Portland, Maine – one of the many cities prime for a professional soccer team – was visited by the USL Division III expansion team on Nov. 10, and league executives and local influencers alike were optimistic of the opportunity at hand.
The most populous city of Maine, Portland is already home to successful sports franchises in the Maine Red Claws of the NBA G League and Portland Sea Dogs of MiLB, and the city will welcome a professional ECHL hockey team – the Maine Mariners – to the fold in 2018.
There is also a growing soccer fan base in the city. The GPS Portland Phoenix, three-time Northeast Division winners of the Premier Development League – the top pre-professional league in North America – have helped develop that support since beginning play in 2010.
“I believe soccer is becoming more and more popular in Maine, and more players both at the youth and young adult league are participating,” GPS Portland Phoenix General Manager Paul Baber told USLD3.com. “While we have had decent support for our PDL team, if a professional team with the right facility that was able to provide a quality game environment was to come into Portland, I think it could be very successful and well supported.
“Portland has a very strong soccer population compared to other sports. This is shown with the local town programs that participate and the high school programs in the area. Other cities in Maine might see soccer as a secondary sport, but that’s not the case in Greater Portland.”
Since April, league executives have conducted expansion discussions with more than 50 markets across the United States and have visited 23 different cities.
"The soccer scene in Portland continues to thrive due to the strength of its local amateur and youth scene,” USL Division III Vice President Steven Short told USLD3.com. “Anchored by the GPS Portland Phoenix of the PDL … the game continues to grow in Portland. A USL Division III professional side will provide the residents and players of all ages with a capstone team.”
USL Division III will kick off its inaugural season in 2019 and provide fans in markets currently without direct access to professional soccer with a team to call their own. The new professional league is targeting cities ranging in population from 150,000 to one million for expansion.
“If a new professional soccer team was to come into the area, I believe they would be very warmly welcomed by the local community, and clubs like ours, Global Premier Soccer, would want to work alongside them,” Baber said. “If someone can either build or partner with the right facility, to make sure the fan experience both on and off the field was top notch, then the fans will follow.
“There needs to be an avenue for those players graduating out of college that are not yet ready for the MLS or USL. The USL, with its MLS affiliation, has done a good job of providing additional playing opportunities for some of these players, but by adding another level, it will expand the number of players within the professional game in the U.S., which is important for the overall development of the league and the national programs.”