San Diego's MLS expansion hopes take major hit after losing vote on stadium project

A Landon Donovan-led group trying to bring a team to San Diego saw its stadium initiative defeated, likely killing the city's MLS hopes

San Diego's chances of landing a Major League Soccer expansion team suffered a potential death blow on Tuesday after a stadium measure was defeated in a public vote.

Measure E, the so-called SoccerCity initiative, was soundly beaten by a competing stadium project led by San Diego State University, which is pushing for a campus expansion and football stadium for the school. While votes were still being counted on Wednesday morning, the San Diego State project secured more than 50 percent of yes votes needed to secure approval, while the Soccer City initiative fell well short, with yes votes falling under 30 percent.

“We got beat up pretty quickly, pretty early on, and that was pretty hard to swallow," U.S. national team legend and SoccerCity team member Landon Donovan told Goal. "It was a rough night, but in the end it was clear that it was more about politics and other factors than soccer, and unfortunately that’s what this town is known for, making things not happen, and we saw that up close.”

A win would have brought the San Diego SoccerCity stadium project a step closer to reality and could have led to a soccer stadium being built on the site of SDCCU Stadium, the former home of the NFL's San Diego Chargers before the team moved to Los Angeles. 

Instead, the group behind the SoccerCity initiative was soundly defeated after making it clear prior to the election that a loss at the polls would likely mean the end of San Diego's hopes for an MLS team.

“We overwhelmingly believe Major League Soccer is gone from the city of San Diego if we lose, which is sad,” Nick Stone, project manager for SoccerCity, told the San Diego Union-Tribune prior to the election. That belief falls in line with what MLS officials were saying ahead of voting as well.

San Diego had emerged as a strong contender for MLS expansion on the strength of encouraging television ratings, both for the 2018 World Cup and MLS matches, as well as the city's reputation as a youth soccer hotbed. Unfortunately for the SoccerCity project, that support didn't translate into votes at the ballot box on Tuesday.

Tuesday's vote will almost certainly keep San Diego from becoming one of the cities to secure an MLS team in the next round of expansion, and it may ultimately prevent MLS from ever setting up shop in the city.

"I can’t speak for our owners, but I think it would be devastating for this city to not have a Major League Soccer team, but there’s so many factors that go into it," Donovan said. "I don’t know if the investors here will have the appetite to go through this again and try to figure something out. I don’t know how much they’re willing to put up with again. They got dragged through the mud quite a bit in this process.

"If it was as simple as, ‘Do we want an MLS team and do we want to do something like that for the city?’ I think that’d be an easy answer for everyone, " Donovan told Goal. "But unfortunately these things are more complicated than that and I don’t know if they want to go through that again."

With San Diego falling out of contention for an MLS expansion team, Tuesday's vote could provide a major boost for Sacramento, which has been pursuing an MLS expansion team since 2015 and was a finalist for one of the two expansion slots recently filled by Cincinnati and Nashville.

St. Louis is another market that should benefit from San Diego's failed stadium initiative, along with Phoenix.

MLS has plans to expand to 28 teams, with Cincinnati set to be the league's 24th team in 2019. The Nashville expansion team will kick off in 2020, along with Miami, which received a major boost with its own public stadium vote proving successful on Tuesday.

MLS has thrown its support behind a scenario that would give current Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt the rights to an expansion team in Austin, Texas, upon the completion of the sale of the Crew to an investment group led by current Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslem. In that scenario, Austin would become the 27th MLS team, leaving just one slot available before the league reached its self-imposed limit of 28 teams.

That would leave one available spot for aspiring expansion markets, with Sacramento, St. Louis, Phoenix and Detroit among the leading contenders that have gained ground now that San Diego appears to have fallen out of the race.