I’ve recently discovered that I really, genuinely miss the experience of watching a live soccer match. I used to attend like 6-7 Sporting KC matches per season at my peak back in 2015 and 16, though that slowed down a bit. I miss it though, soccer is the best sport to watch in-person and though there are two MLS clubs to my north and a Liga MX club to my south, I’ve found that the idea of driving for a couple of hours feels a lot different from what it felt like only a few years back. Maybe that’s Southern California traffic, maybe that’s adulthood, maybe that’s something else entirely. I attended SKC’s first match against LAFC this season at Banc of California Stadium, but I haven’t traveled for soccer since.
Unfortunately, Major League Soccer isn’t in San Diego, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be anywhere near the potential expansion block for quite a while. There is a USL Championship team starting up next season, and there are two Division I NCAA Men’s and Women’s soccer programs at the University of San Diego and San Diego State… But nothing’s filled the void quite yet.
The story of one of the most recent attempts to fill this void begins about two years ago, back before I knew that I was going to move here. In the summer of 2017, an ownership group made up of several major European soccer players was formed with the intention of founding a North American Soccer League team in San Diego. They were initially set to begin play at the beginning of the 2018 NASL season out of Torero Stadium on the USD campus. They took on the name “1904 FC”, because S is the 19th letter in the alphabet, and D is the fourth.
Then, in the fall of 2017, NASL fell apart. 1904 FC, having not played a match yet, tried unsuccessfully to jump ship to the far more stable USL before seemingly going dormant in the summer of 2018, which also happens to be right when I made the move here. I assumed, after the failed USL bid, that we’d just never see San Diego 1904 FC ever play, a vaporware sports franchise, not unlike the NFL’s St. Louis Stallions or NHL’s Hampton Roads Rhinos.
And yet, 1904 FC weathered the storm. In late 2018, 1904 FC became the first club set to join the National Independent Soccer Association, a third-division, sanctioned professional league on the United States Soccer Federation pyramid. Then, throughout most of 2019, we basically heard nothing from either 1904 or the NISA, and most of us (I assume, it’s actually more likely that I was the only person really following this whole thing as it went on) lost hope on the dream of seeing 1904 FC play in San Diego.
I remember one day in June, I was looking at the NISA website, which at that point had a countdown clock to the first match of the inaugural NISA Showcase (which is what they’re calling this sort of Fall 2019 pre-season before the first season with a fully formed league begins next spring), seeing it set at 50 days away, and honestly believing that nothing could come to fruition between then and the scheduled start date.
But, then, seemingly out of nowhere, honest-to-god information started to come out about 1904. They found a stadium, they hired a coach, they held tryouts for players, and by some miracle, everything went forward right on time, they played their first matches when they were supposed to, and held their home opener on September 14th. They’re currently calling the 70,000 seat SDCCU Stadium home, a stadium that only three years ago was hosting NFL Football.
So they’re here. They’re playing soccer in San Diego. They join the 4th-tier NPSL’s ASC San Diego and the indoor MASL’s San Diego Sockers in that distinction, and they’re soon to be joined by whatever name Landon Donovan’s USL team chooses. 1904 FC seems like a bizarre experiment in San Diego sports history, but honestly, they’re a welcome one in my eyes. San Diego is an excellent city for soccer, producing a number of professional-quality players in the past decades and I think any sort of cultural development in the soccer landscape here is ultimately a value.
The game itself reminded me of my experiences over a decade go at Kansas City Wizards matches in Arrowhead Stadium. Granted, the Wizards drew a little bit better than 1904 is right now (In their last Arrowhead season, they averaged around 11,000 per match, while 1904’s drawn about 3,000 in their first two matches), but there are a lot of echoes. Entire decks of the stadium left unpopulated, field goal posts left stashed away in the corner of the stadium, the midfield logo of the main football tenant faded but still quite visible, on-field play that resembles NCAA Division I soccer at its best moments; it’s quite reminiscent of MLS 1.0.
While all of those things sound quite negative, I also felt the echoes of a lot of what sparked my love of the sport during that formative time – Mainly, the passion and excitement of the small group of maybe 30 or so 1904 FC supporters I hung out with. The people around me whom I spoke with – be they on the trolley, in the parking lot, in the stands – just seemed excited for soccer in San Diego. They sung and chanted, one of them lit a smoke bomb, I took my shirt off after a goal, that sort of thing. Maybe it’s not Die Gelbe Wand but it’s something, and it’s the sort of something that makes soccer into my favorite sport to view live.
And, y’know what, I remember that the KC Cauldron, the fans who fill up the north supporter’s section at Children’s Mercy Park now in KC, started as a small but excited group of fans behind the goal in Arrowhead.
So here’s hoping that this spirit will grow as 1904 FC does.