Don Garber stayed true to his word. It just took over four years to make it so.
It was April 2015 when the MLS commissioner rather straightforwardly told the Sacramento Bee that "it’s less about if, and more about when" Sacramento Republic became an MLS franchise.
"When" is an abstract concept, though. Sacramento watched MLS expand its vision from 24 teams to 28, to 30, with expansion fees climbing at an astounding rate. Atlanta and Minnesota joined in 2017. FC Cincinnati was created and ascended as Sacramento patiently waited and worked to finish off its bid. Austin cut the line by emerging as a relocation possibility for the Columbus Crew, only for the league to find a two-city solution. Miami finally crossed the finish line. Nashville burst onto the scene much like Cincinnati, and St. Louis, where the league has long yearned to put a team, was resurrected by a new ownership group with deep pockets and the knowhow to pull off what past editions could not.
All the while, Sacramento Republic played on in USL, always making the playoffs but never replicating the championship success of its magical first 2014 season, keeping thoughts of the MLS stage on the front burner along the way. There's been a "Built for MLS" rally in Sacramento and a fervent following of meetings at the league's Manhattan headquarters, all with the hope of securing the thumbs up.
"Deserved" is a relative and subjective term (especially in soccer around the globe, where top-flight status is often earned on the field, not in the C-Suite), but it's hard to objectively look at Sacramento Republic's course over the last five years and the landscape on which it competes and feel like this is not a team that should be in MLS.
That green light finally came on Monday, when Sacramento was welcomed into MLS as the newest expansion team at an event attended by Garber, city mayor Darrell Steinberg and California governor Gavin Newsom.
"'When' is today. Your 'when' has arrived," Garber said in his introductory remarks, a direct callback to his 2015 pledge.
Boosted by the addition of private equity investor and Pittsburgh Penguins part owner Ron Burkle–"the final stroke that led to today," Garber said–Sacramento pieced together the financial clout necessary to match its stadium plan and passionate supporter base. It will join the league with St. Louis in 2022, by which points its new $252 million Downtown Railyards stadium is expected to be completed. It is the league's 29th team, leaving one place vacant–though there is no guarantee MLS growth will end at 30.
Charlotte is thought to be the front runner for that 30th berth, another bid that, much like some of Sacramento's predecessors, emerged quickly and seemingly out of the depths of the candidate pool. There's also the matter of when the 30th team will enter. With two teams coming aboard in 2020 and 2022, the league could be faced with having an odd number of clubs in 2021 unless another bid is fast-tracked. Las Vegas, Phoenix, Raleigh, San Diego and Indianapolis all have shown interest and all had representatives attend an MLS board of governors meeting during the MLS All-Star Game in Orlando this past summer.
Monday was about Sacramento, though, and the league finally awarding the city its team after seeming to string it along throughout an exhaustive process. It was in line with what MLS stated in April of this year, when the league announced it would be growing to 30 and indicated that St. Louis and Sacramento were at the front of the pack. Another April pledge coming to fruition–only this time it didn't take four years.