Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: It’s game time for Sacramento’s MLS bid

If Sacramento hopes to land a Major League Soccer franchise and build a stadium to house the team in the downtown railyard, the time is now. MLS Commissioner Don Garber will make his first visit to the city Thursday, a positive sign that the minor-league Sacramento Republic FC could become the 25th team in America’s premier soccer league.

Garber will meet with Mayor Kevin Johnson and a varied array of Sacramento business and political leaders Thursday – a who’s who of Sacramento leadership and investment. The local contingent will make the case that the state capital is ready to support another major sports franchise.

Sacramento has thrust itself into the plans of MLS, though the Sacramento Republic has only been around for two full seasons in the United Soccer League, a lower tier that feeds players to MLS.

In those two seasons, the Republic has shattered USL attendance records and won the league championship in 2014. That breakout success, and Sacramento’s pledge to build a privately financed soccer stadium, moved Sacramento to the front of the line of cities seeking to join MLS.

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On Wednesday, the Republic released new architectural renderings for a planned $226 million MLS stadium that will take up 16 acres in the northeast corner of the downtown Sacramento railyard.

Gerardo Prado, sports group director of HNTB, the Kansas City firm designing Sacramento’s proposed stadium, said he was seeking to “create an authentic soccer atmosphere,” that intimidates opposing teams. Sacramento is proposing to build a stadium that seats 25,000 fans.

It’s been an unlikely journey for a Republic ownership group that began in a cramped office on 15th Street not far from Tower Theatre.

Back then, Warren Smith – a onetime key player in the success of the Sacramento River Cats – had a dream of assembling a soccer team Sacramento would embrace. It was his vision to start small, to succeed in the USL like teams in Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver did before using the small league to springboard into MLS.

Once the Republic became a hit with fans in 2014, Warren was confident that investment would follow. He was right.

Kevin Nagle, a Kings minority owner and one of the region’s top business leaders, now heads the Republic investor group. He will lead the delegation of investors meeting with Garber.

Along with Johnson and Nagle, Garber will meet with 49ers owner Jed York in his capacity as an investor in the Republic. He will be joined by Paraag Marathe, chief strategy officer and executive football operations officer for the 49ers.

York has said that his interests in the Republic help his 49ers business interests because more 49ers season-ticket holders live in Sacramento than San Francisco. Both he and Marathe also have close ties to Johnson.

In addition, some of Sacramento’s leading CEOs will meet with Garber, including Mark Friedman, a Kings minority owner; Larry Kelley, a Republic minority owner and owner of the railyard; Donna Bland, president and CEO of Golden 1 Credit Union; Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of UC Davis; and Doreen Dominguez, CEO of Vanir Construction.

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Garber also will be exposed to a passionate fan base. There will be a fan block party in front of DeVere’s Irish Pub at 11 a.m. Thursday. The city will shut down L Street between 15th and 16th streets, and Garber is expected to feel the full force of Republic enthusiasts. Members of the Tower Bridge Battalion, the Republic’s loud and raucous supporters group, will serenade Garber with their slightly ribald songs of devotion to the Republic.

Two years ago, MLS was focused on expanding its league by establishing teams in Miami, Atlanta and Minnesota. The MLS also wanted to sort out its second team situation in Los Angeles. With teams already in San Jose, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, Sacramento really wasn’t an option – until Warren and the Republic changed the league’s mind.

When the local minor-league soccer team drew crowds of 20,000 at Hughes Stadium before moving to Bonney Field at Cal Expo, the narrative changed. Then Nagle came on board. He was followed by York, Friedman, Dominguez and a host of other investors.

Still, Garber, who is based in New York City, held off on coming to Sacramento because other MLS targets in Miami and Minnesota were still in flux. The MLS did send a delegation to Sacramento in September 2014, but Garber didn’t attend.

That he is coming now is a sign that Miami, Minnesota and the second team in Los Angeles are secure and that Sacramento is viewed as a serious potential player. MLS recently announced plans to expand beyond the 24 teams that already have been sanctioned by the league. If it makes the cut, Sacramento would be the 25th. Cities such as San Diego and St. Louis are making noise as well, but for now, Sacramento leads those cities on the outside looking in.

The hope among Sacramento organizers is that fans will swamp the downtown block party. The hope is that Garber will leave Thursday afternoon with Sacramento ringing in his ears. Downtown already is being remade with Golden 1 Center, the new home of the Kings. The hope is that by the time it opens in October, MLS will tell local soccer fans what they’ve been waiting to hear – that their city will part of the big leagues by 2018 or 2019.

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