San Diego's 1904 FC soccer team to join USL after NASL cancels season

The professional soccer team without players or coaches now has a league. And a direction.

San Diego’s 1904 FC announced it is finalizing an agreement to join the second-division United Soccer League beginning in 2019 after the NASL, its original choice, shut down for the 2018 season and possibly forever.

“We’ve been treading water for the last six months and it was causing us some issues,” club president Bob Watkins said. “So we started looking into an alternative, and we looked at several different options. It just came together at the right time with the right kind of enthusiasm. We just said, ‘Let’s do it.’

“It takes our mind off the uncertainty and it puts it onto the certainty.”

The USL has 33 teams and could approach 40 in 2019 with planned expansion in several other markets. However, 21 franchises are reserve MLS teams and there’s talk of eventually splitting the league – with the independent teams like 1904 FC in the second division and the MLS reserves in the third division.

It also makes more logistical sense than the NASL, which had an expansion team in Orange County and everyone else in the Eastern time zone: New York, Jacksonville, Miami and Puerto Rico. The USL has teams this season in Orange County, Fresno, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Sacramento, Reno and the Los Angeles Galaxy reserves.

Last July, 1904 FC announced plans to play in the NASL beginning in March 2018. But the league began unravelling in September when the U.S. Soccer did not renew its second-division status. The NASL filed an antitrust lawsuit in federal court against the federation and requested a preliminary injunction allowing to remain as second division while the case was being litigated.

That was denied in November. The NASL appealed, and a decision was finally announced last week: another denial.

In the meantime, the NASL had pushed back the start of the 2018 season to August in hopes of aligning with the summer-to-spring calendar that most pro leagues around the world observe (and U.S. leagues do not). Even if the NASL survived, 1904 FC said it likely wouldn’t join until the spring of 2019.

Now what’s left of the league has scattered. New York, Miami and Jacksonville reportedly will play in the semi-pro National Premier Soccer League this season.

“The focus of the antitrust suit to date has been obtaining a preliminary injunction to save the 2018 season,” NASL interim commissioner Rishi Seghal said in a statement. “Unfortunately, with USSF’s decision and the loss of the preliminary injunction, playing the 2018 season is no longer a possibility. The focus of the antitrust suit now shifts to securing the long-term advancement of soccer in this country, not only for the NASL, but for all soccer fans, clubs, and communities impacted by the USSF’s restrictions on competition.”

The NASL franchise agreement allows clubs a one-month escape clause with little financial liability each September, but this season that was extended through the winter while awaiting the court decision on the injunction. Watkins said 1904 FC quietly exercised it a month ago but waited to announce their departure until the appeal was denied “out of respect to NASL.”

Watkins said his ownership group – which is headed by Senegalese soccer star Demba Ba and includes Chelsea’s Eden Hazard – initially considered USL, but the league was lukewarm on San Diego given the stadium uncertainty and the immediate availability of other markets. Watkins renewed talks with CEO Alec Papadakis two months ago, and they reached an agreement in principle last week.

“From a business point of view, I think it’s a very good decision,” Watkins said. “And it keeps our promise to the San Diego region that we wanted to bring the best professional soccer program that we could put together.

“Now we concentrate on the message. We concentrate on the playing side of it.”

Watkins expects 1904 FC to hire a head coach in late spring and begin signing players in the fall. The first USL game would be in March 2019, hopefully in a new 10,000-seat stadium at the 22-field SoCal Sports Complex five miles east of downtown Oceanside.

If not, Watkins said the back-up would be USD’s Torero Stadium, where the team would have played this season.

There are also plans now to offer 20 percent of the ownership to local entities, something they didn’t feel comfortable pursuing given the uncertainty of the league situation.

“That will give us an opportunity to engage the marketplace in a little different manner, so local ownership is part of the equation,” Watkins said. “All the significant investors are folks who play soccer outside the United States, and this gives us an opportunity to become more regionalized. That doesn’t mean one investor, it means multiple investors.”

mark.zeigler@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutzeigler

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