USL League 1, part of the third tier of North American professional soccer, has teams in 10 markets. League executives hope to expand to 30 to 40 teams by 2026. United Soccer League photo

A former Falmouth High soccer standout wants to bring professional soccer to Portland – and the United Soccer League is listening with significant interest.

“The league wants it to happen,” said Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, 27, a 2010 Falmouth graduate and former soccer captain at Dartmouth College. “We’ve met with representatives from the city of Portland and they’re on board.”

United Soccer League has established itself as North America’s largest minor league soccer organization, sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation. Its best-known league is USL Championship, a pro league one tier below Major League Soccer.

Wednesday, Hoffman-Johnson and other stakeholders met with top executives from the USL, who are considering Portland as a expansion site for a new league in the third tier of North American pro soccer – USL League 1. They viewed possible field locations and engaged in discussions with city officials and other Portland-area soccer supporters.

Hoffman-Johnson already has a name for the team: Portland United. His own playing career was cut short by persistent back and hip injuries shortly after signing a pro contract in 2015 with St. Louis of the USL Championship. After a stint working for a private equity firm in New York, he returned to Maine. In November 2018, Hoffman-Johnson formed Topsail Sports & Entertainment, a marketing firm.

“Ever since my days in St. Louis, I saw the potential for this form of minor league soccer,” he said.

Steven Short, a USL executive who oversees USL League 1, had scouted Portland in November 2017 as a possible site for the new soccer league.

“Ever since our first visit, this has been beyond exploratory,” said Short, who returned Wednesday to assess the level of fan and corporate support in greater Portland. “This is a city we’re high on. We’re here for a reason, to make sure it’s something that’s wanted.”

USL League 1 is completing its inaugural season with 10 teams, mostly in the South and Midwest. Some of the league’s markets – such as Greenville, South Carolina – are similar in size to Portland (approximately 66,000 residents). Statesboro, Georgia, is half that size. Other franchises are in much larger cities, including Toronto and Tucson, Arizona.

Short said USL League 1 plans to expand to 30 to 40 teams by 2026.

Forward Madison FC in Wisconsin has become the signature franchise of the newly formed USL League 1, drawing more than 4,500 fans to some games. United Soccer League photo

Hoffman-Johnson strongly believes Portland can support a pro soccer team. He points to the city’s hipster image with a vibrant food and beer scene as having a synergistic relationship with soccer.

“Southern Maine is a big soccer community in and of itself. Almost everyone grows up playing soccer at some level,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “And for the international community, the new Mainers moving here, it’s the world’s game.”

To land a USL League 1 expansion team, Portland United has to show it can do two critical things – find a site for games and gather a viable, local ownership group.

Hoffman-Johnson and local real estate developer Jonathan Culley are the two founding ownership members behind Portland United. Both believe having a soccer-specific stadium, whether on city-owned or privately purchased land, is a key element in creating a successful brand.

Fitzpatrick Stadium, with 6,000 seats, meets USL League 1 requirements for seating capacity (3,500 minimum), but the field is not wide enough. The U.S. Soccer Federation sets the mandatory pitch at 110 by 70 yards.

Culley said if Fitzpatrick, or some other existing site, had been appropriate, the club might have pushed to begin play by next spring. The USL League 1 schedule runs from late March to early October, followed by playoffs.

“As it is, we’d love to be playing in 2021,” Culley said. “And to be clear, I don’t think USL approval is the biggest impediment. They like our market and are looking to expand.

“Our biggest obstacle is going to be finding a place to play. Gabe has done a great job connecting with potential people to join the ownership group.”

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said the city is “happy to work with the owners of the potential team and see what role the city can have,” but added that enlarging the turf at Fitzpatrick Stadium is not an option.

Jennings has first-hand experience with creating a minor league franchise. He was the president and general manager of the Maine Red Claws basketball team at its inception.

“I think a pro soccer team at the level they’re discussing is very viable,” Jennings said. “It would be a phenomenal addition to our already successful athletic landscape. I’m a big fan of what they’re proposing.”

USL League 1 features former U.S. collegiate players, and each team is allowed seven international players. Former Scarborough High and Dartmouth standout Wyatt Omsberg has played in 13 games for USL League 1’s Forward Madison FC, while on loan from Minnesota United FC of Major League Soccer.

Player salaries average $1,400 to $1,700 a month, Short said. Ticket sales for the first-year league have varied widely, as do single-game ticket prices. The league has a 28-game regular season, and the top four teams will advance to the playoffs.

Forward Madison FC has become the league’s signature franchise, drawing raucous crowds to quaint Breese Stevens Field, located a relatively short walk from the Wisconsin state capital. Madison has drawn more than 4,500 fans for a game, charging $16 to $50 for tickets.

The Richmond Kickers in Richmond, Virginia, have also had crowds exceeding 4,500 at the much larger 22,000-seat City Stadium, the former home of the University of Richmond football team. Their tickets top out at $20.

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