Chelsea, Clubs, Eden Hazard, North American Soccer League, Story

Eden Hazard is part of an ownership group that will bring pro soccer to San Diego in 2018.

A San Diego-area expansion team will start play in the North American Soccer League next year, with Eden Hazard, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, and Moussa Sow all part of the ownership group.

The NASL announced on Monday that the new club will begin play in 2018, bringing the second-division league to 10 teams. A team name and logos are still under development, while the club is “scouting locations in North County to build a privately-financed soccer complex,” the league said.

Hazard, now a star for Chelsea, started his career with Lille alongside Cabaye, while Sow also joined the French club for two seasons. Ba has played with Hazard at Chelsea, Cabaye at Newcastle, and Sow with the Senegal national team.

“San Diego is a beautiful place and the love and passion the people have for soccer made this an easy choice for us,” Hazard said. “My friends and I are honored to turn this dream into a reality and we can’t wait to get started and win some games.”

The Southern California city is currently without a professional soccer team, though a separate ownership group, which includes former U.S. star Landon Donovan, is also trying to win a bid for a Major League Soccer expansion team.

But that attempt was dealt a blow last week after the city council put a vote on stadium development on the 2018 ballot, rather than conduct a special election in 2017.

The MLS bid has the support of the mayor but has been met with controversy, with opponents saying FS Investors are primarily concerned with its massive SoccerCity development project, which will include hotel and retail space on the site of Qualcomm Stadium, the former home of the NFL’s Chargers.

Bob Watkins, the NASL team’s president, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that his group was “soccer specific” in contrast, and is purposely avoiding a downtown venue in favor of a 10,000-seat stadium that could open as early as next August.

“We want to develop soccer through this professional opportunity. We are not in the real estate development business and want to use soccer as a ploy to get a real estate project going,” Watkins said.

“I don’t mean that as a negative on MLS. We didn’t want to get into the fray or be painted with the same brush of either helping or not helping the MLS project. We don’t want to be the heroes on white horses.

“We just want to say: ‘We stayed away from downtown, we stayed away from Qualcomm. We want a clean slate going forward with a team in North County.'”

There is no promotion and relegation between the U.S. leagues, and Ba told the Union-Tribune that his club was not against the MLS bid.

“Even if there was MLS now, we would still come here,” said Ba, who now plays for Shanghai Shenhua. “It’s two different leagues, two different models. If they come, they’ll be a rival — a nice rival. We’re not going to hate each other. It will be nice for the San Diego community to have those games every year. If they come to town, we’ll welcome them.”

The club will start play at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium, which previously hosted a women’s professional team.

The NASL faced financial difficulty last year, but expanded to California with the San Francisco Deltas beginning play this season, while a new Orange County team will also start in 2018, about 100 miles north of the San Diego club.

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