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July 19, 2013

Soccer war rumbles in OKC as plans clash

Adam Troxtell
The Express-Star

OKLAHOMA CITY —

Ten years ago, professional soccer was still fighting for fame in the American sports landscape.

Times have changed.

This is evident by the fact that two different management groups are currently planning on two completely separate teams to begin playing in Oklahoma City within the next two years. As their efforts unfold, it has become clear they overlap in more ways than one way, and caught in the middle is Oklahoma City's soccer future and its soccer fans. Mayor Mick Cornett has taken up a spectator's role.

"I'll admit, it's interesting," Cornett said. "There is definitely a void for soccer. I think the marketplace is there to sort that out."

In one corner, there's Prodigal LLC, who earlier this summer announced they will have a team to play in the United Soccer Leagues PRO (USL PRO) league starting in spring of next year. To top that, on Wednesday Prodigal -- the same company that runs Oklahoma City Barons hockey team -- revealed plans to build a 7,000 seater soccer-specific stadium, with an option to expand it to 20,000 seats. In the much more distant future, Prodigal has indicated they might like to move the team into the pinnacle of American soccer, Major League Soccer (MLS), assuming their club becomes as popular as they anticipate.

The challenger: Sold Out Strategies, who is currently in talks with the North American Soccer League (NASL) about creating a completely separate team to play in their league in the spring of 2015. In addition, Mayor Cornett says based on talks he has had with SOS co-owner Brad Lund, they also have long-term plans to build their own soccer specific stadium in the city.

This means that, at some point, Oklahoma City could have two separate professional teams in two different leagues competing for the same fans and resources. 

There is only one other city in the United States where a similar system sustains: Los Angeles, where the Galaxy and Chivas USA compete as MLS rivals and the Blues ply their trade in USL PRO. In 2015, New York will be only the second U.S. city to support two MLS teams.

How a two team system would work in Oklahoma City, Cornett said, is for the companies to decide.

"It's the companies that make that decision," Cornett said. "I'm not a referee here. It's not for me to decide what's in the best interest of the city."

One thing is certain: SOS's NASL team will have a place to play in two years' time. Oklahoma City Public Schools awarded SOS a two year lease on Taft Field earlier this year, giving the company a leg up in the battle for soccer supremacy since, at the moment, Prodigal have no place to play their team. There is no date for construction to begin on their planned 7,000-seater stadium, and alternative possibilities to pass the time appear to be anything but endless.

"What I have heard is they are looking at several sites, but I don't know any more," Cornett said.

There is yet another twist in the tale, and it's one that could leave even the top experts of the American soccer landscape scratching their heads. Oklahoma City FC is the current semi-professional and amateur team that began playing in the Premier Development League (PDL) just this year. The PDL belongs to USL, and the team is owned by SOS.

They play at Star Field on the Oklahoma City University campus, and their contract to stage matches here appropriately eliminates a venue option for Prodigal's USL team.

Here's the issue: since SOS began pursuing the creation of a separate team to play in the NASL, they have become ensnarled in a legal dispute with the USL, the organization in which their Oklahoma City FC team play. USL says the company would violate its contract with the league by bringing a team from NASL, a direct competitor, into the market. 

This ongoing litigation is the reason co-owner Lund was unable to speak to the Express-Star candidly about this soccer war. He did say his partner at SOS, Tim McLaughlin, will go before the NASL on July 25 and present the company's plans for a team in Oklahoma City. This is expected to go "very well", Lund said. Since they already locked down the Taft Stadium deal, SOS appear to be confident in their plans.

But there is still a long way to go before the smoke clears and Oklahoma's soccer future comes into view. Not since the Tulsa Roughnecks, which played in the old NASL back in the 1970s before the league folded, has the fastest growing sport in America caused this much of a stir in the state.

"If you look at Oklahoma City and what it has to serve soccer fans, this really fills a void in the city," Cornett said.