San Diego 1904 FC kicked off its first professional season in September in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), the third tier in U.S. soccer's club pyramid behind Major League Soccer (MLS) and the revamped United Soccer League (USL).
Led by founders and investors including Demba Ba and Real Madrid star Eden Hazard, 1904 has remained afloat after navigating the unpredictable waters of American lower league soccer.
The team began its inaugural season on Sept. 7 with a 2-0 away loss to the Los Angeles Force in NISA's inaugural Challenge Cup. With a youthful roster and scheduled home matches at the 70,561-seat SDCCU Stadium, the former home of the NFL's Los Angeles Chargers, the club is optimistic that their project will succeed in one of America's soccer hotbeds.
SAN DIEGO -- Alexandre Gontran's professional soccer career was cut exceedingly short in his teenage years. Soon after he signed a contract with Ligue 1's FC Nantes at the age of 17, the promising French youngster suffered a setback that significantly changed his future.
"I went to FC Nantes, but after six months, I had a big injury in my back," Gontran told ESPN. "I saw three doctors for analysis, and they said that I couldn't play pro anymore."
Following the termination of his contract at Nantes, Gontran earned his coaching license, managed a small club in Paris called Montrouge and eventually became a licensed agent. His ambition grew into the desire to build his own club from scratch.
"If I wanted to coach as I wanted, I needed my own club. I developed this project first, alone. It has been in my mind for more than 15 years: to have a club and to do something different with my ideas. I was looking for people with my ideas to join," Gontran said. "I first asked my friend, Demba Ba."
Before becoming a star through stints with Premier League giants Chelsea and Newcastle United, Ba was a young player with untapped potential under Gontran's guidance at Montrouge. Gontran became Ba's agent, and with his help, the striker was able to enjoy a successful career, with stops in Germany, France, Turkey and China, in addition to four seasons in England's top tier. The two eventually started to work together to bring Gontran's vision for a club to life.
A few of their friends you might have heard of also joined as investors, advisors and members of the front office. Eden Hazard, who moved from Chelsea to Real Madrid this summer, tagged along, and former Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle midfielder Yohan Cabaye also came on board.
With some notable backing, there was one detail missing: Where would they actually set up the team?
For a start, they set their sights on the United States. The group considered buying an NASL team in Atlanta for $1 million in 2015 and spent time in Miami. They then traveled to California, where they stopped in their tracks once they arrived in San Diego.
"It's a growing market, and it's growing fast. America still has a lot to develop to be among the best leagues in the world. So why America? Because the talent that is around the country is unbelievable," Ba, who serves as the club's chairman, told ESPN.
San Diego has a vibrant soccer culture that draws from the region's numerous youth academies and the large fanbase of Liga MX side Club Tijuana. It led local markets in viewership for the 2018 World Cup and was second for the 2019 Women's World Cup, which meant there was little surprise as to why someone such as Hazard would get involved in the project.
"What motivates us is that we see the endless potential of this city and country. We jumped at the chance to be involved in the evolution of football in the United States because it is a growing sport and is capable of one day becoming the number one sport in the country," the Real Madrid star told ESPN FC. "In many areas, it is already the number one sport.
"We chose San Diego because it is a football city that deserves a team. The people of San Diego deserve a club to identify with."
The name "1904" represents the 19th (S) and fourth (D) letters of the alphabet and was suggested through online message threads and groups. The club assures that it is not a nod to "Anchorman," in which iconic character Ron Burgundy incorrectly states the founding date of the city.
The club began publicizing in 2017 that the team would play in the 2018 NASL season, but problems quickly became apparent. Due to legal battles with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the NASL crumbled before 1904 could take part in the cancelled 2018 season.
"From the beginning, we prepared for whatever would come. We knew that everything would not be very beautiful or flowery, but some of the things ... we didn't expect," Ba said.
According to 1904, the group spent $3 million on an NASL expansion fee, which included a $150,000 stadium deposit they claim they never received back from the league. Talks with another competition, the USL, also fell through. With no deal set and no league to play in, 1904 went quiet by the summer of 2018. Staffing was reduced, and the future of the project was in question.
"We had two choices: Either we give up and we leave the country, or we keep moving forward and try to find solutions. No MLS, no NASL and no USL. Think about it. What were our options?" co-managing owner Vagno Chandara told ESPN FC.
The landscape of professional soccer in San Diego looked momentarily bleak. United States legend Landon Donovan became the face of a campaign to land an MLS franchise in the city, but voters soundly defeated his "SoccerCity" redevelopment plan in the November 2018 election. The 1904 group was given another lifeline when the U.S. Soccer Federation approved a third-division league earlier this summer. The NISA was announced, followed by news that 1904 would participate.
"We've been in contact since the beginning," Hazard said regarding the connection with NISA. "We were the very first club to join NISA, and we have co-founded it. We have a big say in the direction of the league because we have a lot of experience with leagues around the world."
With eight teams and plans for more in the future, NISA advertises itself as a league with no expansion fees that is owned by its clubs. The idea, in theory at least, is that teams are able to spend more money on rosters, financial operations, youth development and other necessary areas of infrastructure. It's a bold move not typically seen in American soccer, and only time will tell if the ambitious model will be able to provide a long-term future. Whether a new team can at least partially fill the 70,561-seat SDCCU Stadium is another question altogether.
Nonetheless, there's a lot of potential in 1904's young squad. Nelson Blanco, a DC United Academy product, has joined after a stint with the USL's North Carolina FC. San Diego local Ernesto "Moe" Espinoza has youth-level experience with the USMNT and Liga MX's Club Tijuana, and midfielder Eder Arreola has represented UCLA, Galaxy II, Phoenix Rising, Armenia's Shirak SC and Delfines FC in Mexico's second division. Ozzie Ramos, who has played with San Diego State University and Seattle University, was a recent member of the Seattle Sounders development program.
All that said, San Diegans will have another new team in a higher division to potentially support as well. Following his efforts in the SoccerCity bid, Donovan teamed up with Sacramento Republic co-founder Warren Smith to bring a USL Championship side to San Diego. After announcing on June 19 that play will begin in 2020 or 2021, USL San Diego is officially going to be a significant part of the local sporting landscape.
"We are happy that they are in town because the city deserves more than one professional team," Ba said of Donovan's project. "OK, they have the [MLB team] Padres, but they lost the [NFL's Chargers]. It was a blow to the city when they left, but if we have two soccer teams come in to San Diego, it will be great for the city and also for competition."
Looking ahead, Hazard reiterated the organization's focus on developing players.
"In five years, my goal is that the United States will see San Diego 1904 FC as the model and best point of reference for American soccer. We want to be seen as the premier place of development in this country and prove it by preparing our professionals to play anywhere in the world. San Diego talent deserve this," Hazard said. "We have been waiting so long for this opportunity and have been working behind the scenes tirelessly.
"I am so happy that now we have a chance to put a team on the pitch."