Sacramento is ready for MLS, but will it be passed over again for expansion?
It's easy to see why soccer fans in Sacramento are confident their city will soon field a Major League Soccer team.
The Sacramento Republic has created a sustained buzz in a city known more for state politics than for sports, leading the United Soccer League in sellouts and cultivating a supporters culture many MLS teams would envy.
And while no task has troubled expansion candidates more than securing a stadium, that's a strength of Sacramento's. Not only is it the only expansion prospect with a shovel-ready stadium plan, but the bid has moved beyond mere plans with $12 million in pre-construction and development around the site already underway.
"We've checked all the boxes and now we've gone to the next steps," the Sacramento bid's lead investor Kevin Nagle told ESPN FC adding that, after their pre-construction work to prepare the site, his investment group will have spent $30 million on the bid: "I doubt there are any candidates besides us who can be in a soccer-ready stadium by 2020, unless they've started doing what we have now."
For all that, though, MLS hasn't rushed to open its doors to Sacramento. The California capital's bid seemingly checked off each expansion box years ago, yet Sacramento has sat on the back burner while the league courts other markets.
Since Sacramento first emerged as an expansion frontrunner, 11 other cities have filed bids for the two slots that will be awarded by the end of the year. Even after expansion fees skyrocketed to $150 million, interest in acquiring an expansion team is at an all-time high. Markets hoping to buy their way into MLS include Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa Bay.
Now, with a new expansion process the league set up last year, every candidate is on even footing.
"We have more qualified markets and ownership groups than we're going to have space for in expanding the league," MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott told ESPN FC. "We have not yet made a list of front runners and we have not created a shortlist. Everyone remains viable at this point."
That may be hard for fans in Sacramento to hear. After all, the city has looked like an obvious expansion candidate for years with strong government support and a viable stadium plan. But the league passed it over in favor of Minnesota United, who were chosen in 2015 but won't be able to play in their own soccer-specific stadium until 2019. Abbott called Sacramento "a very strong bid" and said it's only gotten stronger since it was overlooked two years ago.
Sacramento's bid isn't perfect, however. MLS already has two teams in California -- and a third in LAFC joining in 2018 -- and although the Republic already have a rivalry with the San Jose Earthquakes (and rivalries help boost TV ratings), expanding to Sacramento doesn't grow the league's national footprint.
MLS has shown a preference to expand into new parts of the country, with Atlanta and Minnesota joining the league this year, and has worked with David Beckham to find a suitable stadium site for a franchise in Miami. Until recently, though, when Beckham and his ownership group finally secured land for a stadium, it looked like those attempts could drag on indefinitely.
If the city of Sacramento quickly embraced the possibility of an MLS team, Miami went along a different path. Beckham's group first set sights on PortMiami in 2013, but nearby businesses opposed it and Miami-Dade County commissioners blocked it. A spot next to American Airlines Arena was the next proposed stadium site, but the City of Miami rejected that idea. Then there was a site next to Marlins Park that could not be negotiated down to an acceptable price.
In December 2015, the Overtown neighborhood became the new favored location. Beckham's group finally secured the land they need to build a stadium in June 2017, almost four years after they started their search.
"Am I frustrated?" Nagle said when asked about the hesitance of MLS to greenlight Sacramento's bid while pursuing other cities. "Not really because I know that they created a formalized process, we've moved on that process and, based on all we can see, I believe we're ahead of the pack. You have to compete and I'm not afraid to compete."
If anything, MLS' courtship of Miami may highlight just how difficult it can be gain the support and funding necessary for a stadium in 2017. For Miami, like Detroit and Cincinnati, identifying a suitable stadium site has been a challenge. St Louis, Charlotte and Indianapolis have already seen their bids derailed by lack of public support for their stadium plans, which included public subsidies.
That's partly why MLS has stretched its timeline on expansion to a total of 28 teams, Abbott said; to give markets more time to navigate the complicated issues around building soccer-specific stadiums. Two candidates should earn spots this year and then two more will earn spots as part of a longer timeline that is yet to be announced.
But Sacramento's stadium looks to be close to being reality -- as long MLS says yes -- with the land and private financing in place to build a new 20,000-seat stadium near the downtown core. It would be the first piece of a major development project the city is planning that would create thousands of housing units, offices and retail spaces in a transit-accessible location minutes from the city center.
If MLS doesn't award Sacramento a franchise in this next round of expansion, it's likely some other project will anchor that new city development project. But for now, Nagle refuses to imagine failure.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said. "Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way, but we don't anticipate anything other than expansion in 2020."
Caitlin Murray is a Portland, Oregon-based reporter who covers MLS, NWSL and the U.S. national teams. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.