The United Soccer League ceremonially awarded its 31st franchise to San Antonio at Toyota Field. USL officials also announced Thursday that Spurs Sports and Entertainment (SSE) would own and operate the city’s new soccer club in March 2016.
The new USL franchise is not yet named, but Coach Darren Powell will lead the San Antonio soccer team. Thursday’s events marked a major step in San Antonio’s mission to land an even bigger prize — a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise.
It was before Christmas when The City and Bexar County jointly acquired Toyota Field, home of the Scorpions North American Soccer League team, from businessman Gordon Hartman’s nonprofit, S.O.A.R. (Sports Outdoor and Recreation).
SS&E, the parent company of the Spurs, Rampage and Silver Stars, has begun leasing the stadium for 20 years with an eye toward improving and expanding the facility to MLS standards. In the meantime, the City, County and SS&E agreed that launching a USL franchise would further grow the local soccer fan base, and help the Spurs ownership group to be familiar with owning and operating a soccer team.
“We’ve been talking soccer over the last 10 years, searching out who’d be the best partner, and the USL kept coming up,” said Bobby Perez, vice president-general counsel and corporate relations for SS&E.
USL President Jake Edwards acknowledged the Scorpions as an important part of the local history and strong support for soccer. The fan base and the credentials of the Spurs ownership group convinced the USL that expanding to San Antonio was the right move.
“It’s an absolute privilege to be here to welcome the Spurs family to our organization. I’m thrilled to be in San Antonio. It’s a vibrant, ambitious city, rich with history and a proud, upstanding population,” Edwards said.
The USL is working with the Spurs and local fan base to build up support for top-tier soccer. Although San Antonio is looking to the MLS for expansion consideration, the USL is an important part of reaching to be part of that mission, Edwards said. But the USL has its own mission to become one of the best second-level soccer leagues in the world.
Three years ago, USL agreed to formally begin developing MLS-bound talent. Five former USL clubs have fully jumped to MLS, including current champions Portland Timbers. The MLS intends to expand from 20 to 24 teams by 2020.
“The goal of this organization, in the long-term, is to bring the MLS here. This is the footprint, the path,” said Rick Pych, SS&E’s president of business operations. Pych also thanked Hartman for his efforts to grow organized soccer locally.
Powell comes to San Antonio via Orlando City SC and, before that, Elon University. He has been coaching soccer for nearly 18 years, but the USL San Antonio club marks his first professional head coaching position.
Powell said he was approached about the job and was excited for the challenging opportunity to grow a club from the ground up.
“I was told how passionate and enthusiastic the fans are here. I can see that from the last 36 hours,” he told the crowd. “I can’t wait for opening night at the end of March, and hope you all will be here to pack the house. It’s a privilege and an honor to coach the Spurs’ first soccer organization.”
Powell said he is already looking at what players are available to help fill the roster, and that tryouts will take place in early February. He wants to play a fast-paced, “attacking” style of soccer.
“I’m truly excited and passionate to join a global franchise on its soccer journey. The path is clear: To go from minor league to the MLS. It won’t happen overnight,” he added.
The Crocketteers, San Antonio’s most visible group of soccer supporters, cheered in support of Powell and the franchise. James Hope, Crocketteers president, said fans will delight in seeing regional rivalries blossom.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to be in the USL, going on road matches, playing in the Rio Grande Valley and Oklahoma City. It’s a great thing for supporters to be able to travel,” Hope said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunities this presents to San Antonio and perhaps, one day, the option of moving up to MLS.”
*Top Image: A digital banner displays the USL logo along with the San Antonio Spurs logo. Photo by Scott Ball.