SACRAMENTO, California – 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 Storm 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 option 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.”
Inducted in to 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 has 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.”
Zanelli is survived by his son, John; and his daughter, Diana. He was preceded in death by his son, Aaron.
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