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MLS to hear expansion pitches from Sacramento, Minneapolis, Las Vegas

Sacramento Republic FC player Dominik Jakubek acknowledges the crowd during the Sacramento Republic block party at 20th and K streets in September. A Major League Soccer delegation visited, and the team won the USL Pro championship game a few days later.
Sacramento Republic FC player Dominik Jakubek acknowledges the crowd during the Sacramento Republic block party at 20th and K streets in September. A Major League Soccer delegation visited, and the team won the USL Pro championship game a few days later. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Sacramento officials are heading back to New York on Thursday to pitch the city’s effort for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise, along with rival groups from Minneapolis and Las Vegas.

The meetings at MLS’ headquarters, announced Wednesday, come as the league intensifies its scrutiny of the cities competing to join the league. Although MLS officials haven’t designated the finalists for the coveted 24th spot in the league, Sacramento, Minneapolis and Las Vegas appear to have launched the most aggressive efforts.

“As part of our presentation, we’ll highlight the progress we have made in terms of our three core areas of strength: market, ownership group and a clear path to a downtown facility,” Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who will lead the city’s delegation, said in an emailed statement. “Our group remains singularly focused in our efforts to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Sacramento.”

Even with all three cities making their pitches on the same day, Thursday’s meetings probably won’t represent the final word before MLS owners vote on expansion. Benny Aziz of Think Big Sacramento, the mayor’s sports task force, said the Sacramento group expects to have additional discussions with league executives.

Although the league hasn’t announced plans, it’s possible the competing cities could make formal presentations to all of the league’s owners Dec. 6, when they meet in the host city of the MLS Cup championship game. The league announced Wednesday that “future expansion will be discussed further at the MLS board of governors meeting” that day. However, MLS officials said earlier this month they did not expect a decision on expansion until next year. The new team probably wouldn’t begin MLS play until 2018, but that remains uncertain.

Sacramento injected itself into the MLS discussion because of the remarkable success of Sacramento Republic FC, which shattered attendance records and won the championship in its first season in the minor-league USL Pro circuit.

Republic FC plans to add at least 3,000 more seats to Bonney Field, for a total capacity of 11,000, and is urging fans to buy season tickets as a way of proving the city’s case to MLS. If awarded a franchise, the team plans to build a privately financed MLS stadium, seating as many as 25,000 fans, at the northern edge of the downtown Sacramento railyard.

The team’s founder and president, Warren Smith, has fortified Republic FC’s prospects by enlisting Kings minority owner Kevin Nagle, a multimillionaire pharmaceutical executive from El Dorado Hills, as his lead investor. Several other Sacramentans have also signed on as investors, including developer Larry Kelley, who is in the process of buying the railyard.

The mayor, Nagle, Smith and others met with MLS Commissioner Don Garber in New York last month. League officials made a high-profile visit to Sacramento in September.

At Thursday’s meetings, the league could hear from two competing ownership groups from Minneapolis. The owner of the Minnesota Vikings wants a soccer team to share the Vikings’ new domed stadium already under construction in downtown Minneapolis. Separately, the owners of the Minnesota Twins and Timberwolves have teamed up with the owner of Minnesota United FC, a minor-league soccer team that plays in the suburbs, on an MLS bid. That group would build a soccer-specific stadium in downtown Minneapolis.

Las Vegas’ inclusion in the New York meetings is a bit of a surprise. Its efforts seemed to stall when the City Council, amid strong opposition from several council members, postponed a vote on a nonbinding stadium deal with substantial public funding. The city is now considering a stadium plan with considerably less public funding; a vote is set for Dec. 17. The Las Vegas bid is being led by Justin Findlay, a prominent car dealer, and The Cordish Cos. development company from Baltimore.

The league plans to expand to 24 teams by the end of the decade. There will be 20 teams next season and franchises will take the field in 2017 in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Miami has been awarded the 23rd spot, but that expansion depends on the city developing a new stadium.

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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