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Two months after being dormant, the San Diego pro soccer team has coach, roster, stadium and a new league
A seven-second video posted on the Twitter account of new professional soccer club 1904 FC last week shows staffers counting stacks of tickets for its inaugural home game Sept. 14.
The club’s next task: Getting people to use them.
It’s the latest mountain they’ve had to scale. Two months ago, the club was technically dormant, without a coach, roster, league or home stadium. Now it has all four, plowing ahead toward its opener Saturday night against the LA Force at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.
The following Saturday, another Everest: Playing at 70,000-seat SDCCU Stadium.
On Aug. 22, the club announced ticket prices for home games would range from $19 to $49. Six days later, they lowered them to $14 to $29, with youths at $5.
“You spoke, and we listened,” a 1904 FC communique said. “Soccer is a family sport and we want to pack our home stands with fans of all ages. Our previous pricing was not accessible to all families and did not line up with our mission to bring the beautiful game to San Diego. Tickets are still available for the club’s first-ever home game.”
But at least they’re playing somewhere against somebody, more than two years after announcing the formation of the club owned by a consortium of European soccer players headed by Senegalese forward Demba Ba. The first two attempts at joining second-division leagues failed; the NASL folded before 1904 FC could play a game and talks with USL fell apart last year.
Now 1904 FC — a numerical acronym for “SD,” the 19th and fourth letters of the alphabet — is part of the new National Independent Soccer Association, which received third-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer and currently features eight teams (with commitments for five more next year).
Unlike other U.S. pro soccer leagues, which operate on a spring to fall schedule, NISA will follow the international calendar of fall to spring. Needing to launch this year to retain its federation sanctioning, it will hold a “showcase” tournament from September to November and then a half-season in the spring. A full fall-to-spring season will follow in 2020.
NISA shares another similarity with clubs around the world. Major League Soccer is based on a single-entity franchise model and what amounts to a closed player market, with limited freedom of moment. NISA’s clubs completely control their rosters, able to buy and sell players internationally as they see fit.
That means 1904 FC could have 69,900 empty seats at SDCCU Stadium but remain financially solvent if it unearths a prospect or two and sells them to foreign clubs for a tidy profit they’re not obligated to share with the league.
1904 FC held open tryouts in early August with 150 players that ranged in age from (yes) 14 to 45. They’re down to 25 that Frenchman Alex Gontran, who doubles as general manager and head coach, says have an average age of 21 — a mix of locals and foreigners willing to play for a salary between $1,400 and $2,000 per month plus a modest housing stipend for those from out-of-town. Practice is at Southwestern College in Chula Vista.
“I understand it’s not much,” Gontran said. “I told them, ‘Take your chance, one or two years. If you are good enough, we can help you to leave to a bigger club, or if the club is growing we can give you a better salary.’ ”
The club has yet to announce a full roster, unveiling only four players. They tend to follow a similar pattern: former U.S. youth national team players who have bounced around the lower rungs of pro soccer.
Ernesto “Moe” Espinoza, a 20-year-old midfielder from San Ysidro, played with the Tijuana Xolos youth academy and has been in camp with the U.S. under-18 and U19 national teams.
Nelson Blanco, a 20-year-old forward from El Salvador, signed with USL club North Carolina FC as a teenager but got in only four games last season.
Winger Eder Arreola, the team’s elder statesman at 27, was part of U.S. Soccer’s under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and an all-conference player at UCLA before playing in pro leagues in the U.S., Mexico and Armenia.
Midfielder Ozzie Ramos played two years at San Diego State and two at Seattle University, then spent last season with ASC San Diego in the National Premier Soccer League, considered a notch below NISA.
“We had some U.S. youth national team players,” Gontran said of the open tryouts. “I was very surprised. They had no club. I was surprised, but it was a gift for me. They are good players, with good mentality, with good experience.
“They are willing to learn, they are very open, and we have a lot to teach. I think it’s a good combination.”
They’ll play this weekend at a community college stadium with a capacity of 1,000. Then they’ll play in a stadium with 69,000 more seats … in a city that has been a graveyard for previous attempts at outdoor pro soccer … with a second-division USL team expected to launch in the spring.
“My thought is I like one thing, I don’t like one other,” Gontran said of SDCCU Stadium. “What I think is good is, it’s professional. We can show the difference with leagues like NPSL. The bad thing is, we are playing in a stadium (big enough) for the national team.
“It takes time. We are patient. I don’t want to say that we have to attract 10,000 people right away. We have to show something first; we have to prove something on the field.” National Independent Soccer Association What: A new third-division pro soccer league. When: An abbreviated “showcase” tournament, with each team playing six or seven games followed by a regional championship. Inaugural game: California United FC tied the Oakland Roots 3-3 before a sold-out crowd at 3,500-seat Laney College in Oakland last Saturday. Clubs: Four in California (1904 FC, LA Force, Cal United, Oakland Roots), four on the East Coast (Atlanta FC, Miami FC, Philadelphia Fury and Stumptown Athletic in North Carolina). 1904 FC schedule: at LA Force at Rio Hondo College (Sept. 7), Cal United (Sept. 14), Oakland Roots (Sept. 28), at Cal United in Irvine (Oct. 2 and 20), LA Force (Nov. 2), West Coast Championship at Rio Hondo College (Nov. 16). Home games: SDCCU Stadium Tickets: $14 to $29 (youths $5). On the web: 1904fc.com
San Diego 1904 FC had to throw its roster together in a matter of weeks. The guys they found have an average age of just 21 years old. That's usually not the way to find immediate success as an expansion team.
They didn't get that memo.
1904 FC won its 2nd straight match at home, topping the Oakland Roots 4-3 on a rainy Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium.
One of the guys they quickly targeted was Lorenzo "Tito" Ramirez. A Hoover High School grad who worked his way through the Tijuana Xolos developmental system, Tito was quick to jump at an offer to play for 1904 FC even if it is in the National Independent Soccer Association, the 3rd tier of American soccer.
"The moment they told me the team was on I was all up for it," said Ramirez. "I know the team came together quite fast but it's working out just fine."
Thanks in large part to Tito, that's very true. He scored twice in the first home game and got another one against Oakland. Billy Garton, Nelson Flores Blanco and Adonis Amaya scored the other three to run 1904's record to 2-1. Their next home match is not until November 2 against the Los Angeles Force.