PORTLAND — Three years ago, Gabe Hoffman-Johnson returned to the state where he grew up with a dream of bringing a professional soccer team to Portland. When asked why, the former high school, college and professional player had a simple answer.
“I love the game,” he said.
Today, Hoffman-Johnson, 29, is the founder and president of USL to Portland, a grassroots organization aiming to bring a USL League 1 team to Maine.
Hoffman-Johnson said he’s had productive conversations with United Soccer League officials about Portland being awarded a USL League 1 expansion team if the organization and city can agree on a site to construct a stadium. The USL League 1 has 12 active teams and recently awarded expansion franchises to groups in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Spokane, Washington, and northern Colorado.
Born in St. Louis, Hoffman-Johnson moved to Falmouth in the sixth grade, and played soccer at both the middle and high school level. After graduating from Dartmouth College — where he was captain of the men’s soccer team — Hoffman-Johnson played for the now-defunct St. Louis Football Club in the USL for one year.
Hoffman-Johnson came back to Maine inspired by the growth of the USL. The league operates a network of minor league soccer teams across three levels in the U.S. — the USL Championship League, USL League 1 and USL League 2 — and has grown rapidly over the past decade.
“We’re in this incredible growth phase,” he said.
Hoffman-Johnson is working with investors to raise the $10 million he believes will be needed to construct a stadium and bring minor league soccer to Portland. While he declined to name investors, a fact sheet from USL to Portland named Jonathan and Catherine Culley, owners of Redfern Properties, as “part of the ownership group.”
“We have a solid group of individuals backing us now,” Hoffman-Johnson said.
Convincing Portland’s city council to support an expansion minor league soccer team and finding a place to play are now Hoffman-Johnson’s primary focuses. USL to Portland sent the city a proposal in July to build the stadium in one of two locations: a new field on Preble Street, off Interstate 295, or a renovation of Fitzpatrick Stadium, a 6,000-seat venue near Hadlock Field and the Portland Exposition Building.
Hoffman-Johnson told the Portland Press Herald earlier this summer that he didn’t expect taxpayer support would be needed to construct the stadium.
Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said the proposal is intriguing, and at first glance, he likes the concept.
“It’s a great proposal,” he said. “To bring a soccer team to our city would be great.”
Thibodeau played at Hadlock Field, home of the Portland Sea Dogs, in high school and said he imagines similar opportunities for local athletics at a new soccer field.
“Portland kids play baseball at Hadlock Field. It’s pretty awesome,” he said.
Thibodeau said most of his constituents support the idea, too, but it’s too early to tell just how the public, or even the council, will ultimately feel about having a team located at either of the proposed locations.
“I think most people are interested in having a team,” he said. “The obvious question is where?”
Right now, he said, the proposal is in the hands of city staffers who are reviewing the finer details and drafting recommendations to the council. Thibodeau said the proposal will probably get its first public viewing at a committee meeting this fall.
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