First of all, let us thank Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber for keeping Sacramento in his thoughts when it comes to expansion here sometime before we’re all dead.
But the question we need to ask is, do we want to keep him and the MLS in ours?
Sacramento may have a better big-league option than the MLS, and you can find it about 600 miles to the south, in Liga MX, the premier soccer outfit in North America, one of the two best leagues in this hemisphere and among the top dozen or so in the world.
If the goal around here is to attract the best possible players and play the best possible soccer – and why shouldn’t it be? – Liga MX may be the way to go for Sacramento and its football club, Republic FC.
Republic FC president Warren Smith is too smart to even consider the question right now. His group is totally committed to getting into the MLS. “No comment,” he answered politely, when some media crackpot asked him about Liga MX.
Sacramento has already made the case it’s a big-league soccer town. Its pent-up rage for the sport has exploded, its fury streaming in and out of Republic FC confines – first at Hughes Stadium and now at Bonney Field – to pregame and-postgame celebrations all over town. The passion has spilled beyond soccer to encompass the fans’ feeling for each other and their city. All they want is a shot at the bigs.
Then Bee columnist Marcos Breton came back to town with news from New York. The Big Man’s column on April 25 quoted Garber as saying Sacramento “belongs in MLS” and that “when we are able to bring them in, they will be very successful.” Nice words, delivered by Garber, just before he followed with the slap-down. He told Breton the MLS will work out its expansion plan “strategically,” not in reaction to “the needs of an individual market or from external pressures.”
Enter Plan Liga MX.
Cesar Hernandez blogs the Mexican league for ESPNFC, and he tweets under the handle of @cesarhfutbol. “Wow,” Hernandez said in a phone interview from his home in Santa Cruz, when presented with the idea of a Liga MX presence in the capital of Alta California.
Hernandez analyzed the TV ratings. On April 26, for instance, Chivas de la Guadalajara vs. Club America attracted 3 million viewers in the United States, or more than six NBA and 35 Stanley Cup playoff games in the same general ratings period, according to Univision, the Spanish language network that carried the match. Univision’s press release said the game topped everything in age-group time slots that day for 18-49s and 18-34s in six U.S. markets, including Sacramento.
Hernandez noted the large Mexican national population that fills stadiums from Los Angeles to Raley Field anytime Liga MX clubs venture north. He quoted Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog to report that Liga MX is the fifth most popular professional sports league in North America, according to Google search traffic, and that more people look up Chivas than they do the Seattle Seahawks, the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Bulls. Six Liga MX sides pull more Google traffic than the leading MLS squad, the L.A. Galaxy.
Unburdened by MLS’s restrictive salary caps, Liga MX clubs have been able to sign international stars such as Ronaldinho, according to Hernandez, a UC Santa Cruz graduate who said he’d make plenty of drives from the coast to the Valley if Republic FC ever makes the move to the Mexican league.
“It would be exciting,” Hernandez said. “Financially, it would be massive – huge.”
Of course, there are problematic details. One is Liga MX’s promotion-relegation system that could stick Sacramento in the bush leagues again if Republic FC falters at the top. You could fix this by convincing more U.S. cities to join Sacramento in a Liga MX norte division. Put a team in L.A., and you’d have to double-deck the Coliseum. Put one in Sacramento and forget about a 20,000 seat ballpark in the railyards. You’d have to make it 40,000.
You’d probably also have to make it so the U.S./Liga MX teams would not be subject to relegation, at least for awhile. No, it would not be fair. But it wouldn’t be as bad as the bracero program, and U.S.-Mexican relations survived that labor injustice of the World War II era.
Another issue could be dual citizenship and Liga MX’s impact on the U.S. Men’s National Team, which is closely aligned with MLS. USA soccer executives may not like the idea of a foreign league confusing young U.S. born men with strong family ties to Mexico about which national team to play for. This hasn’t been a problem, though, with players like Joe Corona, who was born in L.A., went to San Diego State, plays as a pro with Club Tijuana and is still a member of the U.S. National Team. It has, however, influenced the thinking of Miguel Angel Ponce – born in Sacramento, educated at San Ysidro High School and now a Chivas defender and member of the Mexican national team.
These are all little things. The big thing is, Sacramento needs to move quickly. The Xolos of Tijuana, competing with the Galaxy for the title of most popular soccer club in the Californias, has set up academies in suburban Chula Vista as well as in Oxnard and would you believe in Brainerd, Minn.? They’ve also have designs on the Central Valley.
Clearly, the Xolos, named for a hairless dog, are nipping at our heels, while Sacramento waits for the MLS, when maybe it doesn’t have to.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.