Marcos Bretón

Sacramento will get MLS team someday, commissioner says

Sacramento Battalion fans cheer for Republic FC in the first half on April 15 in a game against Vancouver.
Sacramento Battalion fans cheer for Republic FC in the first half on April 15 in a game against Vancouver. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Sacramento Republic FC has done everything it can do to join the ranks of Major League Soccer, but whether that ever happens is beyond the control of Republic owners, Mayor Kevin Johnson and the legions of fans packing Republic games in the state capital.

That was the message of MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in an exclusive interview with The Bee in his office in midtown Manhattan on Friday.

“I believe that Sacramento belongs in MLS,” Garber said. “And when we are able to bring them in, they will be very successful.”

First, though, MLS has to figure out how quickly it can grow while ensuring that it puts a quality product on the field.

Garber said the goal of his league is to develop an expansion plan within six months. He cautioned that the six-month time frame does not mean Sacramento will be awarded a team in six months. He said the league will have a plan in six months, but he couldn’t predict what the plan would be or how long it will take for Republic and its supporters to get the answer they want.

“A pro sports league needs to expand strategically and not react to the needs of an individual market or from external pressures,” Garber said.

Until Friday, Garber hadn’t said much publicly about Sacramento’s breathless bid to elevate Republic from the lower ranks of America’s soccer to this country’s premier professional league.

When MLS officials visited Sacramento last fall, Garber remained in New York recuperating from prostate cancer.

But after an extended interview with Garber on Friday, several external issues came into focus that will affect Sacramento’s desire to be an MLS city.

First and foremost, MLS is not the NBA. When Johnson and others fought to keep the Kings from relocating to Seattle, they could be confident that a powerful league – and a powerful leader in former NBA Commissioner David Stern – commanded the process, and that the league knew what it wanted to do.

Garber readily admits that MLS doesn’t yet know what it wants to do when it comes to expanding beyond the 24 teams that are either already operating or approved by the league.

“I don’t have a point of view today on expansion (beyond 24 teams),” Garber said Friday. “We’re going to put together our plan, and as part of our plan we are going to lay out potential markets we can move into.”

Garber seems confusing to some in Sacramento. By his own admission, Sacramento has done everything asked of it by MLS.

“We told Sacramento that they needed to have the right ownership group, and they have that,” he said. “We told them they need to have a stadium plan, and we believe they do. And we told them they needed to prove the market through attendance. There is no doubt that all the elements are in place … Sacramento is far more advanced than any other market we are talking to.”

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t Sacramento Republic getting the green light in the way Sacramento prevailed when keeping the Kings from relocating to Seattle?

It’s the world of difference between the two sports leagues.

The NBA had already moved beyond its years of struggling for relevancy in the 1970s to being a global colossus in the sports world by the time it was deciding the fate of the Kings in Sacramento. That afforded a position of institutional strength. The NBA had the confidence to tell the Kings bidders in Seattle – who were offering more than Sacramento bidders – to get lost.

MLS is still in its infancy, barely 20 years old. The league is still losing money as a sports enterprise and is still struggling with TV ratings that need to be higher to generate more revenues.

While the NBA spoke with one voice – Stern’s – on the Kings relocation question, MLS is fighting battles with other forces within American soccer.

Jurgen Klinsmann, the German-born coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team, has angered Garber by saying top American players are best served by skipping MLS and playing abroad.

In a meeting with reporters before his interview with The Bee, Garber grew noticeably frustrated when asked about this. “How is a player going to be better sitting on the bench (in Europe) than being a star in MLS?” Garber said. “We’re trying to build a brand and a system where American players get better.”

MLS also has a host of thorny issues to deal with on already established teams. Major partners of a very successful team in Houston want to sell, and MLS is still far from re-establishing a failing team in Los Angeles. A team in New England is still trying to build a stadium, as is the newest team in New York.

With all these issues in play, expanding into Sacramento seems to be a confidence issue for the league. Garber has studied closely the experiences of others sports leagues when they expanded too soon.

For baseball, a team in Tampa Bay has proved to be a mistake. In hockey, the team in Phoenix has struggled and raised red flags about expanding hastily.

So why did MLS pick Minneapolis over Sacramento when neither city has a stadium plan yet?

“Getting into Minneapolis was priority because of demographics and geography,” Garber said. The league is pressing forward in Miami for the same reasons, despite the city being nowhere near picking a stadium site yet.

In terms of geography, there is already an MLS team in San Jose, one in Los Angeles and another in L.A. that the league is trying to rebrand.

All that being said, should Sacramento feel pessimistic about its chances?

“No,” Garber said. “I want to reiterate what (Republic owner Kevin Nagle) said: ‘It’s less about if, and more about when, the Republic joins MLS,’” he said.

“We’re going to work very hard to have our own plan in place and then quickly sit down with Sacramento and likely many others to see what we can do to bring them into MLS.”

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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