A dream five years in the making for a former soccer player who grew up in Maine came true this week with the announcement that a professional soccer team will finally be coming to Portland.
The United Soccer League announced Thursday that Portland will be the home of a new franchise team for USL League One, United Soccer League’s third division. The move makes Portland the 15th expansion city for the division. Other cities with teams already in the division include Knoxville, Tenn., Fresno, Calif. and Charlotte, N.C. According to the league’s website, another team is planned for Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Portland, Maine has every ingredient necessary to be wildly successful – a committed ownership group, a strong soccer culture and a vibrant multi-cultural population,” said Justin Papadakis, the league’s deputy CEO. “We’ve built clubs in many cities, and we can see Portland’s potential to become one of the strongest.”
The announcement culminates five years of work by USL to Portland, a nonprofit created by Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, 31, a St. Louis native who moved to Freeport when he was in the sixth grade. He played soccer at the middle and high school levels, captained the men’s soccer team at Dartmouth College, and played professionally for the league’s now-defunct St. Louis team for one year.
He returned to Maine five years ago with a dream – to bring a franchise to Portland. He said since then the drive to bring the team to Maine has garnered 10,000 followers on social media, and at an event announcing the new team Thursday night, he said several hundred people were in attendance.
“To be at a spot where we can now say that professional soccer is coming to Portland obviously is remarkable,” he said. “It’s been a lot of time and effort, patience and persistence to make it happen.”
According to a statement from the league announcing the new team, the move is expected to generate more than $10 million in tax revenue in the region and create as many as 50 new jobs.
Gov. Janet Mills, in a statement, said, “The addition of a professional soccer club is a testament to our state and a welcome investment in the economic, cultural and community vitality of Maine, joining our existing professional sports teams to cement Portland as Northern New England’s premier sports destination.”
Hoffman-Johnson said the league decided to host the team at Fitzpatrick Stadium, a 6,000-seat venue near Hadlock Field and the Portland Exposition Building. The stadium was originally built in 1931. Modern upgrades to accommodate the team will include, according to a statement, “increasing accessibility and functionality, adding locker rooms, renovating the press box, improving other general aesthetic needs.”
Hoffman-Johnson said private backers are paying for the upgrades. He declined to say how much money has been raised, but that local efforts matched financial requirements set by the league, which led to the team getting the green light.
The statement announcing the new team listed among its financial backers Portland commercial property developer Jonathan Culley and his wife, Catherine, as well as Lewiston native and NESN Red Sox broadcaster Tom Caron. Hoffman-Johnson said additional donors wished to remain anonymous for now, but he said, “We have brought on some new funders, which is fantastic.”
Portland city staff members have been working with USL to Portland and Hoffman-Johnson on the finer details, such as the rental agreement for the stadium, since the summer of 2021. Hoffman-Johnson said the Portland City Council still has to officially vote to approve the agreement but added that he was confident the proposal would get the city’s stamp of approval.
“We’ve had the support of the city from a macro perspective,” he said.
Hoffman-Johnson said the public has been backing the idea ever since USL to Portland first announced the concept publicly in 2019. The league announced on Thursday that it would be holding a series of town hall-style meetings for public input on decisions such as the team’s name and colors. Organizers will hold the first event at the Portland Zoo bar on Sept. 24. A second meeting will happen at a youth soccer event at Bayside Bowl in October, with a third gathering planned for November.
Assuming the team gets city council approval, Hoffman-Johnson said he believes the team will be able to start its first season in the spring of 2025.