The official announcement that Major League Soccer was expanding to San Diego came with some unexpected twists, despite being well-publicized in advance. Padres star Manny Machado was a surprise guest seated in the front row, welcomed to the ownership group by MLS commissioner Don Garber in his opening remarks.
Receiving less buzz was the news that former Los Angeles Football Club president and co-owner Tom Penn had joined the new San Diego club as CEO and minority owner. The former criminal defense attorney, player agent, NBA team executive and television analyst had stepped away from his job with LAFC in 2020 after a wildly successful tenure shaping the Los Angeles expansion club into an instant success.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Penn expanded on his new role with San Diego’s newest big league professional team. One thing was immediately clear: This move had been in the works for years, when an expansion Major League Soccer club in San Diego was only an idea. Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Beau Lynott, Voice of San Diego: You were the public face of LAFC and a central figure in that club’s growth and rapid success. Then you stepped away in 2020 to pursue your own endeavors and projects. What went into the decision to get back into MLS with the San Diego club?
Tom Penn, CEO of San Diego FC: I have been involved in every step of the pursuit of this opportunity for over two years. It wasn’t as if they just came calling at the end and said, “Would you like to do the CEO role?” It was more organic from the beginning.
I saw San Diego as the best market in America to bring a new pro soccer team to. There are other marquee markets out there, but none that are even close to San Diego, with its history of what football and soccer has meant in this community. With the opportunity to bring another major league peer of the Padres to town, it felt like the perfect market in and of itself.
On top of that was the reality that Snapdragon Stadium was under construction, real and going to be finished, leaving only one important piece of the puzzle, which is ownership. That was the pursuit that I embarked on with Brent Lawrence from Accelerate Sports, who is a San Diego native. We were working together to try to find the right kind of owner.
Voice: You have made a point to clearly state that the team is going to be San Diego Football Club, or Football Club of San Diego. What went into the decision to narrow it down that tightly at this relatively early, at least public stage, right after the announcement of the club?
Penn: We did a lot of work with focus groups and a lot of listening to people in the community about what this club should stand for. We’ve been doing that for months, quietly. The overwhelming thing we learned was a sense of gratitude and pride in the community itself. So we want to create a brand that is reflective of our community. It’s not just the coast, it’s not just the city. It’s the entire region, the county, and even across the border. The notion of being San Diego’s club was important. With the way that our investment, our strategy, and our ethos is around player development, and integrating into the global football ecosystem, we feel it’s important to sit within that global hierarchy and structure. That’s why we prefer to use football instead of soccer. And we’ve chosen football instead of fútbol, because we are here in America.
The big question is, do we put the football first or do we put the city first? That’s kind of a compelling question, because FC Barcelona is good enough for them! But then you have Liverpool Football Club. So we feel like either way, we’re going to be referred to on the global stage and nationally as San Diego. We want to own the high ground and represent the entire region, rather than SDFC or something like that. That made sense for LAFC because the letters L.A. mean something on their own. SD is not as familiar and doesn’t resonate as much globally.
Voice: You have said the club is going to compete on the world stage. What does the intention to compete globally mean to you, and how should San Diegans interpret that mission?
Penn: With Right To Dream, we’re a member, a part of the family, and part of the Right To Dream community. That community is also a professional team in Denmark called FC Nordsjælland. That team just won a really exciting match, and they’re challenging for the title in Denmark. And there’s another professional team in Egypt [TUT FC in Cairo]. And there will be other professional clubs over time as part of the Mansours’ growth and Right To Dream’s growth.
Then there’s the integration with all these best-in-class youth academies for boys and girls, where there’s a commitment to young talent as early as age 10 in other countries, and we’re going to start at age 12, where it’s a fully immersive boarding school-type experience where you get the best football education, the best academic education, and character development. That is a big part of player development on the worldwide stage. There are academies in America but not like what we’re going to do.
Voice: In what way will the Right To Dream overseas academies be sister organizations to the San Diego Right To Dream academy? Will there be player movement between the academies and clubs?
Penn: They’re 100% integrated. The description of sister organizations, or fraternal organizations, is sort of accurate. The one exception is that boys or girls from Africa will not come live in our facility and become part of our facility. They will visit, and they’re all on the same curriculum.
Each of the Right To Dream academies has the same football and academic curriculum. There’s cross-pollination and integration. The boys or girls from Ghana may come and play against the boys and girls from San Diego. FIFA rules do not allow you to transfer minors for the sake of living and participating, which makes sense. But they will be on an integrated program where they’re all learning to play the same style of football, so that when they become professional, they can sign professional contracts as young as, say, 16. When they sign their first professional contracts, then they can be integrated and play together.
They’ll continue to get their education, but those that are on the professional pathway will find higher levels of competition as they accelerate their development progression. Then, ultimately, our professional team in San Diego may very well have the best of the best from Ghana, Egypt, Denmark and the Americas.
Voice: It was reported that the San Diego Right To Dream academy will get a huge capital outlay [an estimated $150 million] to build it. Will the San Diego Right To Dream academy and the MLS club training facility be in the same place?
Penn: They’ll be fully integrated together. The Right to Dream way is that the star on the first team will be comfortable and want to be having lunch with the 12-year-old newcomer. A centerpoint of our campus will be the dining hall. It’s the same way in their other academies. It’s really the gathering place where everybody gets together around the giant kitchen table for the family meals. So you have that integration and the ability for the kids to understand what it really means to be a pro.
Voice: I imagine that one of your biggest projects is site selection for that facility. Is there a timeline we should anticipate for when land is purchased, ground broken, and a facility is up and running?
Penn: We’ve done a lot of work on that already. We’re very confident that we’re going to have our building constructed and open for business by the time we start in early 2025.
To get onto that timetable, we would expect an announcement and a groundbreaking as soon as late summer or early fall.
Voice: While understanding that philosophy and emphasis on youth, because it’s an expansion team, should San Diego fans look forward to a big-name designated player signing to get the team up to speed in its infancy?
Penn: Yes. Our launch will involve carefully curating who those designated players are. You obviously can’t start with all kids from your academy because the academy doesn’t exist. So we’re going to need to use others to establish our identity and a competitive roster right out of the gate. We expect to be competitive right away, and we want to get the ball rolling in the direction that we want for the long haul.
Voice: Some clubs, internationally and in MLS, have supporters councils that hold votes and management discussions with club leadership. Is that something that’s been discussed internally, about having a supporters council that engages with the club?
Penn: We’re deep into that process as well. There has been a lot of listening and a lot of conversations. Our SVP of brand and community Sebastián Morúa has been quietly connecting for months with supporter leaders, first listening and learning, and then most recently, communicating our vision and explaining what we’re all about. That’s part of the reason we were able to have such a robust showing of support, energy and excitement at our party on Saturday night. It was a wonderful way to start.
Clearly a huge part of our club is going to be our supporter group. The way that comes together is one of the most exciting things to watch over the next 20 months or so. Who steps up, how do they gel together and how do they coalesce under a banner that they choose. That’s not done by the club. That’s done by them in partnership with us. We support those that want to be a part of this club. We can’t create or engineer that and we have no intention to. We want to respect what they do and collaborate with them for the good of soccer in the city.
We have this big north end of the building that is purpose-built for supporters. We have safe standing and effectively their own social club at the top with all those [shipping] containers. The space is really purpose-built by the university to cater to supporter culture. It’ll be magnificent on game day if that community comes together the way we think it will.