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Sacramento riding USL success to dreams of MLS expansion

Sacramento Republic Bonney Field


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The buzz around the team in this city is palpable.

With year-round spring- and summer-like conditions and palm trees, it has felt as if the soccer season never left. Since Republic FC capped off its inaugural season with a championship in September, enthusiasm hasn’t stopped growing. Republic FC’s preseason is almost over and games have been selling out days in advance all the way through.

Even all the way in cold and cloudy New York City, it’s been difficult for the executives of Major League Soccer not to notice. The league is still deciding where it should expand next and the spotlight is firmly on Sacramento.

“The local momentum and relevance Sacramento has built in a short period is more than impressive,” said Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, who took his club from MLS expansion side to one of the league’s success stories. “They are ambitious and doing all the right things.”

Even with rumors swirling about Minneapolis being the leading candidate to be the next city to be awarded MLS expansion, Sacramento continues to be one of the most impressive success stories among the markets bidding for a place in MLS.

So how did a market that didn’t even have a pro soccer team two years ago, let alone a place in the MLS expansion discussion, make such a dramatic transformation? Here is a closer look at how the one-time expansion underdogs have captured the imagination of not only Northern California soccer fans, but MLS as well:


At first glance, MLS executives probably didn’t think much of Sacramento.

A year ago, Republic FC had never played a match and the city had no history of professional soccer. To the outsider, Sacramento exists in the shadow of bigger, flashier markets like San Francisco.

But when it came down to the finer details, the ones that become apparent when looking closely, Sacramento makes a case too compelling to ignore.

With Las Vegas now out of the running, Sacramento has to compete against Minneapolis, Miami and San Antonio for two remaining MLS slots in this round of expansion. Multiple reports emerged last week identifying Minnesota as one of the teams that will fill one of the two remaining expansions slots, and a final decision from MLS is rapidly approaching. With nothing finalized just yet, it seems to be a race for whoever can check the league’s boxes by then.

“Right now, we’ve done absolutely everything they’ve asked for,” said Sacramento Republic FC president Warren Smith, before Vegas was formally rejected and rumors broke that Minnesota is in line for an expansion slot.

“We’re going to continue to make it hard for them to not choose Sacramento,” Smith added, noting the league has been coy about his club’s chances. “What they have shared is that no city has been as comprehensive and as diligent in building their case as Sacramento has.”

The league has four main areas it looks at when considering prospective expansion franchises, according to MLS Executive Vice President Dan Courtemanche: A financially viable local ownership group, a stadium plan with club control, a market with prospective sponsors and broadcast partners, and strong fan support for area sporting events and broadcasts.

The last one on the list came the quickest for Sacramento. In the club’s inaugural match in what was then USL Pro, Republic FC smashed the league’s single-match attendance record, drawing more than 20,000 fans. The club went on to set a new single-season attendance record in just nine matches, with another six left to host.

Sacramento has continued to deliver on the league’s criteria since then, striking a handshake agreement in September to acquire land for a new soccer-specific stadium blocks from downtown. The deal is preliminary, but it’s hard to discount in light of the opposition David Beckham has faced trying to build a stadium in Miami.

Republic FC outdid itself again and shot ahead in the MLS expansion race with a blockbuster announcement: The investing partners behind the San Francisco 49ers and the Sacramento Kings joined as investors to back the Republic’s MLS expansion bid.

MLS is looking for an expansion team “located in an appropriate geographic location.” For Sacramento, location is a mixed bag and could be Republic FC’s biggest weakness. The west coast has no shortage of teams and another one in California won’t expand the league’s footprint.

The San Jose Earthquakes are already operating in Northern California and, hardly a big-time city, Sacramento is no San Francisco. But maybe that’s alright, Smith told SBI.

“I’m not sure this is something MLS initially understood — if you combine our (metropolitan statistical area) with the San Francisco Bay Area, we’re the fourth largest market in the country,” Smith said. “It deserves two franchises in Major League Soccer. We think it honestly helps the league and the Earthquakes.”

Smith concedes that the Earthquakes seem “cautious” about the possibility of nearby Sacramento making an entrance into MLS. But he said Republic FC is working to make the Earthquakes comfortable with it.

Long term, it could be a boost for both clubs, he said. There’s certainly room for a new rivalry in MLS.

February’s sold-out match in Sacramento against the Earthquakes was a preseason friendly that felt like anything but, with players shoving on the pitch and dueling supporters groups trying to out-yell each another in the stands. Eventually the visiting 1906 Ultras group was escorted out of the stadium when they apparently wouldn’t agree to stop chanting profanities.

The start of a rivalry is there. Perhaps, Smith wonders, it could produce a derby like the one in Portland and Seattle.


If Smith had looked a little more closely at what he had last time he co-owned a soccer team, he may already be an MLS club owner.

Back in 2004, he was part of a group that bought the Portland Beavers, a struggling minor league baseball team. To sweeten the deal, the package included the Portland Timbers, then in third-division USL, where Republic FC plays now.

While Smith oversaw the Timbers, his group took attendance from a paltry 2,000 average per match to more than 7,000, he said. But they didn’t really know where the team could go from there.

They sold it to a new sports investor named Merritt Paulson. He steered the club into MLS expansion and turned the Timbers into one of the most successful clubs in MLS history, selling out every home league match since 2011. The Timbers are on 70 consecutive sellouts and counting.

“We learned a lot through that process,” Smith said. “We learned, No. 1, that Merritt wasn’t crazy — he was actually pretty darn smart and we were just not wise enough to look at the opportunity in MLS. And, No. 2, Portland is very similar to Sacramento.”

Sacramento and Portland certainly aren’t exact copies of each other, but look closely and the similarities are there.

Before MLS entered the picture, both were cities with a single sports team, a successful NBA team in each. Sitting in top-25 media markets, both are large, populated areas that are often overshadowed by even bigger ones in Seattle and San Francisco respectively.

Perhaps most importantly, both are cities that didn’t hesitate to get excited about soccer in a big way, even at the lower division levels.

Smith turned to Paulson and the Timbers early in the process for guidance — it helped that some of the staff that worked under Smith’s tenure remain at the Timbers still. Although Paulson declined to speculate on Republic FC’s chances of breaking into MLS for SBI, he hinted the club is following the MLS expansion playbook well.

With inspiration from Portland — plus some from Orlando City, which had a similar quick rise through USL and made its MLS debut this year — Smith and his team set an ambitious five-year plan. In the first year, which was last year: Build a brand. By the third year: Acquire MLS rights. By the fifth year: Secure a new downtown stadium.

“We’re still right on target,” Smith said. “It all depends on MLS. The only thing that might happen is they award it, potentially, to us earlier. It all kind of depends on what happens this year.”


Sacramento’s expansion bid is running strong, but so is the competition.

San Antonio remains a longshot — even as the Mexican Football Federation recently endorsed MLS expansion into Texas’ second-largest city — but there are two other compelling options in Miami and Minnesota. The bids for Miami and Minnesota aren’t perfect, however, and both face obstacles that could end up benefiting Sacramento.

MLS wants David Beckham to put a team in Miami. But do Miami’s city officials want that, too? The answer has been a muddy one since February 2014, when the league announced Beckham would be granted a franchise once he secured a stadium in the city. These days, the bid that was long considered the surest now looks the most in doubt.

Miami is a top U.S. market, and Beckham, one of the biggest names in soccer, is backed by deep pockets. The only thing that may be missing from Beckham’s bid is a secured stadium site – but it is a very big thing. MLS seems to desperately want a team in Miami, but Garber has been firm that Miami won’t get a team without a premier downtown location for a stadium. As time drags on and Beckham moves onto his second, third and fourth choice locations, it looks like it may not work out for this round of expansion.

Despite Beckham’s group insisting things are on track, the project has been stuck at a standstill, turning it into a question mark after initially being considered a lock — and that has left the MLS expansion race wide open for Sacramento.

Republic FC will need that opening Miami has ostensibly created. Last week, reports emerged that Minnesota would be one of the two teams added in this current round of expansion. If that does end up happening, it’s hardly a surprise. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has called Minneapolis “a big priority” for MLS and has vowed to fix the league’s “lack of coverage in the Midwest” soon.

But Garber has also raised concerns about how Minneapolis would mesh with the open-air venues and cold-weather schedule of MLS. “It was minus zero in Minneapolis yesterday — imagine what it would be like in February,” Garber said in December when talking about expansion options. At the time, that looked good for Sacramento, which is sunny and warm for most of the year.

The resolution to that problem could come in the form of a brand new Minneapolis stadium designed for Minnesota weather. The league reportedly has signed a letter of intent contingent on a new downtown stadium for Minnesota United FC, and the club reportedly has plans in the works for a stadium. That also means the league also wasn’t deterred by Minnesota having two competing MLS bids – one from the Minnesota Vikings and the chosen one from Minnesota United FC.

The decision isn’t final yet, however, and the league expects an announcement as soon as April. If MLS history has proven anything, it’s that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Either way, Sacramento will keep trying for an MLS expansion team, Smith said, no matter what happens in this expansion round that will cap the league at 24 teams through 2020.

“They have shared that we are definitely a part of conversation,” Smith said of MLS. “There are people in the league that have said it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

It all comes down to Miami and Minnesota, two teams long considered top contenders. Despite its later start, Sacramento has surged from pro soccer anonymity to the verge of a place in MLS and that momentum has the city looking like it could pull off what would have been deemed unthinkable even just a year or two ago.

“The one thing that’s changed in Sacramento is, it wasn’t long ago, maybe three years ago, when everything was impossible,” Smith said. “Now, there’s this feeling of, everything is possible. No longer are ideas being dismissed. Now people are saying, ‘That’s fantastic. How can I help?’”

“It takes a village, it takes a community to be awarded these franchises and we’ll do our work, but we can’t do it without the fans. To have them as excited as they are, I couldn’t be happier.”


  1. Sacramento deserves a team but the question is, if Sacramento can have a team then how many midsize markets can have an MLS team as well. Probably garber would love to have Sacramento but what’s the difference with Austin, Albuquerque, Tampa bay, Birmingham,San Antonio, Nashville, Louisville, Charlotte,Baltimore.
    You can say the local support is the difference maker but c’mon, they only got kings as their competition.
    Then if you look at the midsize markets MLS has, of course most of them are doing good but that’s because they don’t have a lot of competition but if Sacramento is chosen, then Sacramento might be the last midsize market MLS will expand to.
    Good luck Sacramento! This is what garber should do.
    2017 Atlanta and Sacramento, Sacramento takes LA2 spot.
    2018 Miami and LA2
    2019 Minnesota and ” ” I think San Antonio will always be put aside due to to stiff competition
    If MLS stops at 26, then they must be smoking some good stuff. 30 or 32 should be the magic number.
    Cities that have a serious chance of joining MLS are, st.louis, Indy, Tampa bay, Vegas. Besides Miami, Minneapolis, Sacramento, San Antonio.

    • What has St. Louis done? I hear a lot about St. Louis but why do they even deserve to be in this conversation? They’re in danger of losing their NFL team (which can’t get a stadium built), and they already have a baseball team and an NHL franchise. Is there room in that market for MLS? They keep losing minor-league soccer franchises, so aside from their history from the 1950s, what is there that would make you list them first? I’m not trying to be a jerk and I have nothing against St. Louis, I am genuinely curious. Phoenix has a much larger market than St. Louis and has a similar history of failure with smaller soccer leagues but they’re never mentioned.

      MLS didn’t tell Las Vegas “not now” they told them “no”. So I’m not sure if they really belong on the list either.

      All of the roadblocks that people say about Miami losing the Fusion also apply to Tampa Bay. Besides Tampa Bay is much closer to Orlando than any of the Cascadia cities are to each other.

      Austin is interesting but you’re not going to have both Austin and San Antonio for the same reasons you won’t have Tampa Bay and Orlando – they’re too close to each other and will cannibalize each other’s markets.

      Garber can expand to 24 and then sit back and see how the bigger NASL/USL teams perform in the next few years – then they can evaluate ownership groups and cherry-pick the best. The best thing that St. Louis, Austin and Las Vegas can do to help their cases would be to get a team in NASL or USL and start showing that you have a viable market. That’s where Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and San Antonio are several steps ahead of you.

  2. The Sacramento fanbase is ready for MLS.

    Their front office is not ready for MLS, after how poorly they treated san jose away fans at a preseason match earlier this year.

  3. I saw a Republic Jersey in Reykjavik Lights hotel in Iceland on Friday. The lady was totally digging the Barca vs. Rayo game.

  4. I like it, it makes since with Minnesota United being the other team. Both are already established with growing fan bases, the won’t have to realign the conferences, and it increases the talent gap between MLS and the other two divisions.

  5. Having moved to Sacramento from San Jose, I’ve noticed how much more publicity there is here for the Republic than there is for the Quakes in San Jose. Republic news stories often lead the local news and are on the front page of our newspaper. Anywhere you go in Sacramento, you see people wearing Republic gear. In San Jose, the Quakes are far down the “trough” when it comes to Bay Area media coverage, although there is a little more buzz this year with the Quakes new stadium opening on Sunday. The Niners, Giants, Warriors, etc., get all the attention.

    My point is that MLS can put a team back in Miami, where it’s failed before, and where it will play “second-fiddle” to the teams down there that barely generate any excitement in South Florida, or MLS can award a franchise to a city it can have to itself 6-7 months of the year, with an atmosphere that can at least match that found in Portland.

    • That is the benefit of being a medium-sized fish in a small pond. In the Bay Area, just like So Cal, soccer players second fiddle to the big four sports. In Sacramento, the Republic only competes with the Kings. That’s to their benefit. And winning a championship helps too.

      • Pointing to a fact that makes your comment stronger. They are not in competition with the Kings, they are in partnership.

        Meaning there would be cross-promotion and leveraging of resources etc.

        The opportunity in Sacramento right now is that everyone there is PRO Sacramento. I know people who were marginal soccer fans that are now big Republic fans in large part because being a Republic fan and yelling for their team is equal to cheering for their city as a whole and promoting Pro Sacramento sentiment.

      • It’s interesting how intra-city branding amongst pro sports clubs appears to be emerging as an exploratory marketing strategy in American sports In the past decades there were hints of this kind of city-level branding (for example, Pittsburgh teams have long shared a similar black/yellow color scheme, theoretically based on the city flag). But I think we are seeing things become more conscious and organized.

        In a sense, it’s a bit like Euro League basketball teams, most of which are wholly-owned subs of major soccer clubs, and share the same moniker and branding.

        American clubs seem to be experimenting actively here– Seattle is one prominent and successful example of converging branding between Seahawks & Sounders. I expect we will see the same from Atlanta. Heck, as an LA resident and LAG fan, I believe AEG has made some not-so-subtle attempts to shift the Galaxy’s brand in line with the Lakers/Kings over the years.

        Going forward, the truly intriguing phenomenon may be the formation of partnerships between entirely unrelated management groups of clubs in different sports, using “city pride” as a basis to create mutual growth. If so, this suggests that these teams may no longer see each other as competition for the average citizen’s disposable income, rather as collaborators in getting people and households to “consume sports” as opposed to other leisure/entertainment options.

        Personally, I think this idea has great potential for emerging MLS team, particularly those in small-to-mid sized markets– It can really help casual and non-soccer fans “latch on” to the sport through more familiar channels. Sacramento is absolutely perfect for this approach, given the limited in-city competition the Kings and Republic face. Certainly, they may butt heads– after all, there will be households who can only afford season tickets for one sport. But the cooperative benefit is likely to be far greater, ensuring fans have an outlet for the collective “brand” basically year-round.

      • This is sort of the antithesis of baseball when the Brooklyn Dodgers left for LA or the NY Giants left for SF.

        I wasn’t there at the time, but when those teams moved they helped to rip apart local fan bases everywhere. When franchises move, they leave disappointed fans in their wake. Maybe that is among the reasons San Jose has had trouble developing a strong local fan base. (Or it cold be that San Jose never had local support, I don’t knuow.)

  6. I’m not sure why its a surprise that Sacto is so strong as a contender for an MLS team. Well, at least not a surprise to those in California. The state is pretty big on footie, no matter which corner- north, south, west, and yes even east Cal like the capitol. Its kind of like the difference between yoga and organized yoga competitions. For those of you not familiar, yes there are yoga competitions out there. No one goes to them or is even aware of them, even though everyone and their grandmothers go to a yoga class. Everyone plays soccer. Every available spot of land is filled with people playing a pickup game. And yes, my granny plays forward at my weekend pic games. The state could probably support 6 or 7 mls team (Oakland/SF, San Diego, San Fernando valley)

    • +1 You aren’t kidding. Soccer is huge here and it really may be that the market potential has scarcely been tapped.

      Sacramento is, in my view, almost a slam dunk. The popularity of the Kings basketball team, in spite of a history of almost unbroken futility (save for a few years in the early 2000s) tells you a bit about the market dynamics there. Sacramento is honestly one of the most boring places on the face of the earth — I have been there dozens of times for business and and blown away every time by this. But it is the capital of California, and there is no shortage of power and money here. Sacramento Republic are sitting on a market with plenty of disposable income and very little competition.

      • “Sacramento is honestly one of the most boring places on the face of the earth — I have been there dozens of times for business and and blown away every time by this”

        Wrong. You must be staying out by the airport. Sacramento has a great bar and restaurant scene, museums, parks, and some of the best local breweries on the West Coast. Do your research or just venture out a little from whatever Hampton Inn you’re staying at next time.

      • PLEASE give me some recommendations! I have been all over that town and I have to do it many more times. If you have advice, I am all ears.

      • If you go back in the fall of next year you’ll see a whole new city, especially in the downtown area. The restaurant/bar scene is already nice in Sacramento and it’s only getting better due to the new kings arena that is being built and the possibility of the new soccer stadium that is going to be in that area as well. The momentum for Sacramento is tremendous right now.

      • I’m sure I’ll be back there by fall so I will take your advice … I’m trying to remain open-minded about it (really, I don’t have much choice!). I’ve just grown tired of asking locals what I should do in the evening and getting the same reply (“check out the Torch Club”). Not that there’s anything wrong with the Torch Club– I happen to love live jazz/blues so that’s pretty much what I do when I go… but it has gotten a little tiresome

      • Dude, so many great venues/bars/restaurants to check out in Sacramento. Focus on the grid, particualrly midtown.

        Shady Lady is nationally acclaimed bar that usually has live jazz music any given night. Burgers and Brew or Magpie on same block is a great place for food as well.

        Other great places to grab a drink – Low Brau, a german beer hall, The Mix, Devere’s, or Red Rabbit.

        Places to eat – The Press Bistro, Chops, Lucca, or Mikuni or Kru for sushi.

      • I haven’t been to Sacramento in about 7 years and last time I was there it was one of the boring towns in California.

      • We could support at least two more teams here in California if not three. I’d love to see someday where there is one in S.J., Sacto. and S.F. up here in the north and then throw San Diego a team too.

        Soccer is huge in this state with a lot of knowledgeable people here. We have a lot of history too.. ’84 Olympics, World Cups, First MLS game….

        I second Cabrito as well. Sacto. has plenty to do. Get out and check it out!

        Bring it on Don!

      • Sacramento is about as opposite to the Miami bid as you can get. It will show where Soccer Don’s head is when the announcement is made.

        Sacramento is in the process of exploding culturally. In one sense MLS is lucky is to have the opportunity it has in Sacramento. To be partnered with the Kings and be front and center of a City’s identity in a city that is fighting for and in the middle of developing.

        Counter that with Miami that is treating the whole thing as an after thought and being thrown cast off locations.

        For the record downtown Sac has quite a scene going. Culturally I would measure it against Portland way before SF or SJ.

      • Now this I can agree with.

        Sacramento appears clearly to be “more ready” for MLS, and the project itself is definitely more advanced than anything the Beckham team has done.

        But it’s gonna be difficult for the Don to kick the Beckham group down the line (unless that’s what Team Beckham wants– which they quite frankly should, at this point). Beckham’s group has no stadium, no brand, and no staff– but they something the other expansion candidates don’t, which is a contractual obligation from the league. Whatever the league does, they have to be mindful of this, because it could create an ugly situation if mishandled.

        I think the best solution is to advise the Beckham team to take another year, get their sh*t straight, and allow somebody else to have their immediate seat, with the understanding that Miami will still be joining the league once certain milestones have been achieved. It’s the sensible “win win” solution. But if the Beckham group balks at this, it could get dicey.

    • I think California’s fair weather has something to do with it. In contrast, a densely populate place like in NN there might be a ton of organizations or “teams” playing, but as far as pick up games they are hard to find or in very select locations.


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