Sacramento Republic optimistic about chances to join Major League Soccer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Sacramento Republic are optimistic about their chances of gaining entry into Major League Soccer.

The USL team got an early Christmas gift last week when MLS commissioner Don Garber said that the league intends to expand to 28 teams. Sacramento has touted its efforts to meet the expansion requirements in an effort to make inclusion in MLS an inevitability.

"I think Sacramento will be very high on our list of next clubs to come into the league," Garber said during his state of the league address last week. "Now, we're going to continue to monitor what goes on there, we'll pay close attention to how they continue to develop their USL team, but I want to applaud the city for what they've done to support the Republic's desire to be in our league."

Last week, the Sacramento City Council approved plans for the team's stadium to be built at the Sacramento rail yards. The ownership group contains deep-pocketed investors that include the likes of Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York. On the field, the club continues to fill Bonney Field. The team averaged 11,323 fans per game, making them the only USL side whose average attendance was in five figures.

"We have so much momentum, and it's hard to get these moments," said Kunal Merchant, who is working as a special adviser to Republic managing partner Kevin Nagle. "These moments don't last, and you want to harness the energy of fans who are excited."

Merchant described how when the city council was meeting to discuss the club's stadium plan, an informal vote was taken to gauge support of those in attendance. Over 200 people voiced their support. Merchant said there were no dissenting votes.

"That never happens in Sacramento," he said. "It's a government town, everybody is involved in politics, that never happens. So we have a moment that we have to harness on the team side that Warren is going to do, but even on the new stadium side, we want to take advantage of that but also be cognizant of bigger business decisions that you have to make based on timeline."

Maintaining that momentum, however, could be tricky, depending on how long Sacramento has to wait. Over the next three years, MLS is expecting to see Atlanta United, Minnesota United and Los Angeles FC all join the league. With David Beckham's group appearing to have solved its stadium location problems in Miami, that city is poised to be the 24th team.

In terms of adding teams after Miami, MLS has been light on the details in terms of the timeline. But as it has all along, Sacramento has made it clear it is prepared to join the league as early as 2017 if MLS gives it the go-ahead. Given the problems Miami has encountered along the way, it's prudent for Sacramento to be on standby.

"[MLS is] going through a process right now and they're trying to figure out what is best for them from a timing standpoint," said team president Warren Smith. "I think what we're hearing is keep your head down and keep working and that's really our focus."

The trickiest part may be determining how far down the stadium construction path the organization should go. For the moment, there is plenty of work to be done on the regulatory side, including an environmental impact report that Smith says will be completed by next summer. Then comes the decision as to when to put shovels in the ground by October, with construction complete by the beginning of 2018.

Merchant says it's too early to determine whether the Republic should wait for official approval from MLS before starting construction.

"It's too early to make that call, I wouldn't want to speculate, but I think the way we've been framing it is we will build this stadium conditional on getting an MLS team," said Merchant. "It's a moving chessboard, but that's what we're saying right now. All the stuff we're doing on the stadium is contingent on getting an MLS franchise."

Smith insists that the organization is prepared for any shift in the timeline, and there is plenty of patience within in its ranks.

"Everyone has said, as has Kevin Nagle, that we're in this for the long haul," said Smith. "Obviously, if they said 2025, we're likely to have different conversations that we need to manage. Right now, 2019 is a short time away if you really think about it. That gives us plenty of time to build the stadium and do the things and make the decisions that we need to make. For 2018, we still have time, but it's a little more compressed."

As for the issue of the territorial rights that the San Jose Earthquakes hold over the Sacramento market, Merchant said that isn't a burning issue for the club at the moment.

"You're always going to follow the lead of the league," he said. "And if there are 200 things that need to happen between now and the first minute of the game in Sacramento, territorial rights are in the mix, but it's not item one through 10, which is what we're focused on right now. It's something that will be part of the conversation.

"[Quakes part owner] John Fisher has been fantastic. He and Kevin have developed a really good relationship. It's an issue but it's not something we're actively addressing, and we wouldn't do that without MLS anyway."

In the meantime, the club plans to continue to build its product on the field under coach Paul Buckle.

"The momentum is really continuing to have a good team on the [field], continue to have a good experience together and continue to educate," said Smith. "Get people who may not have been soccer fans and get them to participate with us and really focus on that. The other stuff works itself out."