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Minnesota, Miami are on deck, but Sacramento ready for MLS expansion

Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson remains optimistic, upbeat about the city's chances of getting an MLS franchise despite Minnesota and Miami being in line for teams No. 23 and 24.

Reiterating that MLS has told Sacramento that expansion to California's capital is “not a matter of if, but when,” mayor Kevin Johnson said Tuesday that the city is forging ahead with its plans for a downtown, soccer-specific stadium even though Minneapolis and Miami appear set to secure the league’s next two slots.

Dubbing the initiative “Operation Turnkey,” Johnson said the city and Sacramento Republic will be working “To do all the things necessary to ensure our stadium is ready to go,” and that, “The moment MLS says Sacramento is ready to come on line, we’ll have shovels in hand and be ready to dig.”

The news conference was prompted by Monday’s confirmation from MLS that Minnesota United is in line to become the league’s 23rd team (an announcement should come within a month) and that it now is prepared “to evaluate potential expansion beyond 24 clubs.”

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When commissioner Don Garber announced in the summer of 2013 that MLS planned to field 24 teams in 2020, no one could have imagined the turn of events in Sacramento, where Republic took the field for the first time in the spring of 2014. Since then, it’s won the United Soccer League championship, set minor league attendance records, sold 9,000 season tickets and built an investor group that includes the San Francisco 49ers and Sacramento Kings.

“Our market has demonstrated that we are a major league market,” Johnson said.

And its status as an MLS market would be more certain if not for the league’s 2007 deal with former LA Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, who exercised a contract option allowing to buy an expansion team at a reduced rate ($25 million). Beckham confirmed his Miami intentions in February 2014 and has been pursuing a stadium site since then. Although there have been complications, namely the failure to win approval to build on two pieces of downtown, waterfront property, optimism persists.

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It’s understood that Beckham and his partners, Simon Fuller and Marcelo Claure, have options. For example, they likely could build on property adjacent to Marlins Park in the Little Havana neighborhood west of downtown. The site’s proximity to a baseball stadium that left a bad taste in the mouth of many Miamians and its distance from public transport and the downtown core has left Beckham continuing to search for more attractive possibilities elsewhere.

But its availability likely means that, if dealing with a deadline, Beckham has at least one fallback option that ensures his MLS spot.

There are no guarantees, however—not in Miami or Minneapolis or Los Angeles. So Sacramento has determined that if one of those markets falters, it will be ready. And if the MLS board of governors decides to commit to a 25th club, it will be ready.

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“We all know that those things can easily happen in this line of work and we want to be in a position to step in. But that’s not our expectation,” Johnson said.

“Our expectation is that [other expansion markets] complete what they set out to do and that Operation Turnkey puts us in position that if we do get selected in the not-too-distant future, we’re ready to hit the ground running."

A lot goes into building a stadium, and Turnkey—details of which will be hashed out and unveiled in the coming weeks—is designed to get the city and Republic moving down their checklist. Control over the site at the Sacramento Railyards must be finalized (there’s currently a Letter of Intent between the club and developer) and the land must be purchased. It helps that the site’s lead developer, Larry Kelley, is a Republic investor. There are financial and feasibility studies to do and an environmental impact report to prepare. Preliminary design work needs to be started and a term sheet must be negotiated between the club, developer and the city.

Republic has sufficient confidence in its expansion bid that its ready to take those steps. It’s an atypical commitment from an atypical club.

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Speaking to following the news conference, Republic lead investor Kevin Nagle said all parties involved—club ownership, the city and stadium stakeholders—were prepared to see their expansion effort through. Stadium financing is in place. Progress in Minneapolis and Miami may force Sacramento to wait longer than it would like, but it is able and willing to do so.

“I know all of the investors really well. They’re people I work with. They’re great guys. Many of them are my partners over at the Kings. They’re super supportive,” he said.

“I don’t see any issue right now,” with keeping the bid together if MLS decides to wait, Nagle said. “I just don’t.”

The league is ready to look into expansion beyond 24 teams. There’s no reason a decision couldn’t be made soon, and no reason a new team or teams couldn’t enter before 2020. There’s little question at the moment that Sacramento leads that race.