Bay FC races to compete in 2024 as next NWSL expansion team

Dec 13, 2023, 10:00 AM ETBay FC held an event called Day for the Bay on June 3, 2023, to unveil the NWSL expansion team’s name, crest and team colors at the Presidio in San Francisco. Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports

Brady Stewart was employee No. 1 of Bay FC, the National Women’s Soccer League expansion team set to begin play in 2024. Her arrival in June as the team’s inaugural CEO presented a gargantuan task: She had to shape the long-term vision of an organization that barely existed, while also handling the mundane work, like something the IT department might handle — if it existed yet.

“We’re thinking on a daily basis about everything from, ‘How are we going to deliver the most innovative and engaging consumer experience?’ — that is big-picture, strategic, hopefully groundbreaking work. We’re balancing that with, ‘What do we want our email address structure to look like?'” Stewart told ESPN.

Fast forward almost six months to the day on this coming Friday, when Bay FC will select up to four more players in the NWSL expansion draft, and things are beginning to feel more real. Stewart said Bay FC will end 2023 with approximately 45 employees.

The six months in between have been a sprint that included hiring the team’s first general manager, Lucy Rushton, and first head coach, Albertin Montoya, who then tried to build a roster from zero. All that is happening simultaneously with the development of the business side, which needs to sell tickets and engage with the community to make sure people care about the team.

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“You have to have every detail right, but you also have to have the vision right, and you have to be thinking about both simultaneously,” Stewart said.

Easier said than done. Angel City FC president Julie Uhrman knows plenty about that launch phase, having co-founded the Los Angeles-based team that began play in 2022.

“It’s definitely a startup mentality,” Uhrman told ESPN. “However, unlike startups, where you get to choose your launch date, in starting Angel City and certainly Bay FC, the date is already written. And so, there’s no way not to build the plane while you’re flying it. And in Bay FC’s situation, they had even less time.”

This is the in-progress story of how Bay FC built itself from an organization with no employees just over six months ago, to a team that will play its first competitive match in three months.

Developing a style to compete in the NWSL

When Lucy Rushton joined as general manager shortly after Stewart’s arrival, she knew from that experience how important it would be to have a clear style of play and find the right coach to fit that. She spent five years at Atlanta United in MLS as the head of technical recruitment and analysis, helping the team establish an identity and a winning culture from its first season in 2017. Atlanta won MLS Cup a year later.

One of her early decisions in Atlanta was to hire respected Argentine manager Tata Martino, who helped attract young, South American talent to Atlanta despite the team having no history.

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Speak to Rushton about the way Bay FC will play, and FC Barcelona is likely to be mentioned more than once. The goal of Bay FC, which will play its home games at San Jose’s PayPal Park, is to play an attractive, attack-minded brand of soccer that is instantly recognizable. Doing so will require a unique set of players — and a coach who can both attract them to the project and make the ideas come to life on the field.

But Rushton faced what she calls a “dilemma” — she arrived at Bay FC a month before the 2023 World Cup, meaning many of the best coaches in the world were preoccupied with the most important tournament of their lives. To have a shot at including them in the search process, and thus have the widest possible candidate pool, Bay FC would need to wait for that tournament to end on Aug. 20.

Spain and Portugal offered common threads of coaching backgrounds that attracted Rushton. She flew to Europe to meet some prospective candidates in person, and met with a small group she had put together to help with the search. Included in that group was former Kansas City Current coach Matt Potter, who this week was named as Bay FC’s full-time technical director, as well members of the scouting department who joined throughout the process.

A pair of international candidates made it to the final stage, which meant flying them to the Bay Area to meet with the club’s founding four — former U.S. internationals Aly Wagner, Danielle Slaton, Leslie Osborne and Brandi Chastain — plus Stewart, Rushton and Alan Waxman, CEO of Sixth Street, the team’s lead investor group. The coaching candidates toured the prospective training site and stadium.

One of those candidates was Portugal head coach Francisco Neto, ESPN has independently confirmed. Neto’s Portugal side came within a few inches of knocking out the United States in the group stage of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Rushton confirmed that a second finalist was also based in Europe.

From left to right, former U.S. women’s national team players Danielle Slaton, Aly Wagner and Leslie Osborne are three of the founding investors in Bay FC, a new NWSL expansion team based in the San Francisco Bay area. Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports

After those visits took place, Albertin Montoya, who had been advising Bay FC’s search committee, fielded a call from Rushton that he remembers well. It was a Monday morning and he was on a walk with his friend, so he put the call on speaker. Rushton thanked Montoya for his insight throughout the process as an adviser and told him that they were going to go in a different direction. Montoya said he knew Rushton would make the right choice because she had plenty of great candidates. Then Rushton told Montoya the direction she wanted to take was to hire him as Bay FC’s first coach. In shock, Montoya took the phone off speaker mode.

“I had moved beyond this, so I’m just kind of shocked right now,” he told Rushton.

Montoya started helping Bay FC as an adviser in late 2022, after wrapping up an interim coaching stint with the Washington Spirit. He expressed early on that he would be interested in coaching, but the topic had not come up again for months, he said. Happy to help, Montoya carried on with helping the team search for a head coach, sometimes meeting early-stage candidates for coffee and a chat. He helped the team develop early plans for what a youth academy could look like. The idea that he would be the head coach had left his mind.

“It was something that evolved naturally over time,” Rushton said. “His outstanding relationships and connections with Bay FC just became more of a fit as we went along. And when we went through the options that we had, and we had spoken to several different people at that real high-end level and had them here in person, it really did get to a stage where my decision was very clear and very simple. It was like the person has been staring us in the face this whole time.”

Rushton and her team had a list of three categories that they graded each candidate on: essentials, strongly preferred attributes and desired attributes. She prefers to use a more objective grading system in processes to help rule out biases — Montoya scored the highest among all candidates, Rushton said.

After speaking with his wife, Montoya accepted the role. He had about two weeks to divest himself from his other work, including his role as technical director at local youth club MVLA.

“Ever since it’s just been like, ‘OK, here we go, we’re moving forward,'” Montoya said.

Can Bay FC attract world-class players?

Montoya is still fielding Zoom calls from his home kitchen — background blurred, of course — as the team constructs offices at its interim training facility at San Jose State University. He has whiteboards lying around his house with various ideas about players he has scouted, and the team he is building.

To date, soccer operations meetings have been in the homes of Montoya and Rushton or at local coffee shops around Los Altos, a small city located west of San Jose and a few miles from Stanford.

Rushton says she is obsessed with data, so she tracks players more meticulously. “I live on Excel,” she told ESPN.

Both Montoya and Rushton said constructing an expansion team roster is a jigsaw puzzle. Each prospective signing would impact every other part of the field and the salary cap, creating what feels like an infinite number of hypotheticals. The key is signing that first player.

“It becomes really difficult to manage your own time and to manage your own planning and thinking,” Rushton says of the hypothetical scenarios at play without a single player on the roster.



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NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman speaks to Seb Salazar about extending the league’s number of participating teams to 16 by 2026.

Publicly and officially, Bay FC’s first player was midfielder/defender Alex Loera, who arrived via trade with the Kansas City Current. Several weeks before that, however, Bay FC had agreed to terms with free agent full-back Caprice Dydasco. The two parties could not officially sign their contract until the free agency signing window opened on Nov. 20 — a few days after the Loera trade was announced — but “for me, [Dydasco] will always be our first-ever signing,” Rushton said.

Montoya says he likes Dydasco’s comfort on the ball and the speed she brings to the full-back position. Dydasco’s style of play reminds Montoya of Angel City full-back Ali Riley, whom Montoya drafted out of Stanford in 2010 in the previous stateside women’s professional league. Riley was part of a star-studded FC Gold Pride team that won a championship that year. (The team promptly folded a few weeks later.)

“I’m always trying to build a model to that championship team that we had in 2010,” Montoya said. “The game’s changed a little bit and there are a lot of different players. It’s changed, but my idea of expressing ourselves, and the playing style, have not.”

Fourteen years ago, Montoya had to build a team in a few months. There was no Wyscout or detailed video analysis of players — he drafted some players on word-of-mouth recommendations, never having seen them play. Today, scouting from afar is easier and the budget to scout in person is bigger. Montoya has been looking at scouting trips to Japan, Spain, Sweden and possibly Brazil.

“We’ve identified two center-backs that we’d like to bring back to the Bay Area, but that’s becoming a challenge,” Montoya said. “Other teams don’t want to let go of their top players. Up top, we’re looking for a No. 9, maybe one of the most successful players in the world. A lot of challenges come with that.”

Albertin Montoya, who was an interim head coach for the Washington Spirit last season, will lead Bay FC when the new team joins the NWSL for the 2024 season. Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Loera can play in the No. 6 or No. 8 role in midfield, or as a center-back. Montoya, who worked with her during a brief overlap in tenures at Santa Clara, sees Loera as his No. 8 — if, that is, Bay FC can acquire a world-class No. 6 it has been pursuing. Rushton doesn’t shy away from naming former Stanford center-back and U.S. international Tierna Davidson as an obvious player of interest. She is a free agent with Bay Area ties, but everyone in the NWSL also wants her, Rushton said.

Bay FC will add more players to its roster through Friday’s expansion draft. Expansion, however, is not for everyone, and Rushton and Montoya know that. Rushton said Bay FC needs “people who have the mindset of growth and innovation,” and she would never want a player to arrive and be unhappy personally.

“I think expansion is the most exciting thing you can ever ask to be a part of as a player,” Rushton said. “There will only ever be one time that this team plays its first game, scores its first goal, wins its first championship, wins its first game, you know, all of those firsts are so unique to be out to be a part of them. And what we’re doing here at Bay is we’re trying to build a legacy. What I say to the players now is, that this club is going to live years, beyond me, beyond our team, beyond all of us. It’s going to be 200 years old, 1,000 years old, and we get to set the legacy of that on day one.”

Dydasco says she was sold on Bay FC after her first conversation with Rushton. Montoya’s appointment as head coach helped, too.

“I totally believe in him and his playing style; it’s very possession-oriented and something that I’ve been striving to play in this league,” Dydasco said. “I know it’s hard with a transitional league but I’ve always been a technical and possession-oriented [player] and I feel like this playing style is going to really fit me and help me grow as a player.”

The connotation associated with being an expansion team has changed dramatically through the years. The NWSL’s first two expansion teams — the Houston Dash in 2014 and Orlando Pride in 2016 — were severely limited in how they could build their roster. Allocation money — the NWSL’s way of letting teams spend beyond salary caps — was years from existing as a concept and bargaining chip. Thus a team like Houston struggled to attract top players, and Orlando did attract a top player in Alex Morgan, but had to give up so much to do it they sat at the bottom of the league for years.

Angel City and San Diego Wave FC disrupted the system when they joined last year, finding ways to build beyond the expansion draft. They worked out multiple deals with existing teams to trade for specific players and offer expansion-draft protection in return. Allocation money, and the ability to trade large amounts of it, played a significant role.

Los Angeles-based Angel City FC joined the NWSL in 2022 as an expansion team and quickly became one of the league’s success stories, attracting the highest average attendance in the league as well as the most season ticket-holders. Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

San Diego acquired Morgan, among other top NWSL players, and were the best team for half of the 2022 season. The Wave became the first NWSL expansion team to qualify for the playoffs in its inaugural campaign. San Diego followed that up by winning the NWSL Shield in 2023. The Wave’s quick success remains an anomaly, however.

Angel City struggled on the field in 2022 and at the start of 2023 before firing head coach Freya Coombe in June. The change sparked an eight-game unbeaten streak in league play and a playoff berth that was clinched on the final day of the regular season.

Uhrman, who attended Bay FC’s launch event in the spring and said she shared the “entire playbook” with the group, remembers those early days of building a team. She says the biggest thing she would have done differently is hire the team’s head coach sooner, because there is so much foundational work to be done in developing a style of play and filling out a roster.

“One of the things that caught us off guard is looking at that first year and really seeing what worked and what didn’t,” Uhrman said. “We had a lot of changes in the offseason, not really building what we wanted to build, not really having the resources to support what we needed to build. And moving into year three, we feel like we’re finally in the building stage and not in the rebuilding stage.”

Bay FC is navigating an even tighter timeline than Angel City had two years ago.

Bay FC’s business model and path forward

Friday’s expansion draft starts to make things feel a lot more real for Bay FC and the Utah Royals, the latter of which returns to the NWSL in 2024 after a three-year hiatus. The NWSL college draft on Jan. 12 serves as the unofficial start to the new year, with preseason camps opening at the end of January.

Bay FC has plenty to figure out before then. There is an international transfer window to navigate as the team tries to attract those world-class players whom Montoya wants. There are free agents to continue chasing and trades to be executed as plans form, fall apart and come together again.

Rushton points out that yesterday’s player valuations are not today’s player valuations. Players expect to be paid more than they were from their previous contracts as league minimums, salary caps, and allocation money increase. The international market also continues to grow more competitive, and its status as an open market against the NWSL’s single-entity structure makes attracting top international players an ongoing challenge for the league.



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NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman details the league’s new 4-year rights deal.

Despite Bay FC’s access to additional allocation money as an expansion team, there is less cash flexibility than meets the eye, Rushton said. Incumbent NWSL teams have been able to “buy into” the annual pot of allocation money without using all of it, which has allowed them to stockpile the discretionary money. According to Rushton, that means some incumbent teams have more allocation money to play with than Bay FC.

Additionally, there is work to be done to make sure that Bay FC is as big of a splash in the San Jose market as Angel City and the Wave have been in Southern California. (San Diego and Angel City ranked first and second, respectively, in league average attendance in 2023.) A Bay FC spokesperson told ESPN that the club has 3,200 season-ticket deposits from people as far south as San Diego County and as far north as near the Oregon-California border.

Stewart sees merchandise as a major growth opportunity. The team’s play at a baseball-style, scripted “B” for its logo — which has been plastered all over varsity-style jackets for new signings and celebrities alike — makes that initiative clear. But Stewart points out that none of the opportunities at hand are necessarily revolutionary to sports — in many cases, they have been historically undervalued or neglected by NWSL teams. The league’s recent announcement of its first truly robust media rights deal, which includes games on ESPN and ESPN+, is a good example of that.

Earlier this year, Stewart was part of a group from Bay FC that met with the San Antonio Spurs organization to learn about the methodology they used in creating a team culture. These are some of the connections afforded to Bay FC through lead investor Sixth Street, which has financial ties to the Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid and Barcelona, among others.

Stewart sees her high-level goals as a three-pronged approach to “build a virtuous cycle.” First is building the organization and the people to fill roles on the business and sporting sides. Then, it’s time to “get the revenue engine rolling,” she said, referring to tickets and sponsorship. The third piece works alongside all of that: community building. Doing that effectively will help Bay FC become part of the day-to-day lives of people in the area.

Key hires should help with that. Jen Millet is the team’s COO after most recently serving as CMO of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Behind the scenes, Heather Pease joined Bay FC as SVP of revenue. She joined after leading ticketing and data strategy at Angel City, which built a season-ticket base of over 16,000 fans.

Hires like those are unlikely to attract the headlines that a huge player signing would, but they are essential to supporting the final product on the field.

“The whole point is the game,” Stewart said. “The rest of us are all the wrapping.”


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