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Los Angeles Sol of WPS folds after first season

NEW YORK (AP) — The Los Angeles Sol of Women's Professional Soccer folded Thursday after one season, despite the star power of world player of the year Marta and a successful campaign that ended in the championship game.

The franchise had been under league custody since November, when Anschutz Entertainment Group gave back its ownership stake. The league had been negotiating with prospective owners, but a deal fell through and commissioner Tonya Antonucci decided to shutter the club.

"We've been in several weeks of negotiations with an ownership group and unfortunately it fell through at the last minute," Antonucci told The Associated Press. "In terms of the viability of Los Angeles as a WPS market, we don't think that's in question. Suspending operations doesn't mean we won't be trying to find new ownership for 2011."

The Sol drew a crowd of 14,832 to their opener last season, and ended up averaging more than 6,200 fans for home games at Home Depot Center. They finished the regular season 12-3-5, the best record in the league, before losing 1-0 to Sky Blue FC in the championship game.

Players will be dispersed during a draft Thursday, with expansion franchises Atlanta and Philadelphia holding the first two selections. Both teams will begin play in April, giving the league eight teams and a balanced schedule.

"I think the eight committed markets and eight committed owners, they're only stronger as a result of losing L.A.," Antonucci said. "Those owners feel very good about the foundation they built in 2009. They're all committed to it, they're committed to the long-term."

The biggest plum of the dispersal draft is Marta, who was picked by FIFA as the world's best player for the fourth straight year. The 23-year-old forward led the WPS in goals with 10, and is expected to anchor Brazil at next year's World Cup in Germany.

Also expected to go quickly in the dispersal draft is Shannon Boxx, who like Marta signed a multiyear, guaranteed contract. Fellow midfielder Aya Miyama from Japan tied for the league lead in assists, and Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc had a league-leading 12 shutouts and 0.53 goals-against average for the Sol.

Antonucci said folding the Los Angeles franchise should not be considered a blemish on the league, which enjoyed a successful first season despite launching during a worldwide recession.

The league tried to learn from the failed Women's United Soccer Association, which lost $100 million in three years, and followed a modest business model that included paying players an average of about $32,000 per season. Teams also played in smaller, more intimate stadiums that created an atmosphere that translated well to television.

"We were obviously mindful of the economic condition," Antonnuci said. "For fans, we were an affordable sports experience, we tried to make it very fan and family friendly, with the basic notion of world-class play at low prices.

"We took a little bit of a bigger hit because we were brand new, and we survived it."

Antonucci said the league is further along in ticket sales and sponsorships than last year at this time, and just conducted an amateur draft that featured what many observers have called the best crop of college players in years. The league's all-star game is also shifting from the end of the year to midseason to fall in line with most other sports leagues.

The schedule for 2010 will expand because of the two new franchises, with each team playing two additional home and away matches. Several facilities are also being upgraded, and the first venue built specifically for a WPS team is scheduled to open May 9 when Atlanta hosts Sky Blue.

"You have a young league, surviving through a tough economy, with a unique best-of-breed soccer product for women," Antonnuci said. "We're seeing growth with these two new franchises, and that only increases our footprint."