The city of San Diego has long been known as a hotbed for soccer, but it has been decades since an established professional soccer team has called the southern California city home. That is set to change, and much sooner than some might have expected.
The NASL, currently one of two leagues designated as the second division in American soccer, will announce an expansion team in San Diego, with former Premier League striker Demba Ba serving as the lead investor in an ownership group that includes Chelsea star Eden Hazard, Crystal Palace midfielder Yohan Cabaye and Fenerbahce forward Moussa Sow. The formal announcement of the awarding of the expansion team is expected to be made on Monday, with the team set to begin play in the spring of 2018.
"If you look at San Diego, there is not many pro teams and there is no pro teams for football," Ba told Goal. "We think it is a very good market, and if we go in and do good and work hard we can be successful.
"It's a market that's growing very quick and very good, and we wanted to be a part of it because every time America puts its hands into something they succeed, so we wanted to be a success with them."
The San Diego NASL expansion team has plans for building a privately-financed soccer complex that will include a stadium and practice facilities, and will play its games at the University of San Diego's Torero Stadium until its own 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium is completed. The team has yet to settle on a name or logo.
The San Diego team will join an Orange County expansion team announced in May as the first two members of the NASL expansion class of 2018.
The push to bring pro soccer to San Diego has gathered momentum in recent months as a group of investors including former U.S. national team star Landon Donovan has pushed for Major League Soccer to add an expansion team, but the MLS push suffered a setback earlier this month when the San Diego city council voted to have a public vote on a proposed soccer stadium development project in November of 2018. rather than holding a special election in November 2017.
That decision put a major dent in San Diego's MLS expansion push because the league is expected to choose its next two expansion markets by the end of 2017.
“The council’s decision significantly jeopardizes our chance to bring Major League Soccer to San Diego and create a river park at no cost to taxpayers,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said shortly after the decision. “Regardless of whether they personally supported or opposed Soccer City, council members should have given San Diegans the chance to vote when it mattered the most. Despite the council’s delay, I will keep working for the park space, housing and economic benefits in the SoccerCity plan.”
If that remains the case, then the NASL expansion team will have the opportunity to step into the void in the San Diego market and begin play at least two years before the arrival of an MLS team.
For Ba, having another team entering the market isn't necessarily a bad thing. His group believes competition can only serve to drive more interest in the sport in a market that has a reputation for being among the nation's largest viewership of soccer on television.
"All my life as a football player I've lived with competition, and the players who are in this with me have played with competition, and that's going to be good for the city as well," Ba told Goal. "Bringing competition to San Diego is going to be good for everybody. We won't say don't want them, or that we're scared of them. We'll be happy for them if they come into the town and happy for the city because it will have not one, but two teams. Then it will be up to us to be the best team for the supporters in San Diego."
Also, while San Diego doesn't officially have a pro soccer team in the market, many of its soccer-loving residents have adopted Liga MX side Club Tijuana as their team, with San Diegans often making the short trip across the border en masse to see matches at Estadio Caliente.
"Knowing that a team like Tijuana has a big fan base makes me happy because I know people in San Diego support soccer," Ba said. "Now all we have to do is create a culture of attractive football and winning football so we can attract these fans to our stadium. People love to see teams who win, that's why Golden State [Warriors] today is not Golden State five years ago. The fan base is way different, and we all know why, because they're attractive. If we can reproduce that then we'll be more than happy."
The addition of San Diego is a boon for the NASL, which has been in recovery mode since nearly closing its doors last year after the exodus of Minnesota United to MLS and Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC to the rival USL, as well as the shuttering of Rayo OKC. U.S. Soccer gave NASL a reprieve at the start of the year when it chose to issue second division status to both NASL and USL, contingent on both leagues making necessary improvements to ensure long-term second division status.