A group hoping to bring a professional soccer team to Portland has launched a new clothing line that will benefit environmental groups in the area while also drumming up support for the team. Courtesy / Gabe Hoffman-Johnson

PORTLAND — A city resident has launched a clothing line to reflect Greater Portlanders’ pride in where they live and, he hopes, to drum up interest in efforts to bring a United Soccer League (USL) franchise to the Portland.

“We are looking at 2022 at the earliest for the expansion,” said Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, who is leading the USL to Portland effort. “We have a long way to go and this is a fun way to engage the community.”

Proceeds from the Forest City Collection, available at usltoportland.com/shop, will benefit the Natural Resources Council of Maine Rising, Sebago Clean Waters and The Maine Brewshed Alliance.

The Forest City collection was designed by local artist Hugh McCormick. Courtesy / Gabe Hoffman-Johnson

The clothing line, which includes sweatshirts, T-shirts and caps, is designed to reflect both what residents like most about the area and the growing appreciation locally for soccer, Hoffman-Johnson said.

For a decade, Portland was home to GPS Portland Phoenix in League Two, a 81-team developmental league run by USL that folded earlier this year.

The USL League One, the professional league Hoffman-Johnson hopes to attract to Portland, was launched in 2019 to expand into unserved markets that “possess strong local ownership groups, populations with broad-based diversity, a vibrant millennial and strong family base, established corporate support, and stadiums to properly showcase the sport for fans, partners and the public,” according to the league.

The closest existing League One team is the New England Revolution II in Foxborough, Massachusetts, although a team in New Hampshire is scheduled to join the league in 2022.

Greater Portland offers “the right ingredients” to add to that professional soccer landscape and the public’s interest in the sport will result in “a strong enough market to support a team of our own,” said Hoffman-Johnson, a Falmouth High School graduate who was a two-time All-American and Gatorade State Player of the Year in high school and captained the men’s soccer team at Dartmouth College.

League One is two steps below Major League Soccer, the top-tier professional league that includes the New England Revolution and 25 other teams across the United States and Canada. The 12-team League One typically attracts top collegiate players.

Hoffman-Johnson,  who played for St. Louis’ United Soccer League team from 2015-2016, said he isn’t aware of any other League One locations that have launched a clothing line that will benefit local efforts to protect the environment.

Todd Martin, director of Natural Resources Council of Maine Rising, a program to inspire the state’s next generation of environmental leaders, said environmental protection is a local, regional and statewide effort.

“We’re grateful to USL to Portland for recognizing that Maine’s stunning outdoors, healthy air and clean water are an essential part of what makes the state such a special place to live, work and play,” Martin said.

Karen Young, coordinator for Sebago Clean Waters, a coalition aimed at conserving forests in the Sebago Lake watershed to keep the lake clean, said her organization is “pleased to partner with USL to Portland, who sees the importance of forests to the communities that we live in.”

Hoffman-Johnson said the effort to bring a United Soccer League franchise to Portland is not just about soccer.

“We aspire to be a community-centric club and have an impact on Portland, the region and the state as a whole. We recognize soccer is more than a game,” Hoffman-Johnson said of the ownership group, which also includes developer Jonathan Culley.

Hoffman-Johnson said it is not official Portland will get a franchise, but “the league is high on the market.”

“Winning a franchise is not our largest hurdle,” he said.

Finding a location in the city is the major focus right now. The goal, he said, is for the site to host the 20 home games during the March-October season, but also be available to others, including to high schools and to Portland Rising, a women’s professional Frisbee team that is slated to start play in 2021.

“We have identified what we think is a suitable location and are conducting a technical feasibility study,” Hoffman-Johnson said.

The prospect of professional soccer in Portland has a staunch supporter at the Maine Sports Commission, a state organization that markets the state as a four-season destination for sports and events. Sheila Brennan Nee, the commission’s director, feels Portland is the perfect market for a USL League One team and she been advocating for that since 2017 when USL officials first looked at Portland.

“My dream is to bring a professional soccer team to Portland,” she said. “I feel it will round out our portfolio of the other sports teams we have here.”

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