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An Interview with USL To Portland Founder and President Gabe Hoffman-Johnson
Gabe Hoffman-Johnson talks about the latest developments regarding the stadium, merchandise, and potential women's team.
USL to Portland is an organization that aims to bring a USL League One professional soccer franchise to Portland, Maine. The club is looking to launch for the 2024 season.
The Blazing Musket was fortunate enough to speak to founder and president Gabe Hoffman-Johnson to get the latest on the project.
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The Blazing Musket (TBM): To begin, can you tell us who you are and what you do for the USL Portland team?
Gabe Hoffman-Johnson: Alright, well, I’m Gabe Hoffman-Johnson, and I’m the founder & president of USL to Portland. I grew up in the Portland area, and was fortunate to have some success as a youth player, and went on to play and captain the Men’s team at Dartmouth College and sign with St. Louis FC for their inaugural season in the USL Championship.
The spark for USL to Portland goes back all the way back to 2017, or 2018 actually. My playing career didn’t pan out like I’d hoped through injury, and I was working in Finance in New York at the time. I remember I was sitting at my desk in Manhattan reading an article about USL executives visiting Portland to scout the market after having recently announced the creation of League One. I ended up moving home the following year, and USL to Portland was born.
At a basic level, we’re a group of passionate local investors dedicated to bringing professional soccer to Portland. But more broadly, USL to Portland is a ‘movement’. We’ve taken a bit of a different approach in that we’ve been very focused on community engagement and fairly public facing from day one.
Effectively, we’re connecting with key stakeholders and the larger community from the inside out - at a grassroots level - and inviting them to actually ‘be’ a part of the process. This helps build awareness and support, of course, but more importantly it contributes immensely to shaping the foundational identity of the future club.
What should the club stand for? It’s defining characteristics? What makes Portland and Maine so special? What elements, themes and distinctive traits should be considered for building the brand? What community initiatives should we emulate, support and/or partner with? What should we name the club? These are the sorts of questions we’re asking, and conversations we’re having every day.
If we are to authentically emulate and represent our unique sense of place (i.e. Portland and Maine) shouldn’t we include that community in the process? To me, it’s a no brainer, and the best and only way to ensure this team is built ‘BY’ and ‘FOR’ the community.
To answer your question more specifically, I wear many hats, but it’s a team effort. We’re working with the City on finalizing our stadium proposal. We’re communicating and working with the USL as we prepare to launch the club. We’re heavily focused on community engagement and public outreach. We’re hosting watch parties, and other local events. We’re creating community partnerships with local organizations and businesses. Everything we do is laying the groundwork for the character and creation of the Club.
If we are to authentically emulate and represent our unique sense of place (i.e.. Portland and Maine) shouldn’t we include that community in the process? To me, it’s a no brainer, and the best and only way to ensure this team is built ‘BY’ and ‘FOR’ the community. - Hoffman-Johnson
TBM: What is the latest for USL Portland? What have you accomplished recently? What is the timeline for launching the team?
Hoffman-Johnson: The latest update for USL to Portland is that we’ve made some significant progress with the support of the City on finalizing a stadium lease agreement to serve as our home field. We’re getting very close. As it stands, we’re still on track to launch as a USL expansion club for the 2024 season. I can’t share too many details at the moment, but what I will say is that we anticipate being back on the City Council agenda and following the municipal approval process in the near future.
As for what we’ve accomplished, we have a formal Expansion Agreement with the USL, which we’ve had for some time. More recently, we welcomed Maine’s own Tom Caron to our ownership group, which is very exciting. We also continue to focus on community engagement through events, watch parties, and partnerships; growing our following of support, and seeking public input. I’m a big believer in showcasing our commitment through action. Our goal is to anchor the mission and vision of the club to foster community impact, social good, and give back to the culture of the state.
We launched our very own soccer centric “Global Game Blend” in partnership with a local coffee roaster, to help bring recognition and support to youth soccer programs here in Portland. We cohosted a number of World Cup watch parties with local businesses, bars and breweries late last year—with incredible turnouts—including an outdoor watch party for the US vs England game, a Portland first!
TBM: Let's talk about the pursuit of a stadium. There was talk about building one next to Back Cove, but that was nixed in Jan. 2022. Last I heard, you were eyeing Fitzpatrick Stadium. Is this the case? If so, what needs to be done to make that your home?
Hoffman-Johnson: Yes, our focus is squarely on Fitzpatrick at the moment. It’s been a long process. Originally identifying and analyzing a number of potential locations in the Greater Portland area then seeking public input and taking into consideration feedback from key stakeholders once we narrowed down our options. [Also] associated engineering and feasibility studies etc. We’ve gone to great lengths to ensure the eventual stadium is the best home possible for the club, provides a quality gameday experience, and benefits the general public as well.
As I said, we’re currently in the late stages of finalizing an agreement with the City, which we’re very excited about, and strongly feel it’s the right location for launching the club.
TBM: Every year we're seeing more expansion teams at various levels. A recently-founded USL League Two team that has had a lot of success is the Vermont Green FC. Have you spoken to any other expansion teams? If so, what have you learned from them?
Hoffman-Johnson: Vermont Green FC have had tremendous success, which has been great to see. We’ve had a number of conversations with them, along with a large number of current USL Championship and USL League One clubs to learn a number of things; everything from the front office/business side, to branding and brand development, to community engagement, the expansion ‘process’ itself and anywhere in between.
The beauty of the success and track record of the USL as it’s grown in the last decade or so is that we have a lot of examples to learn from, whether it’s “what’s worked for us”, “what didn’t work”, or “what we’d do differently”. Now obviously each market is different, and that comes into play, but it’s been remarkably helpful, and I’ve been grateful and almost even somewhat surprised at other club’s willingness to support and advise. Although to be fair, it’s all rising tides of soccer I suppose. We’re all in this together.
TBM: Unfortunately, not every expansion team launches. We haven’t heard much from the team in New Hampshire. Have you spoken to that organization? If so, what have you learned from them?
Hoffman-Johnson: I’ve spoken with the folks in New Hampshire several times, although it was a while back, so unfortunately, I don’t have too many details as of late regarding where they stand. I do wish them the best, and would love to see a NH club someday soon. The prospect of a local derby is an exciting one. Rivalry is so good for sport.
The reality with these types of expansion efforts, is that it can be extremely complicated. So many moving parts, so many different elements to consider and all of the different pieces of the puzzle have to come together to make it happen. It takes no small amount of effort, creativity, persistence and patience, among other things!
TBM: Okay, let's talk about what everyone cares most about: merchandise. You have a lot of cool items already. Are there plans to create more? Is so, what do you have in mind?
Hoffman-Johnson: Ah, yes. Appreciate the kind words! We definitely have plans to create more. To me, what we’re building is, in many ways, a lifestyle brand and we’ve had a lot of success with the merchandise we’ve dropped so far. It helps bring tangibility and excitement. It allows you to test certain themes and concepts, all while crafting the ‘culture of the club,’ both in terms of a general look and feel—or ‘vibe’—as well as our values. Proceeds from each item sold has gone towards a local high-impact organization.
As for what exactly we have in mind, I hesitate to share too much, but I do like to think outside the box. You have your standard hats, tees, scarfs, and sweatshirts, which are important to do well. But there are a couple other mediums and collaborations that I think will resonate well in Portland that I’m excited about playing with.
Ironically, the success of our original merchandise was almost ‘too good’ to the extent that there is a lot of interest and demand, but a majority of our focus is on the milestones required to launch the club. We’ve dropped our merchandise in limited quantities on purpose, but I’d love to be doing more. It’s a constant internal battle as we hear from folks all the time asking when we’ll be doing more. Not a bad problem to have, and plenty more merch to come, don’t worry!
To me, what we’re building is, in many ways, a lifestyle brand and we’ve had a lot of success with the merchandise we’ve dropped so far. - Hoffman-Johnson
TBM: I've seen a really nice logo out there for the Portland team. Is this the official crest? If not, can you give us any hints about what the official one will look like?
Hoffman-Johnson: I’m glad you like it! The current logo is not the official crest, but it has been very well received. I liked the idea of creating a logo to represent the ‘movement’ if you will. The actual crest is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. We’ve had a number of conversations with talented folks on the design side.
Again, I won’t share too much, but it’s important to take into account unique identifiers that represent Portland and/or Maine that are easily recognizable and carry meaning. Of course, the Club name will come into play as well. I don’t hate the idea of doing something a little different while paying homage to the sanctity of soccer crests, but we haven’t made any final decisions. This is a big one for me, super important to get right. Plus, I’ve ‘unofficially’ made a commitment to get the crest as a tattoo, so it better be good!
TBM: How about jerseys? Any idea who will make the jerseys or what they might look like? How about a sponsor?
Hoffman-Johnson: Another fun topic to contemplate. We’re having conversations with a couple manufacturers at the moment, and of course costs will be compared, but I’ve always appreciated when a brand ‘contributes’ to the aesthetic of the overall kit if that makes sense. I love some of the vintage soccer brands like Umbro and Kappa, or even Hummel and Admiral. The USL has a great deal with Puma, the Nike’s and Adidas’s of the world have a strong soccer presence. There are several smaller names making waves in the industry at the moment as well.
The kit is a cornerstone of the club, worn by players and fans alike. Putting on that jersey is a sacred ritual for both. We’ve had some concept kit designs created by fans already, which have been fun to see. Jerseys can offer a way to get creative and weave in our sense of place, potential collaborations, or for a fun third jersey etc. We keep tabs on what other clubs are doing, what we like and don’t like. Another big one and important to get right.
As for a sponsor, those conversations are ongoing at the moment, which is very exciting. It’s important to understand any club partner, but especially the kit partner, becomes synonymous with the club. First and foremost, for me anyway, it has to be the right fit from a ‘values’ perspective. A shared belief in the mission and vision of the club and community.
There are a lot of great companies doing great work who are identifiable and dedicated to Portland and Maine. LL Bean has been used by some of the fan submissions I mentioned, which would be exciting. Or, somebody like Allagash Brewing Company for example, is very well respected, and represents Maine in a lot of ways. As a B Corp, their values are directly in line with our commitment to giving back to the community. I think they’d be a great fit, along with several others, but no decisions have been made just yet!
I’ve ‘unofficially’ made a commitment to get the crest as a tattoo, so it better be good! - Hoffman-Johnson
TBM: One thing I've really enjoyed about following your journey is that you're big in the community. I've seen you host watch parties and other soccer events. Talk to me about community outreach. What are you most proud of?
Hoffman-Johnson: I’m glad you’ve noticed! I feel like I’ve touched on this a lot already without being asked specifically. Being ‘big’ in the community is just who we are, it’s our reason for being. I think out of all the work we’ve done, all the watch parties, Soccer Saturday’s with the Immigrant Welcome Center, Battle of the Brewers, town halls, and community partnerships, I’m really just grateful to have the opportunity to support and play a small role in helping to make the community a better place. We firmly believe in the power of soccer to create positive change.
What’s most rewarding is probably just witnessing the growth and passion of this soccer community we’ve built together. Over 6,500 followers on social and email, an active Supporters Group, thousands of attendees at events. We’ve captured support across Portland, Maine, and even nationally, all because of this promise of the club to be. Portland is a soccer city. We’ve known that, and we’ve proven it to be so for everyone else to see. I truly believe we are primed to be of the most successful professional soccer franchises in America.
Portland is a soccer city. We’ve known that, and we’ve proven it to be so for everyone else to see. I truly believe we are primed to be of the most successful professional soccer franchises in America. - Hoffman-Johnson
TBM: Pro/rel is one of the hottest topics in American soccer. What do you think about it? I know this is a big question, but do you dream of one day having an open system that would allow USL Portland to play in MLS?
Hoffman-Johnson: Ah, great question. Very complicated, and I’m a little doubtful of how realistic a full open system would be, just in terms of actually happening. But of course pro/rel would be fantastic. It’s fun to dream about a day where we would have the opportunity to climb the ladder all the way up. It’d certainly be in the best interest of our club, but also for American soccer in general.
It’s been exciting to see the USL, on the other hand, expressing their interest in opening up pro/rel between their leagues. So at the very least it’s probable we’ll have that goal to aspire towards ones day, albeit a shorter ladder.
TBM: You obviously have enough going on as you launch a men's team, but has there been any whispers of a women's team in Portland?
Hoffman-Johnson: Definitely. I’m glad you asked. Yes there’s plenty to focus on at the moment, but we are 100% committed to a women’s team as well. We have ongoing dialogue with the USL regarding both the Super League and W League, and have plans to add a women’s side as quickly as time and other factors allow. Portland would be an incredible market, and you don’t have to look hard to see the momentum behind the Women’s game in this country, and around the world. I believe the success of the Women’s National Team deserves a ton of credit for the growth of the game in America in general, on and off the field. Data from the NWSL and other leagues across the world show that the support for the Women’s game is there, and Clubs like Angel City are proving the appetite is there not just to be viable, but incredibly successful.
The Blazing Musket would like to thank Gabe Hoffman-Johnson for taking the time to speak to us. Don’t forget to follow USL to Portland on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Hoffman-Johnson is also on Twitter.
The Blazing Musket is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.