Forward Madison FC in Wisconsin has become the signature franchise of USL League One, and a local group is still working toward bringing a franchise to Portland. United Soccer League photo

The pandemic has slowed progress but hasn’t deterred a local group in its quest to bring a USL League One professional soccer franchise to Portland.

The ownership group, headed by former Falmouth High and Dartmouth College player Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, has increased its funding, added silent partners, and perhaps most importantly continued to build interest within the community for its group, which is going by the place-holder name of “USL to Portland”.

“Obviously, the last six months have slowed down the process for a lot of things and we’re not immune to that, but we have continued to learn from USL and different clubs,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “And we’re continuing to build support and make progress on the stadium side.”

An outgrowth of the community awareness has been the creation of an independent collection of future fans, called the USL to Portland Supporters Group.

“We’re helping generate interest and awareness of a club coming and we’re also helping them gauge the level of community support for the club,” said John Morgan, a member of the supporters group.

The fan group will host a virtual town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Guests will include Hoffman-Johnson, and two very well known former Maine high school soccer players: Roger Levesque of Falmouth, who played professionally in Major League Soccer, and NESN studio host Tom Caron, a former goalkeeper at Lewiston High. To receive a link to join the meeting, email a request to [email protected]

“I see it as an opportunity for the ownership group to answer questions and engage with people who are excited about what we can be,” Hoffman-Johnson said of the virtual meeting.

Hoffman-Johnson said Levesque, who lives in Seattle, and Caron both have only an informal connection to the prospective Portland franchise. But over the past year, the ownership group has expanded from Hoffman-Johnson and Portland-based developer Jonathan Culley to include several silent partners. The group has raised $500,000.

“We’ve raised enough capital to the point of solving for the stadium, start-up costs, finalizing a place to play,” Hoffman-Johnson said.

Figuring out a place to play, and then reaching agreements with the city of Portland, are the last major hurdles for being approved as a USL League One franchise, said Ryan Madden, the league’s vice president for communications and public relations.

“When we look for expansion opportunities in League One, we’re really looking for three primary things,” Madden said. “One, we want strong local ownership; two, an appetite for soccer in the community; and three, a pathway to a soccer stadium.

“The first two, Portland has in spades, but the stadium is still a piece to get formalized prior to the unveiling.”

Madden added that an expansion franchise could be granted without a completed stadium if the league is confident a realistic stadium plan has been formalized.

USL League One is the third tier of North American professional soccer, below MLS and the USL Championship. The league started in 2019 season with 10 teams, establishing a foothold in cities like Madison, Wisconsin, and Richmond, Virginia. Eleven teams are playing this season. A 12th club, Toronto FC, is still in the league but not playing this year. Canada’s strict COVID-19 travel restrictions made it essentially impossible to travel to and from the U.S.

Potential stadium sites have been narrowed down, Hoffman-Johnson said. Ideally, a site would be within the city, with an urban feel, and with a seating capacity around 5,000. One possible option is a modular, semi-permanent design structure that would allow for flexibility in seating configuration and the types of events that could be held.

“That model has a smaller footprint and doesn’t cost as much,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “It’s very compelling, and that’s where we’re focused at this point.”

Madden said USL League One wants to have 30 or more teams by 2026, when the World Cup will be held in North America. He said the league has had conversations with about 40 communities and is in active negotiations with 14, including Portland.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the ownership group thought it would be possible to have a team playing by the spring of 2021. Now, the target date is either 2022 or 2023, Hoffman-Johnson said.

“They’re making progress every day,” Madden said. “Some of that progress is visible publicly, some is more behind the scenes, but I’m more confident than ever before that Gabe and his team will ultimately be able to deliver. It’s a matter of when more than it is if at this point.”

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