Top executives from Major League Soccer got high-level briefings from Sacramento Republic FC owners – and an earful from the team's famously rowdy fans – as they began an on-the-ground evaluation Thursday of the region’s chances for an MLS expansion team.
Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott and Charles Altchek, special assistant to Commissioner Don Garber, huddled with a variety of political and business leaders to gauge support for soccer in Sacramento. They had lunch at the Grange restaurant downtown with Mayor Kevin Johnson and met Republic FC investors and current and future sponsors, including executives from UC Davis Medical Center, AT&T and The McClatchy Co.
At a lavish dinner at Mulvaney’s Building & Loan in midtown, Republic FC investors Warren Smith, Kevin Nagle and Larry Kelley introduced the MLS contingent to a slew of new investors, including several minority owners of the Kings. They included developers Mark Friedman and Phil Oates, and building-supply executive David Lucchetti. Lisa Parker, another Kings and Republic FC investor, said several more owners are joining the effort.
“I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen so far,” Abbott said as the contingent left the restaurant to head to a massive midtown rally sponsored by Republic FC.
At one point, the dinner was interrupted by a boisterous march up 19th Street by hundreds of members of Republic FC’s fan club, the Tower Bridge Battalion. The march drew bemused smiles from the elite crowd gathered in the restaurant, and Altchek jumped outside to snap a photo.
Smith said much of Friday’s meeting would be about stadium plans, and his fellow investors agreed that the MLS executives are keen on learning details of the proposed facility at the downtown railyard.
“The enthusiasm, they’ve got,” Lucchetti said. “The ownership is in place. The stadium is the one that needs to be finalized. But (Republic officials) have made good progress."
The first day of the two-day tour was capped in grand style, as Abbott and Altchek dropped in on a giant block party Thursday night staged by Republic FC near the Marrs building in midtown. Attended by thousands of fans, the party was billed as a pep rally in advance of the team’s second-round playoff game but was essentially an opportunity to give Sacramentans a chance to impress the crew from MLS’ New York headquarters.
“I think we might get it – hopefully," said James Kings, a Republic FC season ticket holder who arrived early at the rally. He said the party will “show the MLS representatives how dedicated we are to this.”
Johnson took the stage at the rally and compared the MLS bid to the city’s success at keeping the Kings from leaving town last year. “We've done it before and we’re going to do it again,” he said.
Abbott and Altchek got an early taste of fans’ interest in MLS when they arrived at Sacramento International Airport shortly after noon. Dozens of fans, wearing Republic FC shirts and scarves, serenaded the two executives with chants and song. Abbott shook hands, signed a few autographs and told reporters the welcoming party at Terminal A was an apt display of the type of support Republic FC has drummed up in the community.
But he was careful not to tip his hand about Republic FC’s odds of graduating to MLS.
“I’ve come to learn,” he said. “We don't come in with any preconceived notions.”
It’s widely believed that Sacramento is in a close race with Minneapolis for the 24th and final spot in MLS. The league’s owners could make a decision as early as December.
Arguably the biggest topic of the visit is where the team would play its home games. Republic FC executives said they would provide MLS with an outline for building a privately-financed stadium at the northeast corner of the downtown Sacramento railyard.
Drawings of the proposed stadium, expected to cost in excess of $100 million, were released to the public Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, the team announced a deal to purchase the necessary land from Kelley, who is in the process of buying the entire railyard from an Illinois real estate investment firm.
The stadium cost would come on top of the league’s expansion fee, which could run to around $80 million.
Republic FC’s stunning popularity in its inaugural season of play in the third-tier USL Pro league has caught the eye of MLS executives and vaulted the city to the front of the pack in the competition for an expansion team.
Along with Minneapolis, other candidates include Las Vegas and San Antonio. But Vegas’ chances appeared “doomed” after Lois Tarkanian, the swing vote on the City Council, told the Las Vegas Review Journal on Thursday that she would vote against plans for a $200 million stadium. And San Antonio doesn’t seem to have progressed much beyond recent announcements of tentative plans to expand its minor league soccer stadium.
League watchers say Sacramento is getting by far the most intense in-person scrutiny of any of the contenders.
A third MLS executive, executive vice president for communications Dan Courtemanche, was expected to join the entourage late Thursday.
Benny Aziz of Think Big Sacramento, the mayor’s advisory committee, said the MLS delegation is expected to visit Elk Grove on Friday. City officials have launched their own bid for an MLS team and have purchased 100 acres of land for a possible stadium. But league observers believe MLS would prefer an urban location like Sacramento, and the leader of the Elk Grove effort, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, has yet to unveil his financial backers.
Also Friday, the MLS delegation is expected to visit Bonney Field, Republic FC’s current home at Cal Expo. Smith has said the team plans to add at least 2,000 seats to the 8,000-seat stadium next year regardless of whether his group lands an MLS franchise. A standard MLS stadium seats about 20,000 fans.
While the formal visit is supposed to conclude Friday afternoon with a press conference at the railyard, Abbott said Altchek plans to attend Republic FC’s second-round playoff game Saturday night against L.A. Galaxy II.