For the first time, Hughes Stadium features FieldTurf. Christian Brothers and McClatchy high schools will play home games there.

Capital lands a pro soccer team

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 - 7:38 am

It's a second-tier soccer league, and the team will play its home games at a community college.

But Sacramento officials believe the city's newest professional sports team – an expansion franchise in the USL Pro soccer league – could eventually lead to the big time.

The city was awarded a USL Pro franchise Monday, with the team's expected debut in spring 2014. It will be the 14th team in the league, whose teams range from the Los Angeles Blues in Orange County to the Wilmington Hammerheads in North Carolina.

Sacramento's still-unnamed team, with an ownership group led by former River Cats executive Warren Smith, is negotiating to play its home games at recently refurbished Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College.

Smith, joined by Mayor Kevin Johnson and other officials, said the USL Pro entry could be a means to an end: a franchise in Major League Soccer, the sport's top tier in the United States.

Four of the last five MLS expansion teams were franchises in the USL Pro league.

"This is a proving ground," said Tim Holt, president of USL Pro.

The announcement, at a crowded news conference at Hot Italian restaurant in midtown, was part of a busy soccer day in greater Sacramento.

Elk Grove, which has been pursuing an MLS franchise on its own for the past year, revealed that Mayor-elect Gary Davis met over the weekend with that league's commissioner, Don Garber. Davis said the meeting, at the MLS championship game in Los Angeles, was at Garber's invitation.

"The conversation was positive," Davis said. "I don't want to overstate the commitment, but there's an interest in bringing a team to our region."

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said the league is mainly focused on adding a second team in New York. But Sacramento is among a handful of cities on the league's radar for future expansion, along with Orlando, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Miami.

"We know that Sacramento is a vibrant soccer market," he said. The MLS has 19 teams.

He added that the new USL Pro franchise in Sacramento could enhance the region's chances down the road.

Similarly, Davis and Smith both said they don't believe the Sacramento team will hurt Elk Grove's efforts, or vice versa. Smith said the important thing is securing an MLS franchise some day for greater Sacramento.

"I don't care if it's in Elk Grove, the city of Sacramento, West Sacramento, Roseville," he said.

Smith, who was instrumental in bringing the River Cats to Sacramento, said he helped run the USL Pro franchise in Portland from 2006 to 2008. That team, the Timbers, graduated to the MLS last season.

"I know the business," Smith said.

He said the new Sacramento franchise represents a multimillion-dollar investment, though he wouldn't go into details about financing. He plans to run a name-the-team contest, the way the River Cats did when they relocated from Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2000.

Going from USL Pro to the MLS would be a substantial financial leap. The entry fee for expansion teams in USL Pro is under $1 million, Holt said. It's $40 million for the MLS.

And while Hughes Stadium is fine for the USL Pro circuit, the MLS is known to favor cities that build made-for-soccer facilities in the $100 million range.

Still, a pro soccer team at any level would provide a boost for the region's sports fans, who continue to worry about the Sacramento Kings' long-term future.

"This is a big deal for our community," Johnson said.

The mayor, who led the unsuccessful push for a new downtown arena for the Kings, said it was premature to say whether an MLS stadium could be financed in the same way as the basketball project: by leveraging the city's parking operations.

But City Councilman Steve Cohn said "the parking model, if the (stadium) were downtown, could make sense."

For now, 84-year-old Hughes Stadium will have to do. The 21,000-seat stadium recently underwent a $13 million makeover that included new turf and renovated bleachers, restrooms, food-service facilities and locker rooms.

"It's a pretty good face-lift," said Mitch Campbell, the college's athletic director.

While the soccer team wouldn't start play until 2014, Smith said his organization wants to stage a series of exhibition games in Sacramento next year.

USL Pro, founded in 1993, is based in Tampa and includes franchises in suburban Los Angeles, Charlotte, N.C., and Phoenix as well as smaller markets like Harrisburg, Pa., and Dayton, Ohio. One of its teams plays in Antigua, in the West Indies. The teams play a 13-game home schedule, but also play occasional preseason games against MLS squads.

USL Pro is the top rung of United Soccer Leagues, which operates multiple men's and women's teams throughout North America.

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