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United Soccer League hopes to have Baltimore franchise, stadium site approved by end of year, official says

A top United Soccer League official said Thursday that the league hopes to have a Baltimore expansion franchise and a stadium site approved by the end of the year.

USL president Jake Edwards told The Baltimore Sun that the second-tier professional league hopes to have the city's prospective ownership group finalized by August and the construction plan for a new venue in place by 2018, with the team's launch targeted for the 2020 season.

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"Things are progressing nicely," said Edwards, who met with investors a couple of weeks ago in Baltimore. "We feel really good about what we have in place."

Baltimore is among eight markets to have applied to join the 30-team USL after next season, and Edwards acknowledged that the league must take "a few steps" before accepting the bid.

Key to the application is an experienced, well-capitalized and local ownership group with a commitment to investing in the team's infrastructure. The Baltimore group, which includes Paul Tiburzi, a partner at the DLA Piper law firm and former chairman of the Camden Yards Sports and Entertainment Commission, has "the right business plan to execute, and they have the right stadium plan," Edwards said.

A USL official said the league has scouted Fells Point and Canton as potential sites for an 8,000- to 10,000-seat stadium, the construction of which Edwards deemed essential to the potential franchise's future.

"The fans there deserve a quality stadium to watch the game in and support their team in, and that's exactly what we want to put together," he said. "We don't want to do this with any half-measures."

Professional outdoor soccer teams have struggled to gain a foothold in Baltimore, with the Bohemians competing in the fourth-tier USL Premier Development League from 2012 until January, when the team went on indefinite hiatus. But the USL has thrived in such markets, and the U.S. Soccer Federation earlier this year granted the league provisional Division II status, one level below Major League Soccer, the country's top tier.

The Mid-Atlantic and Northeast already have a strong presence in the USL, with a seven-team cluster stretching as far south as Richmond, Va.; as far west as Cincinnati; and as far north as Rochester, N.Y. D.C. United, the MLS franchise that considered relocating to Baltimore until it reached an agreement for a new stadium in Washington, also has applied to own and operate a USL affiliate, according to The Washington Post, with Northern Virginia as its likely base.

Edwards said the development of regional rivalries is central to the USL's expansion plan, which reportedly includes cities such as Las Vegas; Fresno, Calif.; and Birmingham, Ala. FC Cincinnati, now in its second season, set a then-USL record last year with an announced 23,375 in attendance for its first game against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. For the year, the franchise averaged 17,296 per game, better than several MLS clubs.

"I see Baltimore as exactly the same kind of market," Edwards said, "and I think it will respond in the same way."

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