Baltimore will host the top soccer league in the world Saturday.
Arsenal and Everton, both of England’s storied Premier League, will play at 7 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in front of thousands of fans, and local supporters are organizing a slew of events: a podcast watch party, a pickup game of soccer, a block party, a march to the stadium — and Sunday brunch following the match.
It’ll be a weekend full of soccer in Charm City. But in the coming years, the sport could have an even more permanent foothold here, as there are multiple efforts to scout Baltimore as a home for an outdoor pro soccer team.
Attempts to build a soccer-specific stadium and bring in a pro club are in the preliminary stages, but the Maryland Stadium Authority is conducting two studies: one to analyze a potential stadium site for an MLS Next Pro team, which would serve as a reserve squad for Major League Soccer side D.C. United; and another to determine the feasibility of a 10,000-seat stadium, which could host United Soccer League men’s and women’s teams.
Though not major leagues — like MLS and the National Women’s Soccer League — the arrival of any pro outdoor soccer team would be welcomed by many soccer supporters in Baltimore.
There have been some near misses in recent years. In 2010, the stadium authority studied the possibility of a 10,000-seat soccer stadium near the Camden Yards complex. Then, in 2017, the USL president said he hoped Baltimore would have a team in the league by 2020. There were similar efforts and hopes in 2019. None came to fruition.
A further disappointment came this year. That’s when the international governing body of soccer, FIFA, selected 11 U.S. cities to host World Cup matches in 2026. Baltimore was considered a likely candidate, but was not selected, while competitors such as Philadelphia and Boston were.
Pete Caringi Jr. coached the Baltimore-area Maryland Bays in 1990, when the pro club won a national championship, and he’s seen Baltimore, a city rich in soccer history and youth development, passed over for professional teams in the years since. With seemingly increased interest now, he and others are more hopeful.
“I’m as optimistic as I’ve been in a long time,” he said.
A lack of a soccer-specific stadium
Of the 30 largest cities in the U.S., per the 2020 census, all but two have a professional outdoor soccer team within 20 miles. Jacksonville and Baltimore are the exceptions.
Baltimore, of course, has a successful and well-supported pro indoor soccer team, the Baltimore Blast, as well as an amateur outdoor team, Christos FC. But it does not have a pro outdoor team, nor a venue built specifically for the sport.
“It always comes back to having a stadium, a soccer-specific stadium that they can play in,” Caringi said. “That’s been what’s held us back, I’d say, the last 10 years, for sure.”
Paul Tiburzi, a Baltimore attorney with DLA Piper, previously helped coordinate efforts to bring a USL team. He also served as chairman of the Camden Yards Sports Commission, which put together the first international soccer exhibition at M&T Bank Stadium, a 2009 sellout between Chelsea and A.C. Milan.
Baltimore would be “perfect for the USL,” he said Tuesday in an email.
“The USL has made clear over several years that it intends to bring a team to Baltimore,” he wrote. “It is a question of when, not if.”
In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, the USL — considered the second-tier of U.S. soccer — said last week that it believes Baltimore would “fully embrace a professional club.”
The stadium authority and the city of Baltimore, as well as private funds, are financing the $62,000 study to determine the feasibility of a 10,000-seat stadium, perhaps in Port Covington in South Baltimore. The primary tenant would be Right to Dream, a Ghana-based youth soccer academy that could also operate men’s and women’s USL clubs in Baltimore.
“Everyone has a right to dream, and one of ours is to create a Right to Dream Academy in Baltimore,” Right to Dream wrote in a statement to The Sun.
Bringing a USL club to Baltimore would not happen overnight, though, especially since discussions to build a stadium are in nascent stages. Neither the USL nor Right to Dream gave a timeline, but one of Right to Dream’s stated goals is to launch a professional soccer club in the U.S. by 2025.
The stadium authority also agreed to study possible locations for a venue that would be used by MLS Next Pro, a league in the third-tier of American soccer. That initial study is expected to take the remainder of this year, and a timeline for a potential team remains unclear. D.C. United, which would operate such a team, did not reply to requests for comment on when an MLS Next Pro club could begin play in Baltimore, and if a soccer-specific stadium would be required.
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Stadiums built for USL teams in recent years, like in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Louisville, Kentucky, took several years to be built, from preliminary plans to final construction.
Many minor league soccer teams elsewhere play in stadiums originally built for other pro or college teams, which Baltimore hasn’t been able to successfully mirror.
“I think it’s one of those things where, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” said Simon Torres, a co-leader of the Arsenal supporters’ group in Baltimore and a local soccer fan.
‘It’s in our blood’
Former U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, now an ambassador for Everton, recently noted that Baltimore has long been a “hotbed” for soccer. The city has a deep history with the sport, and in recent years, M&T Bank Stadium, the home of the Baltimore Ravens, has hosted high-profile soccer matches.
Chelsea — vice-captained by Frank Lampard, who is now the coach of Everton — faced A.C. Milan in front of a sellout crowd of 71,000 in 2009. The stadium hosted Liverpool and Tottenham in 2012 and the Gold Cup quarterfinals of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football in 2013 and 2015.
This past year, Baltimore tied for the 10th-highest average rating for NBC Premier League telecasts, among U.S. TV markets. That’s a sign the appetite is present in Baltimore, even if neither a stadium nor a team is, many argue.
“It’s kind of sad, when you really think about it, because even to this day, Baltimore and Maryland soccer is as good as any in the country and the fever and the passion is here,” Caringi said. “It’s in our blood, for lack of a better word. But we don’t have a pro team to really support, and that’s really a shame.”