Major League Soccer official declares Sacramento’s effort to land team ‘tremendous’

There’s no decision yet on Sacramento’s Major League Soccer dream.

However, league executives who completed an intense two-day evaluation on Friday of Sacramento as a potential expansion market proclaimed they were “incredibly impressed” by the city’s effort and will continue exploring it as an option in the weeks ahead.

“It’s tremendous, the progress that’s being made here,” Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said during an afternoon news conference at the downtown railyard, site of a proposed 20,000-seat soccer stadium. “I look forward to hearing more about the possibility of Major League Soccer here.”

A decision on Sacramento’s bid to become the 24th franchise in the nation’s premier soccer league could come as early as December, when the league’s existing owners meet in the host city of the MLS Cup league championship match. Sacramento is believed to be in a tight competition with Minneapolis for what could be the final expansion spot in MLS until at least 2020.

While Abbott declined to rank where Sacramento stands against other cities competing for an expansion bid, he did say that the last two days represented an “incredibly comprehensive” review of the city’s plans. League observers said the tour by Abbott was considered more serious than visits league officials have made to other cities.

“I’ve learned a lot over the last 27 hours,” Abbott said. “The pride in the community – I’ve never really quite experienced anything like it in other places where I’ve been.”

A local contingent led by Mayor Kevin Johnson and the owners of the city’s popular lower-division soccer club, Republic FC, briefed Abbott about plans for an ownership group capable of operating an MLS franchise and affording an expansion fee of at least $70 million. The team also provided details on plans for a privately financed stadium in the railyard that could cost more than $100 million.

“It’s no coincidence we’re on this site talking about the rebirth of the railyards,” the mayor said, standing in a railroad paint shop that dates back to the 1870s. “We believe this is the next frontier for Sacramento, and we expect to have a brand-new soccer stadium right outside this door in 2018.”

Abbott said “a lot of thought and progress has been put into the stadium” and said the railyard site is “a really great idea.”

As Johnson led the cheers before hundreds of sweltering Republic FC supporters, tantalizing clues emerged about potential new investors in the team.

Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi has expressed a serious interest in investing in the team, according to two current investors, Ken Fahn and Ilan Frank. And Paraag Marathe, president of the San Francisco 49ers, was spotted among a group dining Thursday night with Republic FC investors and the MLS group. Marathe would say only that he’s “a fan of the Republic.”

Pharmaceutical company executive Kevin Nagle would serve as the managing partner and lead investor if Republic FC’s expansion bid is granted. The team, which is also led by team President Warren Smith, is assembling many other local investors.

“We have a great Sacramento investor group ready right now,” Nagle said, adding “we also have more if there needs to be more.”

The mayor and Republic FC executives were encouraged by the visit. The MLS contingent also included Charles Altchek, the special assistant to league Commissioner Don Garber, and Dan Courtemanche, the league’s executive vice president for communications.

“Before today, we were the best-kept secret in professional soccer,” Johnson said. “Not anymore. They know what we’re made of, and they know we’re built for MLS in Sacramento.”

Abbott also visited Elk Grove on Friday for an update on that city’s rival bid to land an expansion franchise. But he seemed to deal a blow to that effort.

“I expressed a lot of regard for the time that they’ve put into not just Major League Soccer, but soccer in general,” he said. However, he said he also told Elk Grove officials “about the advantages that we see in stadiums that are in the downtown core or proximate to the urban core. The railyards are compelling to us.”

Despite Abbott’s comments to reporters, Elk Grove City Manager Laura Gill said she believed the 90-minute conference “went very well” and included a tour of the 100-acre parcel the city has bought for a soccer complex near Highway 99. She said Sacramento-area developer Sotiris Kolokotronis represented the Elk Grove investor group, marking the first time that any investors have been identified publicly.

Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, who’s been pushing the Elk Grove effort, was in Los Angeles and was unable to attend.

The focus of Abbott’s trip was Sacramento.

On Thursday, league executives met with local corporate leaders in a meeting arranged by the mayor at a tower on Capitol Mall. The league visited Republic FC’s team headquarters near Broadway and dined at Mulvaney’s B&L in midtown with a large group of local business leaders interested in investing in an MLS franchise.

Potential investors in the team include many individuals who also have ownership stakes in the Sacramento Kings. Casspi, who was drafted by the Kings in 2009 and is returning to the team after three seasons elsewhere, was at a fan rally Thursday night on 20th Street.

Other local investors include developer Mark Friedman; Larry Kelley, the soon-to-be owner of the downtown railyard; building products executive David Lucchetti; telecommunications executive Brad Jenkins; and developer Phil Oates. Like Nagle, they are all minority owners of the Kings.

Fahn, also a Kings minority owner who developed the Firestone building in downtown, said the response to Republic FC reminds him “of the Kings in the early days.” He has been an investor with the soccer club since it launched and said it’s important to have Sacramento leaders behind the effort.

“What we learned from the Maloof experience is we need to have local people involved,” he said, referring to the former Kings owners who attempted to sell that team to a group in Seattle. “We need a significant local presence.”

Jenkins, the chief executive of O1 Communications, agreed.

“We’re all locals,” he said. “These people are passionate about the town and (there is) pride in what’s going to happen.”

Said Oates: “It’s a community effort. I’m not a big soccer guy. I’m not a big opera guy either, but communities need opera and communities need this (Major League Soccer).”

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