Portland development group makes pitch for pro soccer team

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After working behind the scenes for about a year, investors with the desire to bring professional, minor-league soccer to Portland say their plan is gaining some steam, although they admit there’s still more work to be done.

Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, managing director and president of Portland sports and marketing agency Topsail Sports & Entertainment, said he and other investors are having conversations with the city about building a new minor-league stadium.

“That remains the last major hurdle to figure out before moving forward,” Hoffman-Johnson said last week.

Gabe Hoffman-Johnson of Topsail Sports & Entertainment is part of the investment group called USL to Portland, which hopes to bring a minor-league professional soccer team to the city.

Hoffman-Johnson, a former three-time Class B state player of the year at Falmouth High School who also played professionally for St. Louis FC, said he and the other investors who are part of the group called USL to Portland have been working on the venture for just over a year. He said they raised an initial $500,000, with the goal of trying to make Portland “a better place to live and play.”

Hoffman-Johnson said his passion, beyond soccer, is having a positive impact on the community, and he thinks a soccer team would do that.

“Soccer is the largest global common language, it’s a remarkable conduit to bring people together,” he said. “Having a soccer club in Portland would be a way to represent the region and elevate the brand.”

Portland developer Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties is part of the investment group. He said they have a location in mind for the proposed stadium, but could not disclose it.

“We’re in discussions with the city about building a soccer-specific sports stadium here in Portland,” he said.

A spokesperson for City Manager Jon Jennings said the city typically doesn’t comment on private projects before they are presented to the City Council and declined further comment.

Culley said the group looked at using existing facilities, such as Fitzpatrick Stadium, but they did not meet various league requirements.

“We’re targeting a modest but really attractive soccer stadium,” he said, with 5,000 seats.

Culley said the team would play in the year-old League One of the United Soccer League, which has teams in 12 cities including Greenville, South Carolina; Orlando, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin; Tucson, Arizona, and Toronto. It also includes the New England Revolution II, which plays at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

The League One website says it “has focused on launching new clubs in 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.”

“We’re moving forward,” Culley said. “The city has a lot of other priorities now; we know we’re not their highest priority. And we’re working hard to get their attention.”

Hoffman-Johnson said the goal is to have a team playing by 2022, starting with a customary March season opener. But there are plenty of checkmarks left to hit before that.

“We’re really focused on engaging the community and building awareness,” he said. “It’s so much more than just a game of soccer that you watch. It’s a movement, a celebration of culture. It attracts a very diverse community, and it offers people something they can feel a part of. Hopefully, we can give this community something to be proud of.”

Hoffman-Johnson and Culley both said the universality of soccer is a huge reason for bringing it to Portland. Hoffman-Johnson said the United States soccer league system is the fastest growing sport in the country and has progressed to the point where lower-level professional soccer is catching on, too.

Culley said the team and stadium are “meant to be a community-centric club, and we hope it appeals to a different group of Mainers” outside of the more well-known local sports, like baseball and basketball. He said especially given Maine’s growing immigrant population, especially from African countries, a world sport like soccer is a good fit.

Hoffman-Johnson said Portland is already a loyal sports market, with avid fans of teams such as the minor league baseball Portland Sea Dogs and the NBA G League Maine Red Claws, which serve as farm teams for the Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics, respectively.

He said a soccer team would be a good fit in light of those success stories, coupled with the cultural attractions Portland has to offer, such as a thriving craft beer community and restaurant industry.

Portland, however, has also had its share of professional sports ups and downs.

The Maine Mammoths, an arena football team, played just one season at the Cross Insurance Arena before running into trouble. After its first season in 2018, the team sought new ownership, and eventually went on an indefinite hiatus.

The Maine Mariners are a professional hockey team with the ECHL, a mid-level professional league. The team has been playing since the 2018-2019 season at the Cross Insurance Arena, after the former Portland Pirates team was sold in 2016 and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. In 2013, the Pirates fell into a lease dispute with the then-Cumberland County Civic Center, ultimately resulting in the team moving to Lewiston for a season.

The Red Claws, likewise, flirted with leaving Portland, when Worcester, Massachusetts, tried to lure the team. That plan ultimately fell through, and the Red Claws, who have played at the Portland Exposition Building since 2009, has a lease with the city through the 2023-2024 season. The team hoped to have a new venue at Thompson’s Point, but that never came to pass.

Hoffman-Johnson’s investment group still needs to finalize its agreement for a USL expansion team, but he said the discussion on that end has been “phenomenal.” He said the stadium is an important piece of the process and a key for fans’ game-day experience.

“You really want to make a cool, intimate environment for the fans to enjoy,” he said. “We’re setting ourselves up to succeed there, and we believe in the viability of this market.”