USL League One expansion team Lexington Pro Soccer announced by United Soccer League

USL League One expansion team Lexington Pro Soccer announced by United Soccer League

Vince Gabbert knows how many people have come to Lexington because of the horse.

Now, he’s part of another destination sports attraction looking to lure people to and keep them happy in the Horse Capital of the World.

Gabbert is the first president of Lexington Pro Soccer, the USL League One expansion franchise awarded to the city of Lexington.

The announcement of the club’s creation came in downtown Lexington on Tuesday morning at Fifth Third Bank Pavilion, and featured remarks from Mayor Linda Gorton, William J. Shively, the founder of Tower Hill Sports, which majority owns the franchise, and USL President Jake Edwards.

The professional soccer club, which will be in the third-highest tier of pro soccer in the United States, will begin play in spring 2023.

“One of the great things about this community is it is such an international community because of the horse and because of what that means for us locally,” Gabbert told the Herald-Leader. “There’s so many folks that are from Latin America and South America and from England and from Ireland, that are here because of the horse that are huge, huge fans of soccer, grew up playing it wherever they grew up.”

“(They) brought that same fervor and that same love of the sport here and we feel like that’ll translate really well for what this club will do for the community.”

Shively, who also owns the historic Dixiana Thoroughbred horse farm, has opened two sports complexes in recent years in Lexington through Tower Hill Sports that have provided an enhanced soccer experience in the city.

“Lexington has a rich and storied tradition of sporting excellence, from the racetrack to the hardwood and beyond,” Shively said in a statement. “Our community is comprised of a diverse and international citizenry, which has a deep appreciation for the game of soccer. To bring a professional club to Lexington is a natural fit.”

During Tuesday morning’s announcement, Shively added that he wants Lexington Pro Soccer to be “a winning team.”

Gabbert, who also works as Keeneland’s vice president of strategic initiatives and legislative affairs, will continue his work with Keeneland alongside his role with Lexington Pro Soccer.

In addition to Gabbert and Shively, two other key members of Lexington Pro Soccer’s front office are already in place.

Sam Stockley, a native of England who played for nearly 20 years in England, Hungary and the United States before transitioning to coaching, was announced as the club’s first sporting director.

Michelle Rayner, a former member of the University of Kentucky women’s soccer team coaching staff, will be the senior director of performance operations for the club.

USL President Jake Edwards announces in downtown Lexington on Tuesday that the city is being awarded an expansion pro soccer franchise in USL League One. Ryan C. Hermens

Club to field multiple teams

In addition to the USL League One franchise, Stockley said Lexington Pro Soccer will field a USL League Two team that will be the club’s Under-23 men’s team and also a USL W League team that will be the club’s Under-23 women’s team.

USL League Two and USL W League are both pre-professional leagues overseen by USL.

The USL — or United Soccer League — governs several tiers of soccer in the United States.

While Major League Soccer (MLS) is the country’s highest tier of pro soccer, the three descending tiers beneath it: USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two, are all governed by USL.

While a team’s playing level is fixed in the USL’s three divisions — meaning regardless of on-field performance Lexington Pro Soccer will remain in USL League One — pursuing championships will remain a focus for the community-oriented club.

“To have an opportunity with an expansion franchise to go into a city that’s going to welcome you with open arms with a blank canvas,” Stockley said. “To be able to start and implement values and morals and a style, a way of business and a way that we treat our community and the way that we treat our players, the way that we treat our fan base and the way that we treat the staff and we treat each other. You don’t get that anywhere else in the world because most clubs have got 75 or 100 years of history.”

Lexington Pro Soccer will also field academy teams at various age levels for boys and girls.

“You’ll be able to have a pathway that you can stay in your hometown and play for your hometown,” Stockley said. “We’ll have an academy program where we’re going to be completely submerged in the community with the youth clubs and we’ll work with the youth clubs to build best practices, to build coaching education, to build structure, to give those players a pathway.”

In the long-term, Lexington Pro Soccer envisions a swanky, soccer-specific downtown stadium that will also have the ability to host concerts and other events.

Gabbert said a full development plan will be submitted and Lexington Pro Soccer will be responding to the request for proposal (RFP) for the High Street Development Project, with the intent to construct the stadium there, near Rupp Arena and the Central Bank Center in downtown Lexington.

Proposals for the project are due by Dec. 10, according to Lexington Center Corporation documents.

When speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s announcement, Shively said he has contracts for land near Interstate 75 in Lexington that would serve as a backup option for a stadium if building the downtown stadium doesn’t occur.

Shively said there is “no funding from the city in any of the plans” for a stadium, and said the target capacity for the new venue would be between 6,000 and 10,000 people.

In the short-term, Gabbert said discussions are ongoing with the University of Kentucky for the new franchise to use the Wendell and Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on the UK campus when the franchise begins USL League One play in spring 2023. The complex currently houses both the UK men’s and women’s soccer teams.

The franchise is also exploring different locations in Fayette County to be developed into training facilities and to serve as the home base for Lexington Pro Soccer’s academy.

Shively also said the land near I-75 could be where Lexington Pro Soccer builds its training facilities, with designs for as many as 15 soccer fields on the land.

Gabbert, who told the Herald-Leader “a local private investment group” is supporting Lexington Pro Soccer, said the construction of training facilities would also be funded by private investment.

Gabbert said the target is to have the training facilities and academy teams ready to go by the end of summer 2022.

“We’re looking for longevity,” Stockley added. “We don’t want people to just come and go. We want people to come in and buy into what we’re trying to do because this is a long-term project. …That’s the beauty of having a professional soccer club. There’s going to be history that we’re creating now that people are going to be talking about in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years.”

William J. Shively, the founder of Tower Hill Sports, which majority owns Lexington’s new pro soccer franchise, spoke during Tuesday’s news conference downtown. Ryan C. Hermens

USL League One to grow even more

According to USL, it’s targeting “U.S. communities ranging in population from 150,000 to one million” for USL League One expansion. The Lexington market fits this descriptor perfectly, as the total estimated population of Fayette County is is 322,750, according to U.S. Census Data released in August.

Justin Papadakis, the USL’s chief operating officer and chief real estate officer, told the Herald-Leader the USL is on pace to hit its goal of 35 USL League One clubs in the next four years.

Papadakis added that the current franchise fee for a USL League One club is $5 million.

“Just having another market, another media market, is nowhere near sufficient for us now. For us to go to a market we have to have all of the elements,” Papadakis said. “In Lexington, while it is an additional media market, this club will be one of the top clubs in the United States. I have 100% confidence.”

Currently comprised of 12 teams, USL League One will add two new expansion franchises next season in Fresno, California, and Windsor, Colorado.

By the time Lexington’s new pro team takes the field, its placeholder name of Lexington Pro Soccer will be a thing of the past.

In the coming weeks and months the club will host community listening sessions and community focus groups to gain feedback and input about the team’s crest and brand.

Gabbert said he hopes to finalize the new Lexington Pro Soccer identity by this winter.

“We feel like this fills a gap in the market from a sports landscape standpoint and I just think it sets it up for great success that people will really thrive in,” Gabbert said. “There’s no question, Lexington is a sports town.”

Plenty still needs to fall into place before Lexington Pro Soccer and its academy sides are ready for their opening matches.

Gabbert said feasibility studies will be performed to determine ticket prices, and both he and Stockley indicated a six- to nine-month timeline for the process of hiring the club’s first USL League One head coach.

But in the interim, the commitment to community will continue.

Gabbert said USL had been eyeing the Lexington market for expansion for several years.

The success of soccer in surrounding markets like Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville and Nashville — which all have either a USL Championship team or an MLS team — played a role in professional soccer making a return to Lexington.

“It just seemed to make sense that that was a great amenity and community piece that we were lacking that we thought would fit right here,” Gabbert said. “Lexington is deserving of a professional franchise, and this is a great way to showcase the city, a great way to showcase the sport.”

This story was originally published October 5, 2021 10:38 AM.

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Cameron Drummond works as a sports reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader with a focus on the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program, in addition to other college, high school and professional sports in the area. Drummond is a first-generation American who was born and raised in Texas, before graduating from Indiana University in 2020. He is a fluent Spanish speaker who previously worked as a community news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in Austin, Texas.

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