San Diego primed for golden MLS opportunity

By Dylan Butler | Posted 1 year ago

The calls to Don Garber started two decades ago, a few years into his becoming Major League Soccer commissioner. It’s a lifelong dream for Mohamed Mansour and it became a reality Thursday when San Diego was awarded an MLS expansion. 


The yet-to-be-named team, though it appears it will likely be San Diego Football Club, will be the 30th club in the league and are scheduled to begin play in 2025.


“From my earliest days in the sport – it's year 24 for me – I've been told what a great soccer city San Diego is,” Garber said at a press conference Thursday. “It started with a call I received 20 years ago from a guy named Ron Newman involved in the NASL, and he called me up and said, "You've got to come to San Diego.”


“We never lost our focus, we never lost hope in San Diego being a great MLS team and market,” Garber added “And here we are with a great ownership group, great facility and a business staff that's really going to work hard to build a terrific team in this market.”


The club is co-owned by Mansour, an Egyptian billionaire and former politician, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and San Diego Padres star Manny Machado. 


“What really attracted me to this organization was the commitment and the experience of developing young athletes personally, academically, and obviously athletically through the Right to Dream foundation which is something obviously as a baseball player, you know, we really truly care about,” Machado said. “It's not only about playing the sport but academically and personally, there's a lot more to life than just a sport.”


The group paid a reported $500 million expansion fee, $175 million more than David Tepper paid when Charlotte was awarded an expansion franchise in 2018, and will play at Snapdragon Stadium, a 35,000-seat venue which is also home for San Diego Wave FC of the NWSL.


The Sycuan Tribe becomes the first Native American tribe to have an ownership stake in professional soccer in the United States.


“You can't get more local than the indigenous people that have been in this area for thousands of years, and for the last 400 years, with the success of our business, we have continued to give back in what we call the Kumeyaay spirit of giving to the region of San Diego,” Sycuan chairman Cody Martinez said. “We are so excited to be a part of this opportunity, and for the last 400 years, we have supported professional sports in this town, and this is a natural evolution to go from sponsoring to sitting at the ownership table.”


Other founding partners include Brad Termini (Co-founder, Zephyr Partners); Tom Vernon (Founder, Right to Dream) and Dan Dickinson (Board Member, Right to Dream). 


Right to Dream, which was founded by Vernon in Ghana in 1999 and owned by Mansour’s London-based investment management firm Man Capital, has since expanded globally and is widely known for identifying and nurturing young talent.


To date, 13 players from Right to Dream have competed in Major League Soccer.


“What we know is that some of the best players in the world this weekend will be playing on soccer fields in San Diego and Tijuana. And our club is here and committed to the youth and the development of youth,” Vernon said. “The greatest football clubs in the world from Barcelona to Manchester United are built on that simple principle and philosophy that you give youth and opportunity, and that's what our club is going to be doing here.”


San Diego becomes the fourth California-based MLS club, joining the Los Angeles duo of the Galaxy and LAFC and the San Jose Earthquakes.


“Today to me feels like in some ways like a thousand birthdays have come together,” Mansour said. “I am so happy and honored to kick start this venture. Why? For one, soccer is in my family's blood. My uncle played professional soccer; my uncle was my mentor. He played for Egypt in the World Cup in the 1930s. I am a lifetime supporter of Manchester United. Small problem. My son, Loutfy, who is sitting here, he is a big Chelsea fan. Anyway. Now we will find peace at home because we are all San Diego.”


San Diego’s CEO, Tom Penn, is the former LAFC president who helped that club in their expansion season in 2018. 


“We want to build something special to go after Los Angeles. I'm talking to both of them up there,” Penn said. 


In addition to the likely rivalries against the LA clubs, there’s the potential of a local derby of sorts with Club Tijuana from Liga MX, just across the border, that should be played out in the newly constructed Leagues Cup, which will debut this summer. 


And in US Open Cup, perhaps there will be a San Diego derby with San Diego Loyal out of the USL Championship, a club that touts MLS and US Soccer legend Landon Donovan as an executive vice president of soccer operations. 


There was some disappointment from that club and their supporters that they weren’t selected as the MLS expansion side. 


“I’ve always said from the beginning that we want San Diego to be the soccer capital of North America and it looks like that’s shaping out with everything that we have here in town,” San Diego Loyal chairman and owner Andrew Vassiliadis told San Diego’s KUSI News. “Is it a challenge? Will there be hurdles? Absolutely. 


“But I have an incredible team of people that have navigated through a pandemic, that have navigated tough things as we got to where we are today. I believe in them and what we can do together. USL Championship is what I could do. There was no opportunity for me personally to look at anything other than that.”


What is next for MLS expansion? Las Vegas was at one point considered a favorite but were edged out by San Diego and Garber previously mentioned Detroit, Phoenix and Tampa as possible expansion cities. 


While a potential 31st team or more in MLS is pure speculation, what isn’t is that San Diego finally has an MLS club.


“This soccer club is your soccer club,” Mansour said. “It belongs to this city. We are merely custodians. It's your community, and this soccer club is going to be here in San Diego for a long, long time.”


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