Less than 24 hours after the United States took on Serbia in a friendly at Qualcomm Stadium, the collective soccer society of San Diego ventured downtown.
It was to be a symbolic day aboard the USS Midway, the massive naval ship that is seen as an iconic staple of the city and its deep military ties.
It was to be the moment when the official bid for an MLS expansion franchise would be handed over from the now well known prospective ownership group, FS Investors, to the league commissioner himself, Don Garber.
After an hour long event that was somewhere between a ceremony and a pep rally, and after the symbolic handoff was made, I had a chance to speak with three of the higher profile attendees.
In addition to the chat with Commissioner Garber, I spoke with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. We discussed various layers of professional sports in the wake of the NFL’s Chargers abandoning San Diego and bolting for Los Angeles, and what top flight soccer could mean to the city. The mayor also touched on the city’s relationship with Tijuana and Mexico as a whole, something that he sees as an integral part of San Diego’s culture.
I ended the day aboard the ship by having a conversation with arguably the greatest American soccer player of all time, Landon Donovan, a man who is now a San Diego County resident. That discussion was more wide ranging, and delved into an ever developing culture of social and political resistance among athletes, specifically referencing my conversations at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday with members of the United States Men’s National Team.
Here are the best clips from the sunny day on the Midway, starting with the Soccer Don.
(In response to my question of what an MLS franchise’s arrival would mean to soccer entities that already exist in the San Diego area, from prominent youth clubs to teams in the NPSL, PDL, and potentially the USL and NASL…)
Garber: “Years and years ago, I can remember when I first became commissioner and I was at a U.S. Soccer annual meeting, and a state president of youth soccer came up to me and said that he would never support one of our league’s clubs because of the challenges they had in that relationship with the MLS team that was near them.”
“It is completely the opposite now. All of our teams have good relationships with local youth clubs, amateur clubs, and they are even forming partnerships to grow the game together from the bottom all the way up to the top. When I go to those same meetings now, MLS is the hero as opposed to where it was in the past.”
(I specifically referenced the rumored bid for a USL franchise in San Diego from Honda Estilo, the prominent Japanese business group that includes AC Milan midfielder and Japanese legend Keisuke Honda. MLS officials have hinted that they would prefer independent USL teams refrain from inserting themselves into potential MLS markets until the next round of league expansion is settled.)
Garber: “I haven’t actually heard anything about that. I’m not actually as close to that as people might expect. Is there a USL team coming here next year? Because I have’t heard anything about that.”
(The Commissioner was asked about any potential obstacles for the city of San Diego in getting the expansion bid.)
Garber: “Well, they’ve got to get through a process with the city council first, and then they’ve got to go out to the public, which they’ve committed to doing. They’ve got to finalize a relationship with the university, San Diego State. They’ve got to convince a bunch of existing owners who are really focused on the future growth of the league that San Diego is the right market at this time. This is the beginning of the race, it’s not the end of the race.”
“But I think the league has always been intrigued with closer proximity and closer relationships with Mexico. I think one of the things that is very powerful here is this idea that thousands of people are going south of the border to attend games in Tijuana. As we think about the future of the sport, long term, it is very much about how we and Mexico could work together to grow the game here.”
“We think about the same things in Canada, where we actually have teams. We will not have teams in Mexico and they will not have teams here in the United States, but this idea of a closer relationship; could we play our champion against their champion? Could we have more inter-league play that is outside of the CONCACAF Champions League? Could we think about more partnerships between MLS clubs and Liga MX clubs? Those are the kinds of things that will allow us to be more competitive against the other more established professional sports leagues here in the United States.”
(After a strange moment during the press conference itself, where Garber brought up Club Tijuana and butchered the pronunciation of the team’s famous nickname, he said to the crowd:
“For those of you that don’t know, Xolos is a dog. Did you know that, that Xolos is a dog?”
He told me he has never been to a game at Estadio Caliente, but that he would love to attend one soon. His words on these hypothetical partnerships with Mexican clubs are representative of a relatively new tone on the subject.)
(Mayor Kevin Faulconer was on his way off the ship, being one of the first people to leave the event, when he gave a couple minutes of time to SoccerNation. I asked Mayor Faulconer about his thoughts on the Chargers leaving and how it relates to the MLS expansion bid.)
Faulconer: “Look, today is all about opportunity and tapping into that passion for sports here in San Diego. You saw it from all the folks up here, folks of all ages. San Diego is and will continue to be a great sports city. To see the league that is here today, the ownership group, and all the enthusiasm, you’d have to say that the sky’s the limit.”
(After not once mentioning the word “Chargers”, Mayor Faulconer responded to my question about the city of San Diego’s relationship with Tijuana, and soccer’s potential to build cultural bridges.)
Faulconer: “Our relationship with Tijuana is a relationship we are very proud of, a relationship we foster. Passion for soccer in Tijuana and Northern Baja, and the passion for soccer here in San Diego; we will be able to really merge that. With the Xolos who have done so well down in Tijuana, and everything they bring to the table, and with the opportunity we have here with a Major League Soccer franchise, I think you’re gonna see that synergy. There’s no doubt in my mind, it’s going be a tremendous success.”
(I then asked Mayor Faulconer to share his thoughts on soccer’s ability to accomplish social change and promote unity in the face of divisive rhetoric in President Trump’s America.)
Faulconer: “For me, politics is always going to be a part of sports. Soccer and other professional sports can help bring people together, and when we’re working together, we all benefit.”
“We’re excited about the opportunities here with soccer in San Diego. We’re excited about the relationship we have with Mexico. It’s a relationship we promote, and one that we will continue to push onward here in San Diego. Soccer can absolutely help in that regard.”
(The final conversation of the day with United States Soccer legend and now San Diego County resident Landon Donovan began with some words on the importance of bilingual soccer coverage in both MLS and Liga MX. Donovan had just ended a Spanish language interview with the local Univision affiliate.)
Donovan: “If you’re not aware of what’s going on in this country, especially this part of the country, as far as Hispanic passion and love for this game, then you’re doing a disservice. This sport in our country is largely built on American and Hispanic roots and people who love this game.”
“I was fortunate to grow up learning Spanish and playing on a team with 90% Latinos that only spoke Spanish. I don’t want to use the word cater, but I think we need to make sure that we are always aware of that in the way we promote this sport.”
(Donovan then gave his thoughts on what a competitive relationship between Club Tijuana and a potential MLS team in San Diego would mean to the game of soccer in Southern California and Northern Mexico.)
Donovan: “It would be tremendous. I think the Galaxy have already utilized that a little bit. I think that having a team right across the border from an MLS team here in San Diego would be great. You could also have natural rivalries built in with the Galaxy and LAFC.”
“As far as the binary culture between Hispanics, Mexicans especially, and San Diegans, it would be pretty special.”
“I know there’s a number in the thousands of San Diegans who travel down to watch Xolos play every other weekend. If there could be a natural rivalry created with an MLS team, I think it would be great for us, I think it would be great for the Mexican League, and great for soccer in total.”
(After briefly discussing my conversation with Donovan’s former USMNT teammate Alejandro Bedoya and touching on comments made by Sacha Kljestan and Michael Bradley, Donovan offered his views on soccer’s incredible social capability and the game’s importance in the face of bigotry and xenophobia in this country. Donovan also shared something about his own family background that some people may not know.)
Donovan: “There’s so many of us, myself included, who have ties to other nations. Our country is built on its diversity and its ability to welcome everybody.”
“My family grew up in Canada. I’m a duel citizen. A lot of people that have played for our national team are either duel citizens or come from parents or grandparents that are not originally American.”
“I’ve always been a proponent of inclusion. One of the best things that’s happened to me in my career is having the ability to travel, and to see how this sport brings people together. In so many places where there’s war and strife, the game of soccer and soccer teams can make a big difference. It’s part of what this sport does. It unifies people. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve lived it. And I think the hope for all of us is that we can continue to push that agenda in a positive direction as opposed to being exclusionary.”
(I then asked the all-time leading scorer for the USMNT to give his opinion on what it means to have a platform as a notable professional athlete, and using that platform for social equality, especially here in 2017.)
Donovan: “I think in the past, the common idea from people was, ‘stick to sports, you’re a dumb athlete’. The reality is we live here. We pay taxes just like everyone else. We’re allowed to have opinions, and in some cases we have the ability to effectuate change.”
“If you’re genuine and authentic, people will listen to what you have to say, and they are willing to be open minded about what you have to say. You obviously saw that with Michael Bradley’s comments this week.”
“If you’re going to speak out, you have to clearly be educated on the issues and know what you’re talking about. But if you believe passionately about something, there’s no reason why you can’t speak about it.”
“I have children here. I live here. I’m allowed to be a citizen just like everyone else, regardless of what I do in my professional life.”
“I think it’s good that people are proactively voicing their opinions. I think it’s incredibly important.”
After an eventful day that saw folks figuratively and literally jump on the ship, San Diegans are left in a bit of a “what now” haze. The MLS expansion bid is in, but the city still has a number of hoops to jump through and votes to cast before the decision is made by the league by the end of the year, San Diego vying for the 25th spot in the league.
It is oh so important to mention two things. First, an MLS team would not actually take the field until the year 2020 at the earliest. Second, there are 11 other major American markets coveting these four remaining expansion spots. There were a lot of nice words shared by Garber and members of his staff on the gorgeous weather and the fantastic vibes of San Diego. There will be plenty of compliments for every other city in the running as the year progresses.
But to put it in the words of one soccer fan aboard the ship on Monday, none of those other cities are San Diego. There is something unique here, and it’s more than just winter sunshine.
The dialogue on San Diego’s relationship with Tijuana was refreshing and inspiring. With a competent, passionate, and driven ownership group in place, (a group that as of a Monday announcement on the USS Midway includes Juan Carlos Rodriguez as an investor, the Miami-based president of Univision Deportes, the rights holder for Spanish language coverage of MLS) San Diego certainly seems to be trending in the right direction.
It is looking more and more like a matter of when rather than if for MLS in America’s Finest City.