Soccer commissioner sees expansion decision on Sacramento in first half of 2015

Erica Jahn carries a sign in September backing the Sacramento Republic FC at a rally when Major League Soccer representatives were in town.
Erica Jahn carries a sign in September backing the Sacramento Republic FC at a rally when Major League Soccer representatives were in town.

It could be another six months before Sacramento learns if it will be joining Major League Soccer. It’s also possible that multiple cities, and not just one, could be in line for MLS franchises.

Commissioner Don Garber said Tuesday that MLS owners will likely decide in the first half of 2015 “on when the next team or the next two teams are coming in.”

Until now, it’s been widely assumed that Sacramento is competing against Minneapolis and Las Vegas for a single slot, and that no additional expansion will occur for the foreseeable future. Garber’s remarks, part of a wide-ranging “state of the league” talk broadcast from New York, appeared to raise the tantalizing possibility that additional expansion franchises could be awarded next year.

He said the MLS board of governors, meeting Saturday in Los Angeles on the eve of the MLS Cup championship game, will get a report from the league’s expansion committee. The committee heard presentations from Sacramento, Minneapolis and Las Vegas last month.

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said Sacramento and its competitors won’t be making presentations to the full board in Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, Mayor Kevin Johnson and Warren Smith, founder of the minor-league Sacramento Republic FC, said Tuesday they plan to go to Los Angeles this weekend to meet with MLS owners informally.

“They invited us to go down there,” Smith said, referring to MLS executives. “It gives us all a chance to interact.”

The weekend climaxes with Sunday’s game between the hometown Galaxy and the New England Revolution.

Sacramento built a case for MLS status on the strength of Republic FC’s wildly successful inaugural season. The team routinely played to sellout crowds and won the USL Pro minor-league championship. As it maps out a possible MLS stadium at the downtown railyard, the team released plans Tuesday to expand its current home at Bonney Field for next season.

Garber’s comments from New York underscored the fluid and somewhat confusing situation the league is confronting. MLS’ goal is 24 teams by 2020. It will add two teams next season and two more teams in 2017, for a total of 22. It has awarded Miami a 23rd franchise, but that’s in limbo because the city and team investor David Beckham haven’t been able to come up with a plan for a new stadium.

“We want to be in Miami,” Garber said. However, “if we don’t have the right stadium, we’re not going to Miami,” he added.

If Miami falls out of contention, that could open up an additional spot for Sacramento and its competitors. Additionally, Garber didn’t rule out expanding beyond 24 teams at some point.

“We need to determine how many more teams can come in after that,” he said. “That’s something I don’t have the answer to today. That’s why I have an expansion committee.”

Smith, asked about Sacramento’s chances, said MLS officials have told him the city is likely to get a team at some point. But Smith said he wants to secure a team as soon as possible because MLS could someday find another city more attractive.

“Things change, times change,” Smith said. “It could very well be another city that pops up.”

To push for MLS status, Smith has enlisted a group of new investors, mostly minority owners of the Sacramento Kings. The new investors include pharmaceutical executive Kevin Nagle and developer Larry Kelley, who is in the process of buying the downtown railyard, which would serve as the site of a privately financed MLS stadium.

In the meantime, Republic FC and its stadium partner, Ovations Fanfare, have asked the Cal Expo board for permission to expand Bonney Field by as many as 4,000 seats. The actual expansion for next season will probably cost $1.5 million and add 2,500 seats or so, bringing total capacity to 10,500. The Cal Expo board is expected to vote on the issue Dec. 12.

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.