Before playing for three Major League Soccer teams and becoming perhaps Baltimore’s most famous soccer product, Santino Quaranta was a boy immersed in the soccer culture of his Highlandtown neighborhood. He remembers his father, Tommy, taking him to Baltimore Blast games to watch favorites such as Tim Wittman and Rusty Troy.
Now the father of a 10-year-old boy, Quaranta usually takes his son to Washington to watch his former team, D.C. United. Quaranta, 34, treasures the bonding time, but misses the opportunity to watch games in his hometown.
“I wish I could take him to downtown Baltimore to watch a team,” he said.
Quaranta’s longing might be closer to being realized. The United Soccer League, which plays outdoors, is strongly considering bringing a franchise to Baltimore. However, the MLS is not, according to a league spokesman.
The Baltimore sports base in general wants somebody to lean on.— Santino Quaranta on the possibility of a pro soccer franchise coming to Baltimore
“We believe the city would be a great home for a USL Championship club,” USL spokesman Ryan Madden said, adding that CEO Alec Papadakis has visited Baltimore to meet with potential ownership groups. “Baltimore is a world-class community with a big appetite for soccer and a reputation for having some of the best professional sports fans in the United States. From our perspective, the question is not if, but rather when will they join the American professional soccer landscape.”
Paul A. Tiburzi, a senior partner at DLA Piper who has been coordinating local efforts to bring professional soccer back to Baltimore, said the time is ripe for the city.
“There is a rich and deep history and level of support for pro soccer,” he said. “I think it’s only a matter of time before the USL comes here. They want to come, and they continue to express a desire to come.”
Soccer’s roots in Baltimore run deep. The sport has been a fixture in Charm City for more than 100 years as immigrants seeking jobs in factories and shipyards carried their passion from their native countries.
“Baltimore was a bunch of pockets of ethnic communities — the Greeks, the Italians, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Spanish,” recalled Maryland Soccer Legends president Philip Tirabassi, 64. “And each community had a neighborhood club, and they would compete in the Maryland Major League. Then it expanded eventually into the suburbs. We’ve had a number of professional players come out of Baltimore and Maryland. I believe that along with St. Louis, Baltimore is a soccer hotbed that gets overlooked on the national scene.”
At its peak in the early 1930s, the city boasted more than 100 teams in 14 leagues. The city has been the home to several professional teams, such as the American Soccer League champion Baltimore Americans in the 1940s, the ASL’s Baltimore Rockets in the 1950s, the North American Soccer League’s Baltimore Bays and Baltimore Comets in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, and the USL Second Division’s Crystal Palace Baltimore from 2006 to 2010.
Baltimore hosted historic international games dating to the 1940s, with visits from Liverpool and Chelsea. Brazilian soccer legend Pele paid the city a visit in 1973 for a game against the Bays at Memorial Stadium.
In 2009, Baltimore sold out M&T Bank Stadium for an international friendly between Chelsea and Milan. And a year ago, Baltimore ranked second to only Washington in TV ratings for English Premier League games during the 2018-19 season.
Pete Caringi Jr., 64, helped the University of Baltimore capture the NCAA Division II championship in 1975 and played one season for the NASL’s Washington Diplomats. He said growing up in East Baltimore led to his immersion in soccer.
“Soccer was unbelievable every Sunday,” said Caringi, now the UMBC men’s soccer coach. “You would go to the soccer game in the morning and then you’d go watch the [NFL’s Baltimore] Colts because they would play at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The amount of people, they were five-, six-, seven-deep at the games. The crowd was unbelievable. I used to go down there every Sunday to watch a soccer game. It was like a religion.”
That background and history doesn’t seem like it will translate into Baltimore being included in MLS’ upcoming expansion. Despite USL’s interest, a spokesman for Major League Soccer, which announced in April that it is planning to expand to 30 franchises, said Baltimore is not in the running for a club with that league. The two leagues have a partnership agreement.
“Major League Soccer is not considering expansion in Baltimore,” Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president of communications, said via email. “We encourage soccer fans in the Baltimore area to support D.C. United and attend matches at Audi Field.”
Baltimore has long had the Blast, an indoor soccer franchise. But former Blast president and general manager Kevin Healey said the team would never oppose sharing the city with a professional outdoor club.
“The two franchises would need to work together,” said Healey, who still lives in Bel Air despite leaving the Blast for the Harrisburg Heat in September. “There would be a little overlapping, but there would be mostly two different times of the year, and soccer needs to work together, and I certainly think that could happen.”
So what’s the holdup? The first issue is the absence of a soccer-specific stadium. A franchise could share a facility with an area university, but would have to build its schedule around the college’s athletic programs.
When D.C. United considered moving out of RFK Stadium, the club considered the Westport area in South Baltimore. A USL official told The Sun in 2017 that the league researched Fells Point and Canton as possible sites for an 8,000- to 10,000-seat stadium.
William H. Cole IV, former president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation, said before leaving his post in May that the projected minimum price tag for a 20,000-seat, soccer-only stadium would begin at $180 million, and the general public has demonstrated a growing resistance toward funding the construction of athletic facilities.
“They’re expensive to build, they’re expensive to maintain, and you have to be able to program them for more than just 20 to 30 games a year, which is why we’ve seen the Ravens host concerts and soccer and all sorts of other entertainment in the stadium to keep it activated,” he said. “I do believe that we could support a team over time, and I believe that we could make the case that you could create the right-sized stadium here eventually. I just don’t know if we’re prepared to make that case right now.”
The BDC deferred to Cole’s comment.
Tiburzi, the Baltimore attorney, said the possibility of a franchise tied to the stadium issue does not have to be “a chicken-or-the-egg problem.”
Former Baltimore Bays midfielder Sean Rush, co-founder of Pipeline Soccer Club, said a groundswell of fan support would help convince a professional league to bring a team to Baltimore.
“I would tap into the soccer fan base as a whole, and I would try to rally the entire city because one thing that I have noticed about Baltimore is that if everybody isn’t included, then it doesn’t really seem to take off,” said Rush, a Baltimore native and Dulaney graduate. “I know Philadelphia did it that way. They went after the people that wanted an MLS franchise.
“They built the fan base, they had the team, I think they had 40,000-some people already signed up as part of the Sons of Ben [independent supporters group for the MLS’ Philadelphia Union], and they built the momentum and they built the camaraderie and they built the name before they even had an MLS franchise. They were going to games in other stadiums supporting Philadelphia potentially supporting an MLS team. And if I was in the ownership group, that’s what I would do.”
While Baltimore remains in flux without a soccer club, local watering holes have become destination spots for fans of certain Premier League and European teams. Sláínte is a popular choice for Bayern Munich supporters, Smaltimore in Canton welcomes Liverpool fans, and Ryleigh’s Oyster in Federal Hill is filled by patrons wearing Tottenham Hotspur gear.
Quaranta pointed out the city is hungry to support a soccer franchise, as it does the Ravens and Orioles.
“The Baltimore sports base in general wants somebody to lean on,” he said. “They want a success story, somebody who made it out, somebody they can run with while they’re watching on TV and yell at for making a mistake. They don’t really have any ties to [D.C. United or Philadelphia Union]. It’s Washington, D.C., or it’s Philadelphia, but that’s not Baltimore.”