Sacramento awarded latest MLS expansion franchise

Sacramento is set to become Major League Soccer's latest team after it was granted an expansion franchise, taking the number of top-flight teams in the U.S. to 29.

The investor group is led by billionaire Ron Burkle, co-owner of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, and includes Hollywood producer Matt Alvarez as well as local businessman Kevin Nagle.

That ownership will take control of the Republic, who play in the USL Championship -- the second division in U.S. soccer's pyramid -- before the club moves up to MLS in 2022.

The team will pay a $200 million expansion fee to join MLS, and is expected to begin construction shortly on a $300 million, 20,100-seat stadium to be built at Sacramento's downtown railyards.

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"Major League Soccer continues to grow throughout North America and we are so proud to welcome Sacramento as our newest team," said MLS commissioner Don Garber in a statement on Monday. "For many years, soccer fans in Sacramento have passionately supported Republic FC and shown that the club deserves to be competing at the highest level."

The announcement caps a winding, five-year journey from when California's capital first expressed interest in joining MLS. Initially, Sacramento seemed a certainty to receive an expansion franchise, especially after it identified the railyard site for its stadium and the Republic drew more than 20,000 fans for their inaugural match in the USL in 2014. Historically, acquiring a stadium site had been the most difficult hurdle to overcome in obtaining an MLS expansion team.

"Sacramento's selection by Major League Soccer for an expansion team is a victory to be celebrated by everyone in our community," said Burkle on Monday. "This has been a true team effort between the amazing soccer fans of the Sacramento region along with Mayor Steinberg and City Council, our partners and corporate leaders."

In 2016, upon announcing that the league would expand to 28 teams, MLS commissioner Don Garber said "we hope and expect" that Sacramento would be included in that round.

But with the expansion fee rising from the $100 million charged to New York City FC in 2013 to $200 million, the investor group fell behind Cincinnati, Nashville and St. Louis.

All three cities were granted expansion teams before Sacramento despite being behind the California city at various stages of the process. In early 2017, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman was thought to be ready to join the investor group, but that deal fell through. That led to concerns that MLS would never be ready to bring Sacramento on board.

The additions of Burkle and Alvarez to the investment group earlier this year reignited Sacramento's MLS expansion push.

Last April, Garber announced that the league would expand to 30 teams, with the league entering into exclusive negotiations with St. Louis and Sacramento. St. Louis was announced as an expansion team in August.

With the addition of the team in Sacramento, 19 clubs have now joined MLS since 2005, fulfilling a vision for strategic expansion that has transformed the landscape of professional soccer across North America.

FC Cincinnati joined MLS as the 24th team this season. Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF will debut in 2020 followed by Austin FC in 2021 and St. Louis and Sacramento in 2022.

Now Sacramento can exhale, content in the knowledge that it has crossed the expansion finish line.