The Battle for San Diego

I enjoyed this beautiful sunrise in November on Coronado Island — about 15' from downtown San Diego

In the middle of August, multiple sources revealed that San Diego was a possible market for both NASL and USL, viz a viz, both leagues had a strong interest in entering the So-Cal (people still say that, right?) city. At the time, NASL was considered to be ahead in securing the 8th most populated city in the United States.

Then, on December 1st, a source informed me that a San Diego “group” had been at the NASL board of governors (BoG) meeting, and their expansion status had been discussed for “as early as” the 2017 season.

Soon after, rumors of an NASL collapse echoed across the soccer-sphere, and it seemed that USL had the upper hand in securing San Diego.

However, on December 28th, Kevin Baxter of the LA Times interviewed Peter Wilt and Wilt confirmed that NASL to SD was a viable and feasible project pending healthy status of the NASL.

Perhaps NASL had won the San Diego battle after all. Thereby confirming the appeal and viability of the once-thought-to-be-dead DII league.

Yet, on the same day that the LA times article was published, I received a message saying USL was preparing to announce a San Diego expansion team.

And that’s when it became clear. There had been two different groups all along! Two different groups, two different teams, in two different leagues.

While it would be easy to make comparisons to Rayo OKC and OKC Energy, the circumstances are vastly different. Size/population of the city, an untapped soccer market, a vibrant and affluent Hispanic population, etc. are just some of the reasons why the OKC comparisons are overly pessimistic and inapplicable.

As Dike Natsai, writer and editor of Soccer Nation, (@DikeNatsai on twitter), puts it, “Can a club in north county and a club in south county both pull 10k on the same night? Easily.”

Sources close to the project are confident San Diego will have an USL franchise launched in 2018. An announcement is expected in the first quarter of this year. While the stadium is not finalized, initially, 6000-seater Torero Stadium at University of San Diego was poised to host the team. However, recently, QualComm Stadium has become a serious consideration for the group.

In the last couple of days, the Chargers have announced that they will be moving to Los Angeles (I have no idea what any of that means because American football isn’t a real sport). Given the size/upkeep of QualComm stadium, the city of San Diego will need to find a new purpose for the facility. The stadium, built in 1967, has a capacity of 70,000; which would be excessive for a new soccer franchise.

Speculatively, the loss of Chargers may benefit the San Diego franchise by creating a sports/entertainment vacuum, which a successful soccer team may expand into. As writer Nate Abaurrea puts it, “ The city’s collective soccer loving population and average American sports fans would absolutely come together in unison for a top flight soccer team, especially in the wake of the Chargers moving to LA.”

Therefore, renovating QualComm stadium to an 18,000 seater would make sense; especially if the ultimate goal for the San Diego group is an MLS expansion. Another possibility is demolishing the current stadium, and building a soccer-specific stadium in its place; currently suggestions are that this is likely to be the option the ownership group takes. At this point, it is unclear if the ownership group has approached the city with either plan.

While the exact constituents of the ownership group are unknown, sources suggest that all owners are of Japanese origin including AC Milan star Keisuke Honda. Honda has shown an interest in growing soccer (H/T to Chris Kivlehan for sharing this article with me) in the California area previously, and believes San Diego is the perfect city to realize his vision for growing the game stateside.

One of the common arguments against a professional soccer franchise in SD is the idea that the city’s soccer aficionados are already invested in the Xolos team in Tijuana. This idea was popularized by the enjoyable KICK documentary (H/T to my good friend, Leigh Suarez, for sharing the link with me) released in May of last year. However, according to San Diego residents heavily involved in the local soccer scene, this is an oversimplification.

Dike Natsai explains —

It’s not so much that MLS/USL/NASL in San Diego would be “competing” against Club Tijuana. It’s more like Xolos don’t speak to everyone who lives and loves soccer in San Diego. The sheer volume of youth soccer players and parents, transplants from all around the country, casual fans etc is such that Xolos don’t resonate with all of San Diego. San Diego County itself is massive. You can be an hour and a half north of the border and still be in SD County,” .

San Diego and Tijuana based journalist and match commentator, Nate Abaurrea (@NateAbaurrea on twitter) agrees —

“ The notion that Xolos existing is a ‘problem’ for a potential USL, NASL, or MLS team is absurd. If anything, the existence of Club Tijuana and the incredible multi-cultural climate they have created with the ‘sin Fronteras’ model will be a blessing for a San Diego based team. Just imagine a rivalry between the two teams, an annual home and home tie, and even the competition for players and fans. It would benefit everybody on both sides of the border.”
“Xolos matches are one of my favorite things in the world of soccer, but they play no more than 20–25 home games a year in Tijuana. There is plenty of room on the calendar and in the geographical area for another team, plain and simple.”

NASL sources remain confident about the viability of their own San Diego project. Therefore, unless things change rapidly, San Diego will be the only city in the country to have two DII teams in different leagues.

Although it is possible that the current joint provisional DII status may continue for 2 years, sources suggest that only one league will have DII status at the end of this year. In other words, San Diego may yet end up being a battle ground city.

Yes, both teams may yet survive and thrive in the beautiful Southern California city. And that is an ideal scenario for all involved. But, if there does end up being a bottleneck, the team with the better management, marketing, vision, etc. will decide who wins, NOT a weak supporter base.

As Dike rather eloquently (and matter-of-factly) articulates (given the lens of the Soccer Wars)—

“ Ego will destroy anything in San Diego long before a drought of fan support/engagement.”

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