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With downtown stadium moving forward, United Soccer League planting seeds of new Spokane team

Justin Papadakis, United Soccer League Chief Operating Officer, left, and Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner present their vision for a downtown sports stadium, Tuesday morning, Feb. 11, 2020 at the Wonder Building.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Justin Papadakis, United Soccer League Chief Operating Officer, left, and Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner present their vision for a downtown sports stadium, Tuesday morning, Feb. 11, 2020 at the Wonder Building.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

It will be two years before Spokane plays host to a professional soccer team, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to Justin Papadakis.

A few days after the Spokane Public Schools board approved a new downtown sports stadium on May 5, Papadakis was back in town seeking sponsors and other backers for a United Soccer League franchise.

“There’s a lot of work to do over the next couple of years, but can’t wait till 2023,” said Papadakis, chief operating officer and chief real estate officer with the Florida-based USL.

“I believe the new stadium will be sold out, and all the hard work will be worth it – it’s going to be very exciting,” Papadakis said.

The league is off to a strong start in Spokane, Papadakis said.

“We met with several potential investors, and we are continuing those discussions,” Papadakis said. “The meetings went exceptionally well. We want to put together an ownership group that has strong roots in Spokane and believes in the goal of ours to have Spokane being one of the top soccer markets in the United States.”

Papadakis’ optimism shone through during a recent interview with Forbes.

Asked which projects have been particularly satisfying or surprising, Papadakis singled out Spokane.

Satisfied that the league was able to “work with the school board and convince them that the downtown stadium was the preferable option,” Papadakis also noted that the progress came during the height of the pandemic.

“And it was amazing,” Papadakis said. “We would have conference calls to brief stakeholders about the status of the stadium project, and we would have 60, 70 people on each of those calls, in a time of economic uncertainty, health uncertainty, like most people have never experienced.

“Everyone was wanting to spend an hour talking about USL’s downtown stadium project. They said, “How can we help? How can we be involved?’ ” Papadakis said.

Now the league also is working with the school district, the Spokane Public Facilities District and other to plan the details of the 5,000-seat stadium.

The $31 million facility was originally planned to go up at the current Albi Stadium site, but the school district voted last month to shift its resources to a site just north of downtown and east of the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

One reason for the switch was the promise of professional soccer, which is growing in popularity, especially in the Northwest.

Spokane won’t be playing in Major League Soccer, which has franchises in Seattle and Portland; or in the USL Champions League, the league’s top tier. Rather, Spokane will compete in USL League One, which mostly includes cities with between 150,000 and 1 million residents.

This year’s league has 12 teams. Papadakis said that number will increase to 16 or 18 by the time Spokane is on board in the spring of 2023.

That’s not as distant as it sounds, because branding and hiring will start this fall.

“You have talent produced here in Spokane and at Gonzaga,” he said. “I think it’s going to be very likely that the team will have several local players.”

Local outreach will extend to younger players, Papadakis said.

“One of the unique features of soccer is the direct connection down to the youth players, and our academy initiatives will allow youth players to have interaction with the professional teams,” Papadakis said.

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