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USL Championship awards expansion club to Landon Donovan, San Diego

The club will be led by Sacramento Republic FC co-founder Warren Smith and former MLS superstar Landon Donovan. The club aims to begin play between 2020 and 2021.

USL San Diego Co-Founder and President Warren Smith and USL San Diego Executive Vice President, Soccer Operations Landon Donovan. (Photo courtesy Praise Media / USL San Diego)

Professional soccer is coming to San Diego.

The United Soccer League announced Wednesday that it had awarded the city an expansion franchise for its Championship level, which competes in the second tier of U.S. soccer. Leading the charge on bringing a club to San Diego is Warren Smith — the co-founder and former president of Sacramento Republic FC — and arguably one of the greatest American soccer players ever, Landon Donovan.

Smith will be the president of the club and its majority owner while Donovan will be its executive vice president for soccer operations, as well as an investor. The club already has a three-year agreement with the University of San Diego to play its games at Torero Stadium, which seats about 6,000 fans.

According to a press release from the USL, the club will be set to compete for the start of the 2021 Championship season, but could begin play as early as 2020.

“We are delighted to bring USL Championship soccer to San Diego,” USL CEO Alec Papadakis said in a statement. “It is a proud community with a rich soccer history, and we have no doubt that Warren Smith – a man of great experience and character – will lead this club successfully in to the future.”

Smith led Sacramento from its launch in 2012 and through its entry into the league in 2014, where it won the USL Championship and smashed the league’s attendance records in its first season. Smith stepped down from being Sacramento’s president in 2018 and took on an advisory role with the club. He has also been an adviser to OKC Energy FC.

“I am thrilled to play a significant role in the massive growth of the USL Championship and to bring this fantastic League to the people of San Diego,” Smith said in a statement. “San Diego has long been a place that celebrated the beautiful game and demonstrated its passion for soccer both in those that play and watch. What it hasn’t had, and now will, is a club to call its own. I look forward to becoming the steward of building this club with the community and to seeing what we can accomplish together.”

Donovan will have a hand in player signings, roster management, the club’s style of play, hiring coaches and on-field performance in his new gig, which seems akin to the role of a technical director in MLS.

The 37-year-old California native began his pro career in 1999 by signing with German side Bayern Leverkusen before flourishing in MLS where he became one of the league’s top scorers. Between stints with the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy, Donovan scored 145 goals — good enough for second most all-time – and then assisted on 136 scores, which is the most ever in the league’s history. Donovan won six MLS Cups, two Supporter’s Shields, a U.S. Open Cup. He won the Golden Boot in 2008, the MVP in 2009, was a seven-time Best XI selection and was twice the MVP of the MLS Cup and the MLS All-Star Game.

Internationally, Donovan was capped 157 times by the U.S. and scored 57 goals, which ties him for first all-time in scoring with teammate Clint Dempsey. Donovan played in three World Cups and helped the U.S. win four Concacaf Gold Cups.

Donovan lives in San Diego and has featured with the city’s Major Arena Soccer League side, the San Diego Sockers. He previously led a bid to get the city an expansion franchise for MLS, but voters in the city did not approve plans to build a 24,000-seat soccer specific stadium last November.

“I chose San Diego as my home and have personally been focused on bringing professional soccer to the community,” Donovan said. “Thanks to Warren, USL and our incredible team, that dream has become reality. I am ecstatic to be a part of this talented group and the newest addition to the USL Championship. I’m looking forward to our opening night in Torero Stadium and the stands being filled with smiles, chants and cheers from my fellow residents of America’s finest city.”

The San Diego club would be the 37th in the USL Championship and the fifth in the state of California. San Diego hasn’t had an active outdoor professional men’s soccer club since 2001. A professional women’s team, the San Diego Spirit, played from 2001 to 2003, but went defunct when the Women’s United Soccer Association suspended operations.

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