May 21, 2020
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Professional soccer could be a good fit for sports-crazed Portland

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Hadlock Field in Portland, home of the Class AA Portland Sea Dogs of the Eastern League, is shown in 2018. A group is working on trying to bring professional soccer to Maine's largest city.

PORTLAND — For more than 30 years, soccer — or proper football as the Europeans say — has been the sport of the future in the United States. Legends like Pele and Johan Cruyff have graced our turf, but the game’s popularity has never fully developed.

With the expansion and viewing availability of the English Premier League and Champions League, soccer is at our doorstep. In Portland, an ownership group is looking to bring a United Soccer League team to southern Maine.

The team would play in USL League One, which is the third highest league in the United States soccer hierarchy below the USL Championship and Major League Soccer. The USL has 12 teams, but has plans to expand drastically.

With soccer finally at a sustainable level across the country, could Portland become the Northeast hub for the sport?

Gabe Hoffman-Johnson thinks so. He is an alumnus of Dartmouth College, where he received a B.A. in Government. Having been out of school for six years, he has his sights set on a movement he thinks is perfect for the Portland market.

A former two-time Maine Player of the Year and All-American, Hoffman-Johnson is no stranger to the soccer world. The Falmouth native is a loyal Liverpool fan, and having a father who has coached the sport for 30 years, the game runs in his blood.

Hoffman-Johnson described Portland as a “diverse melting pot,” and even claims it can be “one of the biggest small soccer markets, comparable to a Madison, Wisconsin.” Having played in the USL for Saint Louis FC, he is familiar with the league’s setup. With expanded markets and teams, he sees endless opportunity.

While the league is supportive of bringing a team to Maine, nothing has been finalized yet. The Portland United moniker has been drafted to create some buzz around the city, but that is subject to change. Along with the name comes social media accounts (@USLtoPortland), a website and a tentative logo, which bears a classic Maine pine tree and a star. This design was used in the first Maine state flag from 1901-1909.

“There is room for another fan base in the market,” Hoffman-Johnson said. “More kids are playing soccer right now over sports like baseball, which gives us a massive opportunity.”

He described how the team would try to recruit local players and be a conduit for the community, but did express how crucial the next few years would be for its progress.

Sports are ingrained in the Portland community. The Portland Sea Dogs are beginning their 27th year at Hadlock Field while their neighbors, the Maine Red Claws, are living it up at the Portland Expo. The Maine Mariners control the ice at the Cross Insurance Arena downtown, and the city even hosted the Maine Mammoths, an arena football team, during the summer of 2018.

The city, which seems to build dedicated fan bases in the blink of an eye, is open to new ideas. But could Portland handle a raucous soccer community?

Hoffman-Johnson believes a soccer club would emulate the city’s personality and target a younger demographic as it looks to build a crazed fan community comparable in passion to Portland, Oregon, or Atlanta.

It will probably not be an automatic journey to epic fandom for a Portland soccer team. It will take a few years to really get the community engaged and on board. However, it seems as though the delegation is here for the long run.

Given the fans’ support for other teams and their passion for coming together as a community, expect soccer culture to fit perfectly in Portland.

Hoffman-Johnson said the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, will be a “watermark moment” for the country and its admiration for the world’s game. It will not only serve as a huge moment for the American soccer fanbase, but also the fans in Portland.

Throughout the years, the city has seen the likes of David Ortiz, Rajon Rondo and Dustin Pedroia grace its playing fields and arenas. Soon enough, the next Christian Pulisic or Tim Howard could be playing in Portland on their way through the United States soccer ranks and inspiring a whole new generation of fans to fall in love with America’s game of the present.

Josh Ricker of Fort Fairfield is a freelance sports journalist and a recent graduate of the University of Southern Maine with a B.S. in Business Administration. He recently interned with the Portland Sea Dogs and his work covering a wide array of athletics has been featured on “Fansided” and “Sports Betting Dime.”

 


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