MLS commissioner vows to move ahead with expansion

MLS Commissioner Don Garber holds a state of the league news conference in Toronto on Friday.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber holds a state of the league news conference in Toronto on Friday. AP

With Sacramento Republic FC executives hanging on his every word, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Friday expansion will be a major priority in 2017.

Delivering a “state of the league” address, Garber said Major League Soccer owners will provide a detailed process and timetable for awarding new franchises Thursday following a meeting of the board of governors in New York.

Garber spoke in Toronto, site of Saturday’s MLS Cup championship game. Officials from Republic FC attended his speech and news conference.

Garber all but declared, during a visit to Sacramento last April, that the city would get an expansion team, saying Republic FC has “been able to check the boxes that are required.” MLS owners previously have said they intend to expand to 28 teams over the next few years, which leaves room for four new teams.

Although the league’s deliberations have moved more slowly than expected, Garber said Friday the league is ready to jump-start the process. For the first time, Garber hinted that the league might scramble its timetable to work around the stadium problems in Miami, which has become something of a bottleneck for other cities seeking teams.

Miami was awarded the 24th franchise in early 2014 but hasn’t begun play because it still lacks a stadium. Until now, Garber has been saying MLS must get Miami onboard before proceeding with the next round of expansion.

On Friday, he suggested the league could move ahead with the other expansion cities while the Miami situation simmers.

“If they’re not going to be (team) 24, then there’s going to be a lot of things we need to move around,” he said.

“There is a deadline on the Miami deal,” Garber added, although he wouldn’t say what the deadline is.

During his visit to Sacramento, the commissioner said he thought Republic FC could be playing in MLS by 2020, and he hoped a formal decision could be made by the time Mayor Kevin Johnson left office. However, Johnson will depart City Hall next week with the issue still in limbo.

In the meantime, competition for new franchises is becoming more intense.

Sacramento is believed to be competing against cities such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit and San Diego for franchises. In recent days, the league has also fielded strong interest from the Tampa-St. Petersburg market and Raleigh, N.C.

Garber has said Sacramento is further along than most cities in its pursuit of a team. Republic FC has assembled a strong ownership group, worked out a jersey sponsorship with UC Davis’ health system and is poised to build a $200 million-plus stadium at the northeast corner of the railyard once it gets the green light from MLS. The City Council last month approved the environmental impact report for the 19,621-seat stadium.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler