Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and the city’s upstart soccer franchise aren’t backing off from their goal of securing an expansion team in Major League Soccer.
A day after MLS announced it was in advanced discussions with an ownership group in Minneapolis to grant that city an expansion franchise, Johnson told reporters at City Hall on Tuesday that league officials have told him “it’s not a matter of if, but when” Sacramento is also awarded a team.
In an indication that Johnson and Sacramento Republic FC intend to push forward, the mayor said the city would launch “Operation Turn Key,” an initiative to more fully develop plans for a new soccer stadium in the downtown railyard. Johnson said the work would last several weeks, and focus on coming up with a detailed financing plan, explore what infrastructure will be needed near the stadium and look into the necessary environmental reviews.
The mayor has said no public subsidies would be available for a soccer stadium.
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Last year, Republic FC released drawings of what a stadium would look like in the northeast section of the railyard, a 240-acre plot of largely undeveloped land just north of downtown. Johnson said the goal of the stadium work is to have an advanced plan ready should MLS award Sacramento an expansion team.
While Monday’s news that MLS would likely award a team to Minneapolis dealt a blow to Sacramento’s immediate soccer plans, the league also announced for the first time that it would consider expanding beyond 24 teams. Miami has been awarded the 23rd franchise and Minneapolis would be the 24th.
“We felt that we had done everything necessary to put ourselves in a position to be the next MLS city,” the mayor said. “While we would have liked Sacramento to be the first pick, we’re still in the game and will continue to take as many shots on goal until the last whistle’s blown. We believe, and we know, that our bid is really strong.”
Kevin Nagle, managing partner of Republic FC, said, “Ours is the most complete bid.” He said he spoke with MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott on Monday and was told that Sacramento remains at the top of the list for expansion cities, should more slots become available.
Warren Smith, team president and founder of Republic FC, said the franchise has sold more than 9,000 season tickets for the upcoming USL season – a number that is comparable to some MLS teams. The team has expanded its home stadium, Bonney Field, to more than 11,000 total seats, and Smith said the franchise expects to sell out all of its matches this year.
In addition to the fan support and a stadium plan under development, the mayor said Republic FC also has built a strong ownership group. Nagle is leading that contingent. The Sacramento Kings and the family that owns the San Francisco 49ers have agreed to invest in the club if it joins the MLS.
Johnson said he was disappointed, but not surprised, that Miami and Minneapolis are on track for expansion teams. Miami’s bid is led by international soccer star David Beckham, and the league has long expressed a desire to place a team in Minneapolis, a large metropolitan area where a new franchise would create a geographic rivalry with a team in Chicago.
“I don’t think this was a slight on Sacramento by any means,” Johnson said. “We know we have a strong bid. I think MLS and others would arguably say we’re further along than those markets on a stadium, which is probably true. If those two markets deliver, great, we want to be the 25th. If something happens or they falter or things get sideways or they get delayed, then we want to be in a position to step in.”
Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/city-beat.