John Morgan knows professional soccer in Portland is still an idea, not a reality. But it’s an idea he’s fully behind, enough so to help start a supporters’ group called Dirigo Union even before there’s a team.

Like the ownership group trying to make it happen, Morgan is convinced that a professional soccer team belongs in Portland, that the relatively new USL League One is the right fit, and that together team and league can be a smashing success in Portland.

“You would have at least one supporters’ groups, if not multiple supporters’ groups, standing and chanting through the entire game,” said Morgan, who lives in Gorham and runs the Rosevelt Soccer Club in Westbrook. “The stadium atmosphere combined with the players’ abilities would bring the game to a level that we’re not able to watch in the state right now.”

USL to Portland founder and president Gabe Hoffman-Johnson has been working diligently to turn professional soccer in Portland from concept to reality. He believes Portland’s diverse community, with a greater metro area population of slightly over half a million, will support a team and that USL League One is the best fit. USL League One’s most successful franchises are in markets similar in size to Portland where independent ownership has focused on forging community-based partnerships and building fan bases.

“Part of the reason we’ve been so passionate about (working with community groups) from the get-go is to get the point across that this isn’t just another sports team,” said Hoffman-Johnson, 29. “We are going to add value across the community in a variety of different ways. And that’s really the vision and the mission of what we’re trying to do here. And, on top of that, we want to perform on the field and bring victory and success back for Portland.”

USL League One, which began play in 2019, is part of the United Soccer League, North America’s largest professional soccer organization. It is in the third tier of pro soccer on the continent. USL League One has 12 franchises this season, and has announced plans to add teams in northern Colorado and Fresno, California, in 2022 and in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Spokane, Washington, in 2023. The league is intent on expanding its brand of independently owned teams to reach 30 different markets of roughly 500,000 to 1 million people.

And the United Soccer League wants Portland, with a metro area population of nearly 650,000 if Lewiston-Auburn area is included.

“Portland can be one of the top soccer markets in the country and every game, I think, can be sold out,” said USL Chief Operating Officer Justin Papadakis.

Forward Madison FC in Wisconsin routinely draws crowds in excess of 3,000 to its games at 5,000-seat Breese Stevens Field. It is one of the most successful franchises in USL League One, which debuted in 2019. United Soccer League photo

Based on the most successful current franchises in the USL League One, and the stated goals of the USL to the Portland ownership group, pro soccer in Portland will be successful if it has several key components:

• A 5,000- to 7,000-seat stadium in an urban setting accessible by foot, bike, Uber and public transportation.

• A diverse and passionate fan base that would include Maine’s growing immigrant community from countries where soccer is hugely popular.

• Active partnerships with city-based organizations that promote diversity, sustainability, inclusion and other key social issues.

• And a team of players scouted and signed by local ownership who are focused on winning championships and promoting Portland.

“We want lofty expectations on and off the field and I don’t think there’s any other way to do it,” said Hoffman-Johnson.

MAKING THE COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Hoffman-Johnson has made a point of connecting with groups that emphasize soccer as a means of breaking down racial barriers, like the Kennedy Park FC in Portland. Jonathan Cross, the co-founder of Kennedy Park FC, said he knows the youth community he works with is very excited about the potential of pro soccer coming to Portland.

“I think that will definitely happen and I think it’s a great opportunity for a lot of people,” said Joe Kalilwa, 22, a native of the Congo who moved to the United States when he was 9 and to Lewiston in 2011. He was one of the first players to join the Kennedy Park FC.

Kalilwa played on Lewiston High’s 2015 Class A championship team that was celebrated by author Amy Bass in her book “One Goal.” He is now in his first season of professional soccer, playing for New Amsterdam FC in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA). Kalilwa believes having a pro team in Maine would inspire young, talented players to pursue a pro career and, in general, “it would be great for the community, and there are a lot of people who play soccer, not just immigrants from Africa, but those who are Canadian-American, or from Spain, or wherever.”

Hoffman-Johnson was a strong soccer player, too. A 2010 Falmouth High graduate, he was a two-time Maine’s boys’ soccer All-American (2008, 2009) who briefly played in the USL for St. Louis FC after being a captain at Dartmouth College. The son of a 30-year collegiate soccer coach (Seth Johnson) and an international peace builder (Libby Hoffman, president of Catalyst for Peace), Hoffman-Johnson is no stranger to using soccer as a community-building conduit. In college, he accompanied his mother on trips to conflict zones in sub-Saharan Africa, often with donated soccer gear and balls.

“Soccer and conflict resolution. That’s just in here,” Hoffman-Johnson said, pointing to his heart.

He and founding investors Catherine and Jonathan Culley of the Portland-based real estate development firm Redfern Properties have been working for more than two years to bring the USL to Portland.

A rendering of a proposed pro soccer stadium at the Preble Street Field near Portland’s Back Cove. The stadium proposal has been pitched by a group wanting to bring a USL League One pro soccer team to Maine. Courtesy USL to Portland

The key hurdle left to clear is securing a stadium that meets league guidelines and team needs and gains city approval.

In July, USL to Portland formally proposed two stadium sites with architectural renderings that received a cautiously enthusiastic reaction from a Portland City Council subcommittee.

“They’re both great sites. We’ve done a lot of work on both and I think either way the city decides we’ll be excited and can create a great stadium,” said Papadakis, who has viewed the sites in person.

One plan calls for a brand-new 5,000-seat stadium on existing field space tucked between Interstate 295 and Back Cove that will have to overcome environmental and parking concerns.

The other is a dramatic renovation of Fitzpatrick Stadium that would include removal and relocation of the outdoor track so the USL-required wider playing surface can be installed, and a multi-story building to house locker rooms, concessions and team offices.

“Being in a downtown, urban environment, being accessible, we feel, is vital toward the success of the club,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “That’s the reason we spent so much time looking at these two locations.”

“And using operating, existing fields,” Culley noted. “We didn’t want to take land space away. These are existing fields that we would be adding to.”

Both plans call for a construction cost of $10 million to $12 million.

“At this stage of the project we’re not expecting any burden on the local taxpayer,” Hoffman-Johnson said.

Once approval of a downtown stadium is given, Hoffman-Johnson and Culley said they are well positioned with potential investors to raise needed money for construction.

Until a stadium is approved, “There’s no need to raise the money if you can’t spend it,” Hoffman-Johnson said.

The local ownership group has already negotiated a reduced franchise fee with the United Soccer League. The current franchise fee is $5 million to buy the rights to a USL League One team, Papadakis said, up from $500,000 when the league was first formed. Neither Papadakis nor the ownership group would say what Portland will pay for an expansion fee.

INDEPENDENT OWNERSHIP A KEY

The current USL League One lineup includes four franchises that are affiliates of Major League Soccer teams, with another seven MLS affiliate teams playing in the USL Championship league, which is a tier-two league that has 31 teams, including the Hartford Athletic. MLS is the only tier-one professional league in the United States, and is not part of the United Soccer League.

The MLS affiliate franchises in USL leagues have focused on player development with little regard for building a fan base. The New England Revs II in USL League One, for instance, play at Gillette Stadium and barely draw 100 fans per game.

Starting in 2022, the MLS affiliates will play in their own MLS-owned and operated third-tier league.

“From my perspective I think it’s good for the USL,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “They want to be an independent league. A lot of what USL is trying to build is very successful, community-driven, passionately supported local teams.”

“That are competitive,” Culley said. “Because that’s the key. MLS, it’s about player development. In the USL it’s about winning. We want to win.”

USL’s most successful League One franchises have independent ownership that focus on winning games and building local support.

Forward Madison FC plays its games at 5,000-seat Breese Stevens Field, a short walk from the Wisconsin state capital. Madison’s metro area population is 664,000. Union Omaha, in a metro area of 1.058 million people, uses a 9,000 seat minor league baseball stadium in Nebraska. The team is currently atop the USL League One standings.

Those two franchises routinely draw crowds in excess of 3,000 people, with single-game ticket prices ranging from $18-$45 in Madison and $13.50-$52.50 in Omaha. Both teams offer season-ticket packages that start in the low $200 range. Forward Madison led the league in attendance in 2019, averaging 4,292 fans. Union Omaha leads the figures this season, averaging 3,392 fans in its first five home games. Madison’s attendance has dipped to 2,672 but has averaged 3,462 since mid-July.

Other USL League One teams that are averaging between 1,500 and 2,290 fans this season are located in Chattanooga, Tennessee (pop. 548,000), Greenville, South Carolina (pop. 920,000), Richmond, Virginia (pop. 1.26 million), and Cary, North Carolina (pop. 1.39 million, including Raleigh and Durham).

Ticket prices are set by the clubs. Greenville, the defending league champion, has a wide range of price points for its 4,000-seat venue. Single-game tickets are $10 to $25. But if a fan wants VIP parking, private bathrooms, a meal and beverage service, all delivered to a field-level seat, then they can buy a $1,200 season ticket.

Chattanooga skips the amenity package at its new 5,500-seat soccer-specific stadium that opened in 2020, with season tickets from $126 to $420 and single-game tickets from $14 to $46.

“There are comparable markets in the USL that have done a phenomenal job and are well-supported,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “And certainly when you look at the (Portland) Sea Dogs, yes they’ll get a few more fans when a Chris Sale is playing, but they’re getting 6,000 people at many of these games and that’s with 60 games on the calendar. We’ll only be offering closer to 20 to 25 games a year.”

Player salaries averaged $1,400 to $1,700 a month during the league’s inaugural season in 2019, according to Steven Short, the league’s senior vice president.

The USL League One season runs, basically, from early May through the end of October. This season each team has 14 home league games. But teams are also encouraged to host non-league games, called “friendlies” in soccer parlance. Friendlies have the potential to be some of the top draws for a local franchise.

Hoffman-Johnson said he could see hosting the USL Championship team from Hartford for some regional bragging rights, “maybe even the New England Revs in the preseason.”

Papadakis said either proposed Portland venue could support even more marketable friendlies.

“In a venue of this size and for most of our clubs, we’re looking at the bottom of the table of the Premier League and then La Liga clubs outside of the big four, outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Those types of clubs come over quite often and are available,” Papadakis said.

For fans like Morgan, the idea of seeing international teams playing their own Portland squad is just another reason to get excited.

“Having a team of our own would just unite all of us who get up at 7 in the morning on a Sunday to watch an English Premier game,” Morgan said.

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