San Diego gets pro soccer: the NASL – The San Diego Union-Tribune
High-level professional soccer is coming to San Diego, after all.
The North American Soccer League, designated as a second-division league by U.S. Soccer, is expected to announce a San Diego expansion franchise that will begin play in 2018, first at USD’s Torero Stadium and later at a 10,000-seat venue it plans to build at an undisclosed location in North County.
The club’s majority owner is European star Demba Ba, and the investment group includes three of his former teammates: Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard, French international Yohan Cabaye and Senegalese goal-scoring machine Moussa Sow. Ba left open the door of playing for the team he owns after his contract with China’s Shanghai Shenhua expires next summer.
“When I came and saw the city and looked at the football, I thought: ‘This is right on point, this is the right spot,’” Ba said. “American soccer is growing, and I know that Americans, if they put their head into something, they’re going to be successful.
“I want to be part of this success.”
The deal with eight-team NASL was finalized last month, but Ba’s group said it “purposely delayed” the announcement so it wouldn’t conflict with the public debate over the SoccerCity proposal for the Qualcomm Stadium land and its pursuit of a Major League Soccer team, which culminated last week with the City Council putting the initiative on the November 2018 ballot instead of a special election sooner.
Formal confirmation from the NASL could come as early as Monday. The team is planning an introductory news conference in July.
“We are soccer specific,” said Bob Watkins, a local businessman and San Diego State alum who is serving as the club’s president. “We want to develop soccer through this professional opportunity. We are not in the real estate development business and want to use soccer as a ploy to get a real estate project going.
“I don’t mean that as a negative on MLS. We didn’t want to get into the fray or be painted with the same brush of either helping or not helping the MLS project. We don’t want to be the heroes on white horses. We just want to say: ‘We stayed away from downtown, we stayed away from Qualcomm. We want a clean slate going forward with a team in North County.’”
Watkins said they opted against the South Bay because it is too close to the Tijuana Xolos, which regularly draw several thousand fans from this side of the border. And they stayed away Mission Valley and the city center in case an MLS team moves here.
North County, they reasoned, is a soccer-mad community underserved with professional or Division I collegiate sports.
“We kept coming back to North County being a pretty good place,” said Watkins, whose group is scouting locations in both coastal and inland areas. “It’s got the demographics, it’s got the ethnic diversity, it’s got the Soccer Moms and the kids and the infrastructure. It’s all there.”
That’s not where the novel stadium ideas end. The plan is not to construct a traditional venue by pouring a concrete foundation and building up, but to tap into the growing industry of “modular” steel facilities that are fabricated elsewhere, shipped in segments, then assembled in a matter of months. They’re less expensive and less permanent, able to be moved or expanded to meet a tenant’s needs.
Populous, which designed Petco Park and is working with the NASL club, conceived an 18,000-seat covered rugby stadium in Christchurch, the city on New Zealand’s South Island that had the team’s previous home damaged by an earthquake. It cost $22 million and took less than 100 days to build.
Watkins envisions a 10,000-seat stadium (expandable to 15,000) would cost $10 million to $15 million and be financed privately. It would take three to four months to erect on as little as four acres, with completion as early as August 2018.
“It will have all the accoutrements of a stadium in terms of concessions, stores, seating, electronics,” Watkins said. “It will be very attractive. We’re doing it first class. This won’t be a rinky-dink stadium. It’s a new concept for soccer in the United States, a fresh concept.”
In the meantime, the yet-to-be-named San Diego team will play at USD’s Torero Stadium, which was expanded to about 6,000 seats in 2001 by the WUSA, the women’s pro soccer league that folded after three years. The NASL season begins in late March and runs through November.
That the NASL would have a 2017 season was no guarantee after the league ran into financial problems and, according to several reports, nearly folded. But U.S. Soccer conferred provisional Division II status in January, and the league took over ownership of its floundering Jacksonville franchise, giving it eight teams for this year.
The San Diego expansion is part of push west. The San Francisco Deltas are new this season, and an Orange County team was announced last month that will begin play next year at 10,000-seat Titan Stadium on the campus of Cal State Fullerton. That team is owned by Pete Capriotti and is expected to be coached by SDSU and former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda.
The NASL shares a name but is otherwise unaffiliated with the famed North American Soccer League of the 1970s and ’80s that was best known for Pele and New York Cosmos. It also included a San Diego franchise for eight years, one as the Jaws and the final seven as the Sockers before the club established its championship identity in the indoor game.
The current NASL began in 2011, selling itself a viable alternative to MLS and its single-entity, salary-cap system. The NASL, like most global soccer leagues, has no salary cap, meaning teams can spend whatever they want on players and keep transfer fees from selling them.
Technically, NASL and the United Soccer League share the second-division status, although the NASL appears to play at a slightly higher level. Other than exhibitions, the only time teams from the two leagues meet is in the annual U.S. Open Cup; the NASL is 3-1 against the USL this year and 9-3 over the last two.
The NASL has also managed to knock off the MLS four times in the last two U.S. Open Cups, including Miami FC’s 3-1 win earlier this month at Orlando FC. Miami FC hosts MLS expansion team Atlanta United on Wednesday for a spot in the quarterfinals.
“Our guys were sensible,” said Watkins, who played freshman football at SDSU in the 1960s and has been instrumental in raising rugby’s profile in the United States. “They said: ‘Let’s crawl before we walk. Let’s do something that we can manage. Let’s do something about soccer, not looking on something else to pay the bills if soccer doesn’t.’”