Is Saturday night’s Republic FC Sacramento debut the beginning of something big?

Mike Linenberger has spent more than 25 years coaching men’s soccer at Sacramento State.

He’s seen men’s pro and semipro teams come and go through the years, but he thinks the Sacramento Republic FC is the real deal.

“I’m very excited,” said Linenberger, who will be among the sellout crowd of 20,231 watching the Republic FC make its home debut tonight against the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders at Hughes Stadium. “I feel a majority of the groups in the past tried to do things on the cheap, so they didn’t last very long.

“This group is very different. They haven’t been afraid to spend money, so I see a long-lasting situation in Sacramento.”

The Republic FC is playing its inaugural season in the third-tier United Soccer League Pro, but founder and team president Warren Smith has made it clear that the team’s primary goal is to become a Major League Soccer franchise sooner rather than later.

But MLS’ expansion window from the current 19 teams to 24 by 2020 has almost closed.

Defending USL Pro champion Orlando City and New York City FC will join MLS next season. Miami is expected to come aboard tentatively in 2017. Last week, it was announced that Atlanta will become the 23rd team to join the league, also likely in 2017.

That leaves a crowded field of suitors for the last franchise spot, unless MLS changes direction and decides to add more teams.

Minneapolis, San Antonio and Sacramento are considered the front-runners, but Charlotte, N.C., Austin, Texas, St. Louis, Phoenix and San Diego have had their names dropped, too, as potential expansion cities.

Tonight’s Republic FC crowd will shatter the USL Pro regular-season record of 10,697, and with more than 5,000 season tickets sold, the team moves in front of all MLS expansion candidates as far as fan support.

But the sale of tickets is only one of several criteria the MLS expansion committee examines. Market size, financial viability of ownership and stadium size, configuration (soccer only vs. multi-use) and location also factor in.

Orlando City SC has been the attendance leader since USL Pro was formed four years ago. It has an $84 million stadium in the works, and it is owned by a Brazilian billionaire.

New York City is the biggest market in the United States, and New York FC is owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, who paid an expansion fee of $100 million. It will play next season at Yankee Stadium while a 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium is built in Queens.

The Atlanta franchise group is headed by Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL’s Falcons. He has plans to replace the Georgia Dome with a $1.2 billion retractable-roof stadium for football and soccer.

Soccer legend David Beckham is heading MLS team No. 22 and a star-studded Florida group – think LeBron James – that plans to build a stadium in downtown Miami.

MLS insiders say Minnesota has the inside track to the last expansion slot because the NFL’s Vikings want a soccer team to play in their new 65,000-seat stadium (seating that can be reduced by more than half on soccer game days) and have the deep pockets to pay the MLS’ escalating expansion fee.

That’s despite a Minnesota United FC team, competing in the second-tier North American Soccer League, that averaged 4,508 fans for home matches last season.

San Antonio is viewed as a distant second despite a new 8,000-seat suburban stadium – expandable to 18,000. The team led the NASL in attendance in 2013 at nearly 7,000 fans a game.

So where’s that leave Sacramento?

MLS has embraced some teams in mid-major markets without a lot of rival pro competition. The Portland Timbers, who have a player loan agreement with Republic FC, are in a nearly comparable market to Sacramento and have thrived. The Timbers have sold out every home game at their 20,000-plus-seat downtown stadium since joining MLS in 2011.

While it isn’t talked about openly in MLS circles, there also is the possibility of an established team relocating. MLS bought out the owners of struggling Chivas USA earlier this year and are seeking new owners and a rebranding, though they insist the team will stay in Southern California. Chivas averaged a league-low 9,738 fans last season while playing in the shadow of and same stadium as the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Republic FC hopes to move in June into a temporary 8,000-seat stadium at Cal Expo while working to get a permanent 18,000-seat stadium constructed downtown. On Monday, the team announced a stadium naming-rights agreement with Bonney Plumbing, Heating, Air and Rooter Service.

But they aren’t the only area group trying to snag an MLS team. The Elk Grove City Council voted unanimously last year to study potential sites for a soccer-specific stadium in the city that could host either an MLS or NASL team.

While Linenberger supports all the talk about MLS, he says the key to Republic FC’s future rests largely on how well the team performs. He says the Sacramento soccer community is savvy about the sport.

“They need to put a good product on the field,” Linenberger said. “So far they’re showing that. They have a successful coach with Preki. They’re playing a nice style of soccer in the way they move the ball and move off the ball. It’s fun to watch.”

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