COLUMBUS, Ohio — The past week has been a roller-coaster ride for supporters of Sacramento's push for entry into Major League Soccer. Last Friday, reports of Miami's expansion bid gaining a boost after finding a new site for a potential stadium seemed to strike a blow for Sacramento's chances of joining the league.
The mood quickly turned on Saturday, when the MLS Board of Governors approved expansion to 28 teams, paving a way past the previously-held goal of 24 teams that threatened to force Sacramento to a lengthy wait, and seemingly ensuring a place at the table for Sacramento's impressive bid.
"We know they’ve always been talking about what their future may be, so for us it was a bit of clarity," Sacramento Republic FC president Warren Smith told Goal USA. "Obviously it was very positive. I didn’t even think they’d come out of yesterday with news of how many teams so it was really a positive move for us.
"We’ve been having good conversations with (MLS), and honest ones," he added. "They want to solve the problem (in Miami), we’ve always known that. Even back when they hadn’t yet solidified Minneapolis they were really trying to figure it all out, but they told us, ‘We really want to be in Miami, we really want to be in Minneapolis, but if you get your act together then maybe you can make a case. We were able to do that, able to make a strong case, and make it hard for them."
Sacramento has emerged as one of the strongest candidates for MLS expansion, combining a strong and diverse ownership group with an established team structure in USL side Sacramento Republic, and more recently with the securing of a stadium project that is simply awaiting the awarding of an MLS team to Sacramento in order to start construction.
As recently as last week, MLS commissioner Don Garber made it clear Sacramento's bid was impressive enough to warrant inclusion in MLS.
"It’s encouraging to see the progress that they’re making in Sacramento," Garber told Goal USA. "There are other cities that have great interest that haven’t yet had the secondary league experiences like what’s been going on with the Republic.
"Certainly we believe that if a market can build a club and get the right facility, with committed ownership, that they ought to be able to play at the highest level (in this country)," he added. "We are very seriously looking at what our plans beyond 24 will be, and what the timing of that will be."
Saturday's approval by MLS owners ensures expansion to 28 teams will happen, though the timetable on that growth has yet to be established. Sacramento is the clear frontrunner to be the 25th team in the league, though Sacramento officials have made it clear the California city could still jump in as the league's 24th team if need be.
"Obviously their initial focus was and continues to be the first 24 teams, Miami had an important step getting approval for their site, and if you looked at their press release it said LA, Atlanta and Minnesota before 2018, so then there’s that fourth slot," Kunal Merchant, special advisor to Sacramento Republic managing partner Kevin Nagle, told Goal USA. "I’m sure everyone’s first preference would be for that to be in Miami. Having worked on multiple stadiums they’re hard and complicated so I think, for MLS and Miami, they have to figure out whether they can get there by 2018 or not.
"We want to be able to be ready for any timetable," Merchant continued. "Right now our stadium plan can open in time for the 2018 MLS season. We’ll go back to Sacramento and talk to Kevin, and talk to everybody and see if that changes, but right now we’ll just continue to march down that path. We want to be ready. If they need us in 2017 we could spend a year at our current facility, maybe expand it a little bit, and then move into the new building for 2018 or 2019.
"We don’t know exactly when, and in the absence of that date we’re just trying to be as accommodating to MLS as possible."
Sacramento has a major advantage over Miami and the other markets vying for expansion because of its stadium project, which has received near unanimous support from local officials, and already has the necessary land, which is currently owned by one of the expansion group's investors. Whereas current MLS team New York City FC is struggling to secure a stadium, and Miami's expansion bid has had to overcome a seemingly never-ending series of obstacles in its quest for a stadium, Sacramento has put its stadium project together with considerable local support, including city council approval of stadium project plans just a week ago.
"Common sense tells you that the energy that we have right now gives us a window of opportunity," Merchant said. "There’s a lot of energy in Sacramento. The fans are excited. Elected officials are giving us unanimous votes at council. We had a city council meeting last week, and in lieu of public comment they asked council members to stand up if you’re in support of this project. Two hundred people, the whole room, stands up. Then they asked if anyone was opposed to the project and nobody stands up. That never happens in Sacramento.
"We’re acutely aware of the specialness of our moment, which is why we want to continue to make progress. Can that last forever? No, but I don’t think anything that happened this weekend in the short term is going to negatively impact our sense of optimism. If anything, we’re going to go home and people are going to be more excited."