Major League Soccer delivered a sympathetic but pointed message Thursday to Sacramentans pining for an MLS expansion team: Be patient.
Commissioner Don Garber, in a media conference call on the eve of the league’s championship game, said he wants minor-league sensation Sacramento Republic FC to join MLS eventually. But he said the process could take a while and Sacramento probably will have to wait for the next wave of MLS expansion. He offered no timetable for when that could happen.
“Sacramento will be very high on our list of next clubs to come into the league” when the next phase begins, he said, adding that he appreciates the progress Republic FC has made on planning an MLS stadium and building enthusiasm for the league.
“This might be painful in the short term, but long term I believe Republic will be in this league … and everybody will forget the drama and uncertainty of where we are today,” he said.
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Kevin Nagle, managing partner of Republic FC, said he appreciates Garber’s comments “about the strength of Sacramento’s bid for MLS. … We fully respect the MLS expansion process and look forward to continuing to do everything we can to be ready for MLS in any scenario and any timetable.”
Two days after the Sacramento City Council approved a term sheet for a proposed $226 million MLS stadium at the downtown railyard, Garber offered some of his most detailed comments to date on Republic FC’s expansion candidacy. He also addressed the expansion bottleneck in Miami, which appears to be preventing Sacramento from jumping into the league sooner rather than later.
MLS’ current expansion blueprint calls for having 24 franchises in business by 2020. The 24th spot was awarded around two years ago to Miami and retired English soccer legend David Beckham, contingent on Beckham securing a deal for a new stadium. But Beckham has made almost no progress on that front.
Garber called the Miami situation “frustrating” but he said MLS remains committed to the city and Beckham, who was granted an option to buy an expansion team as part of his agreement to play in MLS years ago. He said league owners expect to hear a report from the Beckham group this weekend when they meet in Columbus, Ohio, site of Sunday’s MLS Cup championship game.
Although Miami already failed as an MLS city in 2001, after a four-year run, “we have a true belief in that city as representing an important strategic market for us,” he said.
He said it’s unlikely MLS would have Sacramento jump ahead of Miami as the 24th team. But he didn’t rule it out, either.
“We believe in the (Miami) market,” Garber said. “If we can’t get it right, we move on. … It’s conceivable Sacramento could be higher on our expansion priority list.”
He said MLS wants to decide the Miami situation soon, but there’s no official deadline: “We will make the decision on Miami in due time.”
The Miami-Sacramento dynamic has emerged as a major issue in MLS circles. In a 40-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, Garber fielded five questions about one or both cities.
In one sense, he said, geography has been Sacramento’s biggest hindrance. MLS already has a team in Northern California, the San Jose Earthquakes, and has been “working off a plan that had us expanding into strategic regions” such as the Southeast and Midwest. Its most recent franchise was awarded last spring to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
By contrast, Sacramento wasn’t anywhere on MLS’ radar until Republic FC made its extremely successful debut in the United Soccer League in 2014. The club has sold out every home game at its temporary stadium, Bonney Field at Cal Expo.
“We had to take a step back and say, ‘Man, this is really special, we need to work together to find a way to get them in the league,’ ” Garber said. “But we have to do this in the right way.”
Although the city of Sacramento doesn’t plan to subsidize Republic FC’s proposed MLS stadium, the term sheet approved by the City Council establishes parameters for processing permits, environmental reviews and other red tape quickly. Republic FC officials say the stadium could open in time for the 2018 season if they get the green light from MLS.
“We are very impressed with what the Republic has put together,” Garber said. “We really are impressed with what the city has done to get behind their stadium project.”
Republic FC is sending two representatives to the MLS Cup this weekend: Warren Smith, the club’s founder and president, and Kunal Merchant, senior advisor to Nagle. They aren’t expected to make a presentation to the league owners.