Can San Diego FC pull off their plan to be the Ajax of North America?

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Mikkel Damsgaard;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Mikkel Damsgaard</a>; Mohamed Mansour; <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Mohammed Kudus;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Mohammed Kudus</a>. San Diego FC will debut in MLS in 2025.</span><span>Composite: Shutterstock, AP</span>

Major League Soccer will integrate its 30th club at the beginning of the 2025 season when expansion side San Diego FC joins the Western Conference.

But the league’s latest addition will arrive with a model for on-field success, development and business unlike the other 29 teams.

San Diego FC, who will play their home games at San Diego State University’s 35,000-capacity Snapdragon Stadium in the heart of the city, are owned by the Right to Dream academy and bring to MLS an ambition to be the “Ajax of North America”, according to Tom Penn, the club’s CEO.

The Right to Dream academy was founded in Ghana in 1999 by Tom Vernon, a former Manchester United scout. With a holistic approach to developing its young players on and off the pitch, the academy has produced several top soccer players – including West Ham’s Mohammed Kudus, Southampton’s Kamaldeen Sulemana and Brentford’s Mikkel Damsgaard – while also providing a path to further education for its students.

Related: San Diego FC: Tory treasurers, tribal leaders and a $500m California dream

In 2019, Right to Dream expanded into Denmark with the purchase of the top-flight side FC Nordsjaelland. Now, after buying the rights to an expansion club for $500m, they are bringing their model to the US.

“We’ll be partnering with [universities], which is what we already do,” says Vernon, speaking shortly before he stepped back from his long-held role as CEO of Right to Dream to assume an advisory directorial position. “Many of the top universities in America have got Right to Dream kids attending. We had three girls get into Ivy League schools this year from west Africa. We’ve got great longstanding relationships.

“At Right to Dream, we deliberately admit kids who we think are good enough to play in the Ivy League, and then kids who are good enough to play in the Champions League – two different profiles. Our contribution to developing the communities that we’re in is to unlock that super-bright kid alongside that super-super-talent as well.

“We’re inspired by the LeBron James-Maverick Carter kind of dynamic, where you’ve got the guy who plays in front of the whole world every week, then his best mate from middle school is a super-bright businessman and they do social investments together, like I Promise School and commercial investments that create opportunities and jobs. That’s the idea in our schools. You may be bound for the Ivy League, but the guy or girl next to you might be bound for the Champions League. Our curriculums are all about how you can use your fame, wealth, power, education, influence and network to pass it on to the next generation. We think in America there are so many precedents for that working well already.”

In 2021, the Mansour Group, an Egyptian conglomerate owned by Mohamed Mansour, the seventh-richest person in Africa, invested $120m for a controlling stake in Right to Dream. Mansour, who is a British citizen, is a Conservative party senior treasurer and donor. He was unexpectedly given a knighthood on the recommendation of the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, after he gave the Conservatives £5m, at the time the party’s biggest donation since 2001.

Since Mansour’s involvement in Right to Dream, the academy has expanded into Egypt, where it owns another club and runs an academy. The Mansour Group has funded the San Diego project, too.

“There was a pre-Mansour plan and a post-Mansour plan,” Vernon says of how investment from the billionaire businessman has altered the scope of Right to Dream’s ambitions. “All pre-Mansour plans were in the ‘dream’ part of our brand. When we started to talking to the Mansours, the first thing they said when they visited Ghana was, ‘We have to do this in Egypt.’ That was the very first thing. We talked about the UK a little bit, but we were talking about America right from the start.”

In addition to the requisite infrastructure to operate an MLS team, San Diego FC will also build a $150m academy that, with Fifa rules allowing clubs to recruit into neighbouring countries within a 50km radius, will reach into Tijuana, Mexico, in its search for talent.

“It was super-important to us that it was going to be somewhere we were really going to make an impact with the academy,” Vernon says. “I hadn’t been to San Diego before. When I heard of an opportunity there, my mind went to country clubs, a lot of golf, a lot of upper-middle-class wealth. San Diego is a wealthy city, but at the same time you’ve got this whole border baby phenomenon and we’re within 50km of the border, so we can recruit into Tijuana as well.”

And as far as Vernon is concerned, Right to Dream’s move into US soccer is a natural progression.

“In Europe and Africa we’re one of the shining lights in terms of the student-athlete concept within elite football,” he says. “But we nicked that idea from America. We thought that, with such a big investment, we’re going somewhere where everybody already gets it – you say, ‘Hey, we want to be a progressive student-athlete concept within the US.’ Everyone says, ‘Well, of course you would want to be. That’s what we do here.’

“Americans just get it. That’s in relation to what Right to Dream stands for. That’s student-athlete, but also if you start talking about the American Dream – and there are many interpretations of that and whether it’s alive in 2023 in America. This idea that no matter where you come from, if you work hard enough and are passionate enough about your abilities, you’ll be given opportunities – that’s what we believe in as well. Hopefully not to be too idealistic about it but we think there’s a real values match there.

“Our battle in England would be the narrative, ‘Well, we’ve done it this way for 100 years, why would we want too much change?’ I would imagine Right to Dream will be in England one day, but we wanted to prove concept in a slightly more receptive market in deciding to go to California.”

In Denmark, FC Nordsjaelland have set multiple records relating to first-team opportunities given to young players. In April 2021, for example, they set an all-time domestic record by fielding a side with an average age of just 20 years and 20 days – 13 of the 16 players in that matchday squad were graduates of Right to Dream academies in either Denmark or Ghana. They have also achieved impressive results, given their reliance on youth. Last season they finished second in the Danish championship, earning qualification to the Europa Conference League. And although they were eliminated from that competition at the group stage this season, they first recorded a 6-1 victory over the Turkish giants Fenerbahçe.

The blueprint for San Diego FC is to strike the same balance between talent development and on-field success, only faster.

Related: MLS power rankings: new rules hand an edge to Messi and Miami

“What we’ve achieved at FCN, from an on-the-pitch perspective, is the model,” Vernon says. “That’s got a couple of core components. One is our style of play, which is respected across Scandinavia and many parts of Europe as a great style of play to truly develop players but also to really entertain.

“The second, which is what we’re best known for, is giving opportunity to young players. We’ve been able to do that where at times we’ve been winning with eight or nine academy players under the age of 22 starting in our first 11. That was the result of 20 years of FCN building a great academy and Right to Dream Ghana building a great academy and then bringing it together, so you obviously can’t do this stuff overnight.

“It won’t happen overnight in America. But with the depth of talent, we think that we can accelerate that process as much as possible and then complement it with the fact we’ve got three other great academies, so kids will come and play in San Diego when they’re 18.”

Vernon is hopeful San Diego FC can occupy the space in the hearts and minds of sports fans in the city that has been vacant since the Chargers left for Los Angeles in 2017, and he believes the Right to Dream model is the perfect fit to foster a deeper connection between the club and its community.

“There’s a big void there,” he says. “We’ve seen with ticket sales already that the demand is so high. You’ve got this really nice mix of a Latino-Mexican audience who know global football really well, and this emerging soccer fandom there and some really big youth clubs with thousands of kids playing who’ve wanted this on their doorstep. It’s the right market for pro soccer as an entertainment product, but also with the holistic values that sit beneath that and a deeper love affair with the city and the academy.

“The vision for us is that the city understands that the kids who come through Right to Dream Ghana or Egypt, when they make their debuts for San Diego FC, the fans can sing ‘He’s one of our own’ as much as they do about a kid comes through who was born in San Diego.”