San Diego FC: The New MLS Franchise and Their Student-Athlete Model

29 years after the establishment of Major League Soccer, MLS will introduce its 30th team as San Diego Football Club becomes the latest expansion club to make its way into the American game. With a unique student-athlete model and a focus on community building and cultural development, San Diego FC will be looking to gain a foothold in a city that currently boasts two professional teams: baseball team San Diego Padres and women’s soccer team San Diego Wave.


San Diego FC was found in May of 2023 by Mohamed Mansour, an Egyptian Businessman and chairman of the Mansour Group, alongside the Native American Sycuan Tribe, a California Native American Tribe. This team will be part of the Mansour Group network which includes the Right to Dream academy, a youth setup that was founded by former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon, who also happens to be the chairman at Danish club FC Nordsjælland.



This has formed a successful partnership, with the likes of Ernest Nuamah (Lyon), Mohamed Diomande (Rangers), Kamaldeen Sulemana (Southampton) and Mohammed Kudus (West Ham) going from plying their trade in Ghana to polishing their skills in Denmark to earning a big-money moves, and it seems that Ibrahim Osman will be the next to follow suit. At the 2022 World Cup, we saw RTD graduates Kudus, Sulemana and Kamal Sowah represent Ghana whilst the likes of Mikkel Damsgaard, Andreas Skov Olsen, Victor Nelsson and Mathias Jensen played for Denmark.


San Diego will no doubt be looking to take inspiration in the success of Nordsjælland, who was acquired by Right To Dream in 2016 and became the first European club to be bought by an African organization. The RTD ownership then set out to develop the the academy while also bringing in some of the talents they already had in their academy in Ghana. All this culminated into the club becoming one of the standout clubs in Scandinavia due to their emphasis on youth and their highly energetic and entertaining style of football.


The club has set all kinds of records in terms of giving young players the opportunity to thrive and depending on them in high-pressure matches. In April 2021, they set a domestic record of fielding the youngest side in the league with an average age of 20 years and 20 days , and 13 of the 16 players in the matchday squad were graduates of the the Right To Dream academy in Ghana or Denmark.


This team has equally been impressive in Europe, qualifying for the Europa Conference League last season and recording an impressive 6-1 victory over Turkish giants Fenerbahçe. The success hasn’t only been evident on the pitch, but off it in terms of all-round player development and financial prosperity, selling the likes of Kudus and Damsgaard for sizable fees and recycling those funds back into the academy.


Maria Sánchez: Analyzing the San Diego Wave’s Newest Recruit


What makes the San Diego franchise exciting is the emphasis on youth development and education, which is quite different from the focus of other MLS clubs whose success is dependent on the performance of their high-profile signings. San Diego FC will operate on a character-building, football development and education-focus model. With the construction of their performance centre and the Right To Dream academy, things look bright for San Diego FC.


At the groundbreaking ceremony, which took place at the site of the future facility in El Cajon on the Sycuan Reservation, San Diego CEO Tom Penn said:


“This is a foundational moment for our club. The San Diego FC Performance Center and Right To Dream Academy will enable us develop future generations of world-class players across greater San Diego. This groundbreaking initiative reaffirms our commitment to create opportunities for young talent to flourish and our vision to become the epicenter of football excellence and innovation in North America.” 


Club vice chairman Cody Martinez added, “ This is a proud moment for the Sycuan Tribe and a giant step in serving the next generation of young athletes and future leaders throughout the San Diego community. Today’s historic groundbreaking marks not only the construction of San Diego FC’s state of the art performance center but also lays the foundation to nurture the dreams of young talent, fostering a stronger community, and creating a legal of soccer excellence.”


Maria Sánchez: Analyzing the San Diego Wave’s Newest Recruit


Vernon stated, “Right To Dream San Diego will offer a number of firsts in the U.S and MLS footballing landscapes, including a fully funded school, residence and football academy that offers pathways for young talent to flourish both on and off the field. As we have in Ghana, Denmark and Egypt, we will provide opportunities to student athletes to reach their academic potential, affect positive change in their communities and become world-class football players.”


It is clear to see that the plan and vision for San Diego FC is different to some of the systems used in Europe and especially in England, where a lot of youth players who don’t make the cut at different age groups at club academies often struggle to find a career outside of football. Right To Dream San Diego is a scholarship-based academy where all enrolled, residential athletes will receive full five-year scholarship programs regardless of football performance.


It will become the first MLS club to offer a privately operated school combined with a residential football academy. The academy isn’t only giving the youth players an opportunity to succeed in football, but to also get an education and succeed beyond it. Vernon believes the arrival of San Diego FC and the model of the Right To Dream Network will foster a bond and connection within the community and the fanbase that has been sorely missing ever since the NFL team San Diego Charges made the move to Los Angeles.


Club president Mansour has been credited with saying the foundation of San Diego FC will be built on local players around the area and scouting around the area would prove pivotal in that search for talent. The recent partnership of San Diego FC and Liga MX side Club Tijuana (Xolos) in May of 2024, further proves the effort of the club to foster a connection and a relationship with its surroundings.  “We are honoured to partner with our neighbors at Club Tijuana to co-create a series of exciting matches and a cultural celebration of the unique binational communities of San Diego and Tijuana,” said club CEO Tom Penn. 


San Diego Wave’s 2023 NWSL Season Preview


The location of the San Diego FC headquarters puts it at an advantageous position in terms of talent recruitment as the close proximity of the clubs headquarters is 48 kilometers from the Mexican border, thus giving the club a unique opportunity to sign players from Tijuana and the surrounding areas of Mexico. The opportunity to recruit from Mexico as well as around the USA makes San Diego a potential talent hotbed.


San Diego FC also have the privilege to recruit and sign players from the Right to Dream network in Ghana, Denmark and Egypt and delve into a massive pool of talent. “We’re prioritizing our academy here in the United States to develop players, but at the same time, players from our other academies and our other clubs will come and play here in the same way that players from here will go and play within other clubs and academies. Every individual will shape their own journey”, Vernon said when speaking to


The Right to Dream Academy San Diego is not only positive news for San Diego FC but also MLS and the US National Team. MLS has consistently struggled to produce top-level talent, with the likes of Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna having to move to Europe at a young age in order to receive top-level footballing development. There is a desire from MLS fans to see more homegrown stars work their way up from the youth level and excel in the senior game, and San Diego FC may just have what it takes to fulfill this wish.


Only eight months remain before San Diego FC kick off their MLS journey at Snapdragon Stadium, and it’s safe to say that the excitement is building in Southern California. They’ve already added 17-year-old goalkeeper and San Diego native Duran Ferree as well as Danish veterans Jeppe Tverskov and Marcus Ingvartsen, and this week, they announced their first blockbuster signing: Hirving Lozano.



At 28 years of age, Lozano has won a Scudetto and a Coppa Italia title with Napoli, two Eredivisie titles with PSV Eindhoven, and a Liga MX Clausura title and a CONCACAF Champions League title with Pachuca. He’s participated in two World Cups with Mexico, with his winning goal vs. Germany in 2018 still living fondly in the memory of Mexican supporters. ‘Chucky’ has won silverware in Italy, Mexico and the Netherlands, and he’ll be looking to do the same in the United States.


With a unique community-based approach to youth development and a marquee signing already on his way, things are looking brighter than ever for San Diego FC, and they may just have the tools to become a trailblazer in Major League Soccer.


By: Oscar Ihua / @oscarihua

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto