By Blake Leifer
If you live in Maine and want to see a professional soccer game, at the moment the only place to do so is Gillette Stadium. And this means a journey of over a hundred miles and across two state lines, to Massachusetts. However, thanks to Gabe Hoffman-Johnson and others, that is about to change.
The buzz in Portland centers around the “USL to Portland” movement, a plan to bring a professional soccer team to Maine. And after raising half a million dollars, and with Portland at the top of the United Soccer League list of 15 potential markets for a new soccer team, Hoffman-Johnson is ready to take the next steps.
Finding a home for the new soccer team is key. After an extensive search, talks are ongoing about building a brand new stadium. The stadium would hold approximately 5,000 seats.
As a former professional soccer player with St. Louis Football Club (St. Louis FC), Hoffman-Johnson knows what it takes to reach the game’s highest levels. He moved to Maine in the sixth grade, and now wants to put his networks and resources to work to help the state where he grew up. Soccer creates a connection with people from anywhere in the world, and allows people to speak with each other, and create relationships through a non-verbal form of communication, Hoffman-Johnson said. “Soccer is the largest common global language.”
The drive to bring professional soccer to Maine has led to the formation of a partnership between the USL to Portland movement and several local clubs. One of those clubs is Kennedy Park FC, which includes players from a wide variety of different countries. Co-founder Jonathon Cross explained that love for the game is what led to the creation of the club. The mission is “to create a constructive environment, empower aspiring prospects, and unite the community all through the universal language of the beautiful game.”
When Cross heard about the possibility of a professional soccer team coming to Maine, his response was, “What took so long?” The rapid growth of Kennedy Park FC – and the long lines in which players sometimes must wait for a chance to play – demonstrates the overall passion people have for soccer, he said.
Hany Ramadan, the other co-founder of Kennedy Park FC, is also excited about the prospect of a local professional team. “The immigrant community here really loves soccer!” he said. He believes a professional soccer team in Portland could even entice immigrants to choose Maine as a home. And that would help Kennedy Park FC, as they work to help develop youth players in Maine.
John Ochira, the founder of Community Champions League Maine, also shared his enthusiasm for the new league and the positive impact it would have on the immigrant community. “When I heard the USL was coming to Portland, I was really excited because there is a great hunger for the game to expand in Maine,” he said. He believes the USL to Portland movement would open doors for athletes to pursue playing sports at higher levels.
Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, the Community Champions league will be unable to have a 2021 summer season, which ends a 14-year run for the league. “It has required extraordinary dedication to keep the league running over the past 14 years,” Ochira explained. He hopes the league will be back up and running in the future, as a new, more feasible financial model evolves.
As the dream of having a professional soccer team in Maine becomes more tangible, some details are clear. The new Portland team will be part of League One, which is a second-tier branch of Major League Soccer in the United States. If everything continues to progress, the team may begin playing as early as the 2023 season.
At the moment, League One consists of 12 teams, one of which is the New England Revolution. But as Hoffman-Johnson explained in an interview with the New England Sports Network, “Rivalry is great for sports!” and could contribute to overall enthusiasm for the league, and drive fans to support their hometown team. Sales of team merchandise has helped the USL to Portland movement build steam, with a percentage of proceeds from sales going to Kennedy Park FC and Community Champions League.
A professional soccer team has been a long time coming for those in Maine who love soccer, but a new chapter in the history of Maine sports is set to begin. Soccer is very much alive and on the move in Maine. And as future generations participate in the beautiful game, many have high hopes that they will be able to proudly say they can support a professional soccer team of their own.