A local group of investors trying to bring professional minor league soccer to Portland must scrap its proposal to build a team-owned, soccer-specific stadium next to Back Cove.

“That one’s off the table,” said Ethan Hipple, Portland’s director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities. Hipple is the chief liaison between the city and the local soccer group, known as USL to Portland.

The Back Cove site would have been located on the previous Preble Street Field, which is where the city has undertaken a $40 million sewer/stormwater storage project to reduce sewage and wastewater run-off into the tidal cove.

“If you put a stadium on top of that it will make it really hard to do any maintenance or repairs,” Hipple said. “That pretty much ruled that spot out as being viable.”

Instead, the USL to Portland group, headed by founder and president Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, now is solely focused on Fitzpatrick Stadium as the home for its United Soccer League One expansion team, with a target date of beginning play in the spring of 2024.

For that to happen, the track will need to be removed from Fitzpatrick Stadium to allow the artificial surface field to be widened to 70-by-110 yards to meet United Soccer League specifications, and a new track and field complex suitable for school and public use will have to be built somewhere else.

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“After feedback from the (city) council and community, we’re focusing on Fitzpatrick,” Hoffman-Johnson said, adding later, “the majority of our focus has been working with Ethan and the city and how we can help solve for a new track.”

When the USL to Portland group offered site proposals with architectural drawings to Portland’s Housing and Economic Development committee in July for both Fitzpatrick and Back Cove, it identified Dougherty Field and Payson Park as potential sites for a new outdoor track.

Gabe Hoffman-Johnson is president and founder of USL to Portland, a group of local investors trying to bring a minor league pro soccer franchise to the city. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We’re very focused on Dougherty Field,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “And with a multi-use turf field inside the track, we think it can actually increase the number of usable hours for parks and recreation, Portland schools, and community groups.”

Hipple said where a new track could be located is “very exploratory right now. … I don’t want to pin it on any one park.”

Dougherty Field, an 18.5 acre park, currently includes a skate park, two playgrounds, a grass multi-use athletic field, baseball and softball fields and the Libbytown Community Garden.

The soccer ownership group includes founding investors Catherine and Jonathan Culley of the Portland-based real estate development firm Redfern Properties. They have been actively working to bring an independently owned USL League One franchise to Portland since 2019.

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Hipple has been the city’s point person in the process. He said he’s met with the USL to Portland group “five or six” times since becoming the Parks, Recreation and Facilities director in 2020, most recently in early December.

Hoffman-Johnson said he hopes to be able to share more detailed specifics about the project “in a couple of months.”

The USL to Portland group has consistently stated it is essential to have a stadium in a downtown location that is accessible by foot, bike and public transportation.

Hipple agreed that Fitzpatrick Stadium, which has an average of 2,000 hours of use annually, is a good fit to house professional soccer.

“For us, a lot of ways it makes a ton of sense,” Hipple said. “You already have stadium seating, some decent parking, not endless, not perfect but it has a lot going for it. Restrooms are there, concessions are there. Some of those things could be improved and this would be a great way to make that happen.

“The primary challenge is the track. It’s the only public track in Portland and it’s used by both high schools,” Hipple continued. “The secondary challenge is whatever hours would be used by a new tenant like USL Soccer – we’d love to work with them – but we have other customers like Portland High School that use the field for games and practices.”

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Portland High is the primary user at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Sports clubs such as Casco Bay Sports, Seacoast United and Maine Lightning and adult groups rent the facility.

USL first identified Portland as a market for expansion in late 2017. League executives have repeatedly said Portland is approved for a League One expansion franchise if it can deliver a suitable stadium.

USL has recently announced its intention of forming two separate women’s soccer leagues, one professional and the other a top-tier amateur league. USL to Portland is “committed to the women’s game and we’re working with the league to see which makes the most sense,” in the Portland market, Hoffman-Johnson said.

“We have a fantastic deal with the league. We’ve won approval as an expansion market. So really now it’s about working with city staff (on) project details at Fitzpatrick, then negotiating a business agreement with the municipality and then going down municipal pathways for that process,” Hoffman-Johnson said.

When the USL to Portland proposals were made to the city in July, the project costs at either Fitzpatrick or Back Cove were pegged at $8 to $12 million. At that time, USL to Portland said it would not seek taxpayer funding for a stadium and that private investors would foot the bill.

Last week, Hoffman-Johnson backed away from that statement a bit, noting at Fitzpatrick the pro soccer team would be a tenant, not the stadium owner. Further, any facility improvements, including a new track, would have significant mutual benefit for the overall community.

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“There are capital sources for those types of projects,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “Yes, part of the redevelopment is to bring pro soccer – both men’s and women’s – to Portland. But we also see it as something that will benefit the youth and community. Those types of projects get that sort of funding from outside the city all the time.”

Hoffman-Johnson said his group will tap into a mix of local, regional, state and philanthropic capital funding.

“The idea is to have as minimal an impact and if possible none at all, on the local taxpayer,” he said.

USL League One, which began play in 2019, is a third-tier professional league sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Major League Soccer is the only first-tier league in the United States and USL Championship is the lone second-tier league.

USL League One will have 11 teams in 2022. The organization has stated a desire to grow to 30 or more franchises by 2026, the year the World Cup comes to North America. Teams will play a 30-game schedule over a 28-week span in 2022, beginning in early April.

USL League One has targeted markets with populations between 500,000 to 1 million. Greater Portland’s population is about 650,000 when the Lewiston-Auburn area is included.

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