Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Time has come for an MLS team in Sacramento

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

It's not every day that an English Premier League soccer team comes to Sacramento. In fact, Thursday night will be a first when Norwich City headlines an exhibition at Raley Field that could be a milestone in the ultimate goal of bringing a Major League Soccer team to Sacramento.

That's the aim of Warren Smith, a former River Cats executive and entrepreneur who has turned his attention to landing an MLS team.

It's an idea whose time has come.

In many ways, MLS is the perfect sports league for Sacramento. It is ideally suited for an underserved sports market known to produce top-flight soccer players such as Danny Cuevas, a former Natomas High School star who is excelling on the Under-20 U.S. men's national team.

Sacramento has perfect weather for soccer, large immigrant communities and thriving youth leagues in the city and suburbs.

MLS could complement the Kings and River Cats without detracting from either because MLS economies of scale work for a smaller market. Franchises, salaries and stadiums are modest compared to what Vivek Ranadive paid for the Kings and what Sacramento will invest in a downtown arena.

But first things first: Thursday is a coming-out party for soccer in Sacramento, with an EPL team as the headliner.

Norwich City does not have the marquee name of Manchester United, last season's champion and a worldwide brand on par with the New York Yankees.

But Norwich City beat Man U last season, one of only five defeats for the world-famous club. Norwich also beat Arsenal, another elite EPL team.

And on the last day of the season in May, Norwich defeated Manchester City – the richest team in the EPL.

The EPL's four powerhouses – Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal – have far more financial resources than most other clubs in the league. Yet Norwich beat three of the four last season.

Norwich will begin to prepare for the EPL season by playing its exhibition opener at Raley Field as part of a preseason swing through the western United States, against Dorados of the Mexican second division.

"Sacramento Soccer Day" will begin with an exhibition between a team of local standout players and the reserve squad for the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS.

Smith also will unveil the new name and logo for the USL Pro team that is expected to start playing at Hughes Stadium next season.

USL Pro is a feeder league to MLS, much like Triple A for the major leagues.

Recent MLS franchises from Seattle, Montreal, Portland and Vancouver started as USL teams before making the leap to the big leagues.

MLS draws larger average crowds than the NBA and is looking to expand from its current 20-team league (including the new New York franchise recently announced). Sacramento is on an MLS list of prospective cities, along with Orlando, Fla.

Smith hopes a big crowd at Raley Field will begin to make the case that Sacramento has passion for soccer. He said premium seating in the lower bowl is almost sold out and tickets for the grass berm are now being sold.

He also hopes strong attendance Thursday will lead to sustained interest in September, when tickets go on sale for Sacramento's USL Pro team, and he said attracting 6,500 to 7,000 people per game at Hughes Stadium next season would further make the case for MLS. While Elk Grove has expressed an interest in MLS, Sacramento already has a USL Pro team and a not-so-secret weapon: Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Smith hopes he can hand Johnson, known nationally for saving the Kings, the tools to close the deal for MLS in Sacramento.

"We have the right mayor at the right time," Smith said.

The plan is to make the USL Pro team a success and develop a stadium financing plan that would attract big equity investors.

MLS is heavy with teams in the Midwest and on the East Coast, making the West Coast a natural for expansion. An MLS team in Sacramento would be a natural rival to San Jose's Earthquakes and other thriving teams in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.

On Monday, Smith proved he was serious by hiring Predrag Radosavlijevic to coach the USL Pro team.

Known as Preki, he made his reputation as a player by scoring the winning goal for the U.S. national team in an upset over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup.

Preki was also one of the greatest players in MLS history. He gives instant name recognition to Sacramento's fledgling campaign.

With any luck, this is the week MLS in Sacramento was born.

Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.