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With USL Pro title in tow, ambitious Sacramento increases push for MLS

The morning after his first-year team lifted the USL Pro championship trophy, and not long after the title celebration wrapped up, Sacramento Republic president Warren Smith was on the road. He’d heard good things about Levi’s Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers' new facility located some 120 miles to the south, and wanted to check out the game-day scene in person.

The Republic players, a collection of locals, minor-league lifers and MLS castoffs who gelled so successfully under former Toronto FC and Chivas USA manager Preki Radosavljevic, were given Sunday off. Perhaps some woke up in time to see the 49ers top the Philadelphia Eagles. But the following day they were aboard a flight to Utah, where they met Real Salt Lake in a Tuesday night friendly. There, Smith and his colleagues had the opportunity to pick the brains of RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen, president Bill Manning and the men who oversee an MLS power hailing from the country’s 34th-largest media market.

For what it’s worth, Sacramento ranks 20th.

The Republic’s work continues, because the work isn’t done. Saturday’s USL Pro final, which Sacramento won deservedly, 2-0, over the Harrisburg City Islanders, was no finish line. Rather, it was an early milestone, a testament to how quickly Smith and the Republic are progressing toward their goal. Since day one – the team was unveiled on July 18, 2013 – they’ve been aiming audaciously for MLS.

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“You’re only as good as how the group comes together,” Smith told before leaving for Salt Lake City. Asked to recount his favorite image from last Saturday’s clincher, the Republic founder mentioned the atmosphere at sold-out Bonney Field and the beer shower he received from the Tower Bridge Battalion following Octavio Guzmán’s opening goal. But he ultimately settled on a scene from the post-game party.

“Preki told us about halfway through the season, ‘They’re really coming together as a unit.’ We’d been competitive, but the way they were getting along, the way they’re all in the right place at the right time like he’s asked them to be….” Smith said. “I’ve been involved in team sports a long time, as an [minor league baseball and soccer] owner, as a [football] player myself at a pretty darn good program at UC Davis. It’s a very special moment when teams really come together as a unit … The really cool thing was to watch the boys kind of lead the party. They were hooting and hollering. To see that not only on the field but as a group in the middle of that party jumping up and down together was really, really special.”

Sacramento came together quickly on the field and overcame a 2-3-1 start to finish the USL Pro regular season second out of 14 teams. It then rattled off nine goals in its three playoff wins. The club has come together even faster off it. Smith originally envisioned a three-year plan similar to the one Orlando City followed on its path from American soccer’s third tier to MLS. He figured that if everything went perfectly – if the fans came out, if he could attract the required investment and if the city was willing to work with him on a stadium plan – he eventually might be able to make the case for an MLS expansion franchise.

Then more than 20,000 people showed up at the Republic’s home opener on April 26 at Hughes Stadium, where the club played before moving to its smaller, soccer-specific facility in late June. Orlando held the previous record for a USL Pro regular season crowd. It was 10,697. visited Sacramento on May 17, when 20,231 fans cheered Republic on to a 2-1 triumph over L.A. Galaxy II. Hughes Stadium, on the campus of Sacramento City College, is painted in the Republic’s deep red and beige colors. Inside, it felt like the club had been playing there since the facility opened in 1928. Fans filed in early to enjoy the beer garden, food trucks and live music underneath the scoreboard.

Banners featuring the logos of area youth soccer clubs lined the fences and the Tower Bridge Battalion marched along the Sutterville Rd. overpass and into the stadium – joined briefly by Smith and several colleagues. The football lines and running track were the only imperfections.

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Over the past four months, the bond between city and club has strengthened and the yard lines and track – perhaps the last remnants of inauthenticity – are nowhere to be found at Bonney. Sacramento’s metro area has the second largest population per major league sports franchise (MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL and NHL) in the U.S. (it’s a hair behind San Antonio). There’s a hunger there that Smith believes more than makes up for its size relative to other MLS suitors. It is the only top-20 media market in the country with only one major league team.

“I know that this community – the demographics speak for themselves – we support our sports,” said Smith, who helped bring the AAA River Cats to Sacramento in 2000. Last year, Forbes listed the San Francisco Giants' affiliate as minor league baseball's most valuable franchise.

“We know over time, MLS is going to choose this market. We’re just hopeful it can happen sooner than later," he said.

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The race is on. Suddenly, a three-year plan seems too conservative, not only because of the level of support the organization has received, but because of competing markets' increasing interest in a dwindling number of MLS openings. Orlando City and New York City FC join up next season and Atlanta will be aboard in 2017. After that, and not counting a potential replacement for Chivas USA (the Republic offered to buy Chivas and move it north but was rebuffed), MLS has committed to adding only two more teams this decade. Miami and Minneapolis remain the frontrunners.

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“We recognize the challenge,” Smith said. “We know they want to be in Miami. I would too. It’s the [eighth] largest market in the country. And Minneapolis is one of the largest corporate headquarters in the country. But if you look at the recipe of success in MLS, I think it’s a good ownership group, people who know how to run an organization and a downtown stadium location. And we have that.”

While Beckham and Co. look for alternate sites in Miami following two initial failures and the Minnesota Vikings jostle with the NASL’s Minnesota United and, potentially, the Pohlad family in Minneapolis, Smith said he is hoping to demonstrate that Sacramento is the “low-risk option.”

Smith and the club’s new primary shareholder, pharmaceutical entrepreneur Kevin Nagle (who also holds a minority stake in the Sacramento Kings), lead a growing investment group that’s already raised more than $200 million. That’s enough to account for the MLS expansion fee and a significant majority of a new $150 million stadium located at the Sacramento Railyards on the north edge of downtown. Debt and additional investment will cover the remainder.

The president of the developer overseeing the railyard renewal project, Larry Kelley, now is a Republic shareholder. Two members of the Sacramento City Council have Republic season tickets. And Mayor Kevin Johnson, the one-time Phoenix Suns point guard, has vigorously championed the Republic cause. He was standing and cheering on the Bonney Field sideline along with Smith and Nagle last Saturday.

The sold-out USL Pro final averaged a 1.6 rating on Sacramento’s CW31 TV channel, beating the Notre Dame-Syracuse football game on NBC. Smith said that “multiple stations” have approached the club about broadcasting matches next year.

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“We personally don’t think they can say ‘no’ to this,” Smith said. “Given some of the considerations and markets they’re looking at and the things that are happening in those markets, we think we’re the low-risk option. We’ve raised the money. We have a stadium plan. We have an MLS-quality staff. We’ve put a team on the field. You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities when they come, not just stick to your old plan. We’ve tried to accelerate.”

The likes of Miami – especially considering David Beckham’s involvement – and Minneapolis will get the benefit of the doubt. Big markets have the edge. Atlanta is in with an NFL stadium. NYCFC will play in a baseball stadium. Las Vegas and San Antonio also may be in play. Sacramento has no margin for error. It was never on MLS’ wish list. Like Orlando, the Republic has forced its way in. On Sept. 18-19, an MLS delegation led by deputy commissioner Mark Abbott visited California’s capital in order to see the progress first-hand.

“What’s happened here is tremendous,” Abbott said at a press conference. “The pride in the community – I’ve never really quite experienced anything like it in other places where I’ve been.”

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Sacramento has become a soccer town. Abbott also met with interested officials in suburban Elk Grove, about 15 miles south of the capital, and MLS commissioner Don Garber has spoken separately with Sacramento Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadivé, who’s not currently part of the Republic investor group. Smith is planning to expand 8,000-seat Bonney Field by 2,000-3,000 seats ahead of the 2015 USL Pro season.

The club currently is approaching 6,000 season ticket commitments and already has taken nearly 800 new deposits for 2015. Orlando’s average regular season attendance – season ticket and walk-up – was 8,053 in 2013, it’s last USL Pro campaign at the Citrus Bowl. The Seattle Sounders drew 4,401 fans per game in 2008, its final season in the minors.

The Portland Timbers brought in an average of 10,727 the year before joining MLS. Sacramento eclipsed that total in its inaugural season thanks to Hughes and very well could break it again in 2015 if Bonney grows to a sufficient size. Seattle and Portland each spent about a decade and a half in the sport’s lower tiers before moving up. Smith doesn’t want Sacramento to have to wait nearly as long.

He said he’s operating under the assumption that MLS still plans to operate a 24-team league in 2020.

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“That’s how we’re treating it,” Smith said. “In talking with folks around the league, It’s not necessarily their belief that they’ll stop at 24. I think that’s the general consensus, and if I were a league that’s still growing and trying to build a brand, it could be done correctly with 30-plus – if the markets they choose are strong. But we’re acting like they’re not [going to have that many clubs]. All we know is they’ve announced 24 teams by 2020.”

That doesn’t leave much time to reflect on a triumphant inaugural season. The iron is hot. Republic fans were chanting “MLS, MLS” during Saturday’s medal ceremony. They’re already looking ahead. The city will fete the team on Friday, but Smith has more on his agenda. He said the players will remain in town to train and work at camps or even in the club office. He’s got meetings coming up “that are all MLS related,” regarding stadium naming rights, jersey and corporate sponsorships.

“How do we continue to get MLS excited about what we’re doing? Literally, daily, we’re working on those things,” Smith said. “We’re going to keep doing everything we can to make their decision easier.”