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Opinion | San Diego is a soccer city worthy of MLS

Opinion | San Diego is a soccer city worthy of MLS

Early in the morning on July 15th, thousands of eager soccer fans packed the corner of 30th Street and University Avenue in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego.

With a chance to watch the World Cup final on two massive 11-by-20 foot screens, there was no shortage of excitement from those who woke up bright and early for the 8:00 a.m. game between France and Croatia.

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The much-anticipated sporting clash didn’t fail to captivate.

Following a thrilling 90 minutes, France emerged from the entertaining and high-scoring 4-2 win with the World Cup title in hand.

In North Park, countless fans celebrated the victory as if they themselves were at the stadium. On one end of the World Cup watch party, numerous drinks were dramatically thrown into the air from those who packed the beer garden. While many Croatia supporters watched helplessly after the final whistle blew, others who backed France embraced and roared with delight at the result.

For those San Diegans in attendance, the mood and electric atmosphere was similar to that of an actual soccer match --- which was likely one of the goals from those who had created the event.

SoccerCity San Diego, the group which is currently behind the project to bring Major League Soccer to America's Finest City, sponsored the weekend watch party. With only a few months to go until the local November ballot which features the initiative that hopes to woo MLS, SoccerCity recognized the invaluable benefit of participating in Sunday’s festivities.

U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan, one of the figures and leaders of the SoccerCity venture, made a surprise appearance to boost the effort.

Once halftime rolled around, the 36-year-old San Diego resident stood atop a small platform and delivered a speech in support of the SoccerCity plan. Shortly afterwards, Donovan chatted and took photos with an endless supply of fans who were keen on seeing the former U.S. men’s national team star.

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“It’s pretty obvious that San Diego is a soccer city,” later stated Donovan to local reporters. “And people want this here permanently, so we want to make that happen.”

Donovan isn’t exaggerating when he says that San Diego is truly a soccer city.

In a recent report by The Washington Post’s Steven Goff, San Diego was ranked at #5 for Fox Sports’ top markets for the entire World Cup. As for the final itself, Fox Sports’ PR department announced on Monday that San Diego led all of the local markets in the country for the France vs Croatia match.

Of course, the World Cup alone isn’t the only indicator of the sport’s popularity here at home.

When looking at the San Diego soccer landscape, there’s an undeniable beauty in its diversification and scope across the region.

At the youth level, few regions in the country can compete with the world-class level of tournaments and clubs that make San Diego a hotbed for budding talent.

Looking at the lower leagues of the professional and semi-pro level, the likes of ASC San Diego and San Diego Zest have helped keep the heart of the community’s soccer scene beating. Elsewhere in the Major Arena Soccer League, the San Diego Sockers, a storied indoor franchise, regularly draw thousands into the Valley View Casino Center.

Local universities can’t be ignored either. Schools such as San Diego State University and UC San Diego maintain their own well-respected NCAA teams for both women and men.

As for San Diegans who hold a special place for European clubs, several neighborhood pubs and bars such as Bluefoot, Shakespeare, The Harp, Princess Pub and many others are also worthy of a shout. During a myriad of weekends, these establishments become boisterous and passionate second homes for early morning locals that are eager to watch their much-beloved teams from abroad.

All that said, no discussion regarding local soccer would be complete without a mention for Club Tijuana.

Approximately 20 miles south of downtown San Diego lies the Mexican professional team. In a recent conversation with a representative from the organization, a team employee stated that “roughly between 30 and 35 percent” of fans who attend the Liga MX games in Tijuana are from north of the border.

If a first division club were to start in our own backyard here in the States, it’s easy to imagine the kind of pull and attention it would garner. Down the line, it would even be more fascinating to see the development of an international and interleague rivalry between two bordertown squads.

 Club America vs Club Tijuana friendly in March

Club America vs Club Tijuana friendly in March

Keeping in mind that an estimated total of 25,000 supporters packed SDCCU Stadium to watch a friendly between Club America and Club Tijuana in March, a local rivalry game between San Diego’s MLS team vs Club Tijuana would be an incredible one to follow.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Before dreaming about the creation of an intriguing North American rivalry, or even a local MLS team to begin with, the initiative still needs to be passed in November. Whether San Diego’s diverse soccer community can help with the ballot, or whether a competing ballot initiative by SDSU for the same plot of land will win, remains up in the air.

There are also those within the community who aren’t thrilled by the prospect of MLS setting up shop, which is fair. The league is far from perfect, and a quick chat with most American soccer fans can attest to the improvements that need to be made. All that said, the need for growth and alterations for the league shouldn’t halt the desire to bring in a first division club.

It’s also far too easy to ignore MLS when watching a new team from the league prosper nearby.

While San Diego has grappled with the idea of a soccer club replacing a Chargers-sized hole in Mission Valley, Los Angeles FC has built a world-class stadium and organization that is the envy of many across the nation. With Carlos Vela leading a talented-team that is currently pushing for the playoffs in its inaugural MLS season, there seems to be a yearnful “why not us” conversation amongst San Diego soccer fans.

Here’s the truth, though: With or without an MLS team, San Diego will continue being a soccer city.

Although the soccer scene at times appears to be a large fragmented puzzle, it will undoubtedly maintain its grow without the presence of a first division team.

And yet, there still seems to be a missing piece that is now within reach.

A piece that can unify an eclectic soccer culture in the same way seen during the World Cup watch party last week. A piece that can bring youth teams, lower league fans, indoor die-hards, European club supporters, pick-up scene regulars and Liga MX aficionados all together.

Despite the fact that San Diego's soccer scene doesn't need MLS in order to continue prospering, there's nothing that would combine and unite the city's thriving love for the sport more than a first division team.

The first step towards making this happen awaits a decision in November. 

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