. We can only hope to honor Jerry by continuing and being great stewards of the league he created to give young women the platform and opportunity to follow their dreams. Jerry’s wisdom, knowledge, and vision will truly be missed. “
DEBRAY AYALA, WPSL Vice President
“Jerry was an innovative giant for women’s soccer. He saw the need for an independent women’s league that catered to their needs, first and foremost. He battled every chance he got for equality in women’s soccer.
“He used to tell me you have to voice your opinion, even if it is not the popular one and it makes people uncomfortable. I experienced that firsthand when I traveled with him to multiple soccer conventions, and he was advocating for women’s soccer the moment we would arrive. He was a great man and will be missed by many. I sincerely thank him for having the faith in myself and my partners to build upon what he started 22 years ago.”
JOE FERRARA, New England Mutiny Owner/Former WPSL Associate Commissioner
“There is not another person that I have met who has had a greater impact on women’s soccer than Jerry Zanelli. I worked closely with Jerry for nearly a decade and never once doubted his motives or his passion for women’s soccer.
“On a personal level, he was my mentor on the game and on life. Everything that I have achieved in women’s soccer is due to that man. Jerry provided a platform for the female players throughout the entire country. He leaves behind a legacy that will endure well beyond his passing.”
MARGE PERRY, FC Surge owner, South Region Sunshine Conference Delegate
“Jerry IS the WPSL. There is no doubt there would be no league had he not fought for women’s soccer all those years ago. I also believe that there would be no NWSL had he not started the WPSL. The building of our league made women’s soccer relevant and was a starting point for all the previous incarnations of a women’s professional league in the US.
“When the WPS folded in 2012, he gave those entities still trying to keep women’s pro soccer a place to park and regroup, which allowed them to be ready for the current NWSL. In his 20 years with the league, he fought for every player, coach, and team. He worked tirelessly to encourage, promote, and elevate this league.
“I met Jerry officially in 2013 but had known about him since my daughter started playing in the league in 2008. He approached me early on to take on roles within the league, as he did with many female team leaders, encouraging us to help build our teams and thus the league. I (and my team) grew under his tutelage, and I was honored to take on more responsibilities. I hope I made him proud of my small part of the league’s success. We all worked hard, but no one more than Jerry. Thank you, Jerry. We all love you and miss your presence and leadership.”
LINDSAY EVERSMEYER, Fire & Ice SC Owner/Head Coach
“Jerry Zanelli has been a staple in the landscape of amateur women’s soccer. His passion is what has driven the WPSL to be what it is today. He is the main reason that I came into the league and why I’ve been with the league as long as I have. I am so thankful for him creating this amazing opportunity for women.
“During the past several years, Jerry became one of my dearest friends and one of my biggest supporters. He was my go-to for advice and was one of the first people I heard from when my team accomplished something. I’m truly going to miss him and our long talks.”
DAVID KEMP, Pensacola FC head coach
“Jerry created the largest women’s soccer league on the planet. It’s hard to imagine the landscape without the WPSL or Jerry himself. We will always be grateful for the opportunities and the development that he has provided for our program and players.”
Zanelli is survived by his son, John; and his daughter, Diana. He was preceded in death by his son, Aaron.
Source: WPSL Press Release