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United Soccer League: Pro soccer team would be ‘gravy on top’ for Spokane if new stadium is built downtown

UPDATED: Mon., May 3, 2021

Eric Sawyer, President and CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission, speaks during a presentation by the Downtown Spokane Partnership for a new downtown stadium on March 2 in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Eric Sawyer, President and CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission, speaks during a presentation by the Downtown Spokane Partnership for a new downtown stadium on March 2 in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

If a new multi-use athletic stadium is going to be built in downtown Spokane, United Soccer League vice president of club expansion Dan Holman considers a potential Lilac City franchise “the gravy on top” of a decision that will benefit the region.

That’s a topping Holman and the 43-team professional soccer association want if ground is broken in a convenient, central location.

The Spokane Public Facilities District voted last week to enter into an agreement with Spokane Public Schools to build a new facility in downtown, but the deal has not yet been finalized.

The proposal now goes back to the school board, which is expected to make a final decision Wednesday.

“Even without a soccer team, this stadium, in my opinion, (downtown) is the right place to put it,” said Holman, who has been in talks with Spokane officials and stakeholders about potential league expansion. “It’s a more accessible venue, it’s going to really drive attendances for high school football and high school soccer, save the school district a lot of money on operations.”

The $31 million, 5,000-seat venue downtown would also likely boost attendance for a new USL League One team.

USL League One, currently comprised of 12 teams in metro populations of 150,000 to 1 million, was formed in 2019 to make high-level soccer more accessible to smaller and midsize sports markets

The more established USL Championships division includes such teams as Phoenix, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Tacoma and several other bigger markets, but USL League One has been driving big interest on a smaller stage, Holman said.

Greenville (South Carolina) Triumph SC won the 2020 USL One title a year after North Texas SC of Arlington, Texas, won the inaugural title in 2019.

MLS, USL Championship and USL League One are America’s three primary pro leagues.

Multiple USL One clubs have also shared mixed-used venues with their respective cities, including Chattanooga (Tennessee) Red Wolves SC and South Georgia Tormenta of Statesboro, Georgia.

Two of Major League Soccer’s finest, fan-crazy franchises are in the Pacific Northwest in the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, and the USL believes that fervor has carried into Eastern Washington.

Holman said a team in Spokane would boost more interest in the sport and help develop more local talent. The USL has also gauged the interest of Spokane youth soccer clubs and leagues.

A new downtown stadium and prominent branding would likely magnify those efforts. USL League One games are also streamed on ESPN+.

“Based on the interest we’ve seen and the growth, we believe soccer will be taken well in Spokane,” Holman said. “We want to make the sure club represents the local market in terms of its local branding.”

The United States will be among the biggest exports of soccer talent in the world over the next 10 years, Holman said, making potential league expansion in cities like Spokane an important pursuit.

Spokane was previously home to a USL League Two team, the Spokane Shadow, in the 1990s and 2000s.

For professional soccer to return to Spokane with a USL partnership, the new stadium would likely need to be built downtown, not on the outskirts like Joe Albi Stadium, the Shadow’s former venue.

USL chief operating officer Justin Papadakis recently said that Spokane has the makings of a major USL soccer hub and a team could drive major economic impact to downtown restaurants, bars and hotels.

“The USL has made it very clear that they are only interested in coming to Spokane if there is a modern stadium in our downtown core,” Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner said in February. “I have no doubt that a downtown location will save taxpayers millions and make the stadium home to a USL professional soccer team.”

There is currently just one USL One team in the Western United States in Tucson (Arizona) FC, which includes multiple players with MLS, NCAA Division I accolades and high-level foreign experience.

The talent, an age range mostly in the late teens and early 20s, is widely a mixture of foreign and domestic. USL player salaries range from $25,000-$30,000 with other perks, according to multiple reports.

Holman said the USL One is aiming to expand to 25-30 teams, which would nearly match the current number of teams in the USL Championship, a league that’s had some prominent investors in recent years.

Former Team USA soccer stars Landon Donovan (San Diego Loyal LC) and Tim Howard (Memphis 901 FC) are part of their respective USL ownership groups.

“In the past, kids and parents had to travel to MLS markets in order to be noticed,” Holman said. “Now we’re able to put teams in these other communities, where kids aspire to play for their home team.”

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