WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Professional soccer has left Wilmington - at least for now.
WECT Sports has learned the United Soccer League has opted to remove the Wilmington Hammerheads from its list of franchises. Senior Director of Franchise Development Matt Weibe confirmed the move on Tuesday.
"We have discontinued our relationship with Chuck Sullivan," Weibe said. "The USL is a franchised based league, where certain requirements must be met and in this case they were not met." When asked which requirements were not fulfilled, Mr. Weibe said WECT would have to contact Mr. Sullivan.
Monday Mr. Sullivan told WECT Sports "I have not been presented with any paperwork from the League." He would not confirm or deny that he was still the owner of the team adding, "I am currently in contact with the League via email. There are a number of issues that we are discussing."
Mr. Weibe was uncertain of the official date of the League's decision to remove the franchise from the League. The franchise could ultimately return to Wilmington under the same ownership. "In the past we have reinstated ownership to franchises." Weibe said.
Chuck Sullivan took over as owner of the franchise prior to the 2008 season but has struggled financially during the 2009 season.
In July reports had surfaced that members of the organization were not being paid on time. Of those reports Mr. Sullivan said, "The economy has had an effect on a lot of small businesses, and that includes the Hammerheads."
Players were paid in full by the end of the season.
Because players are signed on a year-to-year basis, in essence none of them lost their jobs because of the franchise removal. A handful of players live in Wilmington and would have likely been approached to return next season.
The coaching staff, however, is a different story. Coach David Irving is now out of work and is trying to piece together what has happened.
"I always thought the Hammerheads were a valuable part of the community," said Irving. "Hopefully we could maybe continue and keep professional soccer in Wilmington and find a group that's willing to keep professional soccer in Wilmington. Today's a sad day and it leaves a big hole in my stomach - that's for sure."
Wilmington's affiliation with the United Soccer League began in 1996 with the team's first owner Al Pastore, and the franchise has been one of the more successful in League history.
"It still hasn't registered with me yet," said Pastore. "I received the call this morning, and that's the first I heard of it. I'm very, very surprised and saddened. It was quite a happening to bring professional soccer here."
In 1995, Pastore was a man with a goal - he hand picked Wilmington for the new franchise. The Hammerheads and made it to the semi-finals their first year as an organization.
Pastore's battle with Parkinson's Disease caused him to hand the team over to a group of local owners, Dr. Dale Boyd, Bruce Cavenaugh, Bill Rudisill, and Dave Schroeder who led the franchise to the National Title in 2003. They would later pass the torch to Chuck Sullivan, who has now officially lost the team.
"I hope someone would be able to step forward and revive it," said Pastore.
This past season the team finished as the regular season champions with a 12-5-3 overall record. David Irving was named the Coach of the Year while Jamie Watson earned Player of the year honors.
Watson has since joined the Austin Aztex of the First Division where he has one goal in six appearances.
Former player Junior Zarate helped lead the team to the championship win in 2003, and said he can't understand how everything could fall apart after such a great 2009 season.
"I was hoping the Hammerheads would stay here forever, that way I can tell my kids hey there's the team that I played one day," said Zarate. "Hopefully it's not the end. Hopefully they come up with something."
Irving now becomes a hot commodity in the coaching ranks. His contract was set to expire in December, but he is now free to search for work. "Because there is no franchise in Wilmington anyone affiliated with it is not bound." said Weibe.
Irving is on vacation and said by phone, "I'll have to wait until I speak with the League to make any definitive comment on the situation, but it sounds like it's a sad day for Wilmington."
The removal of the franchise from the USL may not signal the end of soccer in Wilmington.
"Wilmington has been a fantastic market for us, and one that we would certainly like to remain in business with," Weibe said. "The team has a great history dating all the way back to its first owner in Al Pastore. Depending on what happens with possible new ownership the franchise could be back for 2010 or 2011 season. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
In an exclusive email sent to WECT Sports, Chuck Sullivan said, "We have an administrative point of contention with the USL, and I am in close daily contact with League management in an effort to sort all of the issues in short order. I am confident we can come to terms."
Sullivan added, "I never intended the business to encounter any obstacles and for that I apologize to the employees, players, fans and sponsors of the club. It is our focus to have all business and administrative issues sorted out in the upcoming weeks."
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