MLS commissioner Don Garber, with Mayor Kevin Johnson by his side, acknowledges cheering fans during a block party in downtown Sacramento on April 14, 2016. MLS may be ready to make good on Garber’s pledge to deliver an expansion franchise to Sacramento before Johnson leaves office. Randy Pench Sacramento Bee file
MLS commissioner Don Garber, with Mayor Kevin Johnson by his side, acknowledges cheering fans during a block party in downtown Sacramento on April 14, 2016. MLS may be ready to make good on Garber’s pledge to deliver an expansion franchise to Sacramento before Johnson leaves office. Randy Pench Sacramento Bee file

City Beat

News, insight and discussion on Sacramento and its neighborhoods

City Beat

Sacramento’s soccer future could soon become more clear

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

October 23, 2016 12:00 PM

UPDATED October 24, 2016 10:25 AM

When Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber visited Sacramento in April, he said he wanted the league to decide on Sacramento’s bid for an expansion team by the time Mayor Kevin Johnson leaves office.

Given that the mayor has just over seven weeks left, that scenario may seem like a bigger long shot than, say, Johnson showing up to all his remaining City Council meetings. But here’s a prediction: Sacramento and Republic FC will receive concrete news about their MLS future around the day Johnson jumps into his black SUV outside City Hall one last time.

The country’s premier pro soccer league has key meetings scheduled over the next several weeks that should provide us with clarity on its expansion plans.

First, a committee of MLS team owners exploring expansion is scheduled to meet in New York the second week of November. For that session, MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said the league is “preparing extensive data on various markets and what the impact of expansion would be on a wide variety of aspects of the league.”

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That timing could work out very well for Sacramento.

The city’s planning commission is expected to recommend approval of the environmental impact report for the downtown railyard – including plans for a 19,621-seat professional soccer stadium – at a special meeting Monday. The City Council is scheduled to vote on that recommendation Nov. 10, likely granting key political support to the project as MLS owners explore Sacramento’s viability as an expansion market.

Garber is then scheduled to make a “state of the league” address either Dec. 6 or 7 – and it’s possible he could have something to announce. And if the expansion issue isn’t settled by then, all of the league’s owners have scheduled a Board of Governors meeting Dec. 15 in New York at which they are expected to talk more about expansion. That’s two days after Johnson’s final day at City Hall.

So where does that leave Sacramento? Well, it leaves the city in the same place it’s been for several months: at the front of the line to become the next Major League Soccer city.

Garber clearly loves Sacramento. He made that clear when he was here in the spring. And here’s what he told Sports Illustrated during an interview last month: “I don’t think there’s any market that’s done more than any other, other than Sacramento, which clearly is MLS ready.”

The commissioner went on to mention other “viable” markets fighting for expansion slots – including St. Louis, Detroit, San Diego, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Austin, Texas. But he then added, “Sacramento is wired pretty tight right now.”

Sacramento on verge of Major League Soccer franchise

MLS Commissioner Don Garber says he expects Sacramento to land team in next round of expansion, likely in 2020.

Ryan Lillis The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento’s inevitable climb to MLS is dragging along, and some fans are getting restless. How many more times can Republic FC expect to pack Bonney Field for matches against the Harrisburg City Islanders or Tulsa Roughnecks? What’s made the climb frustrating for some is that there hasn’t been much predictability to the process.

For instance, last year MLS said it was going to take at least a month – maybe two – to vet a proposal for adding a team in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It then awarded the region an expansion team one week later. At the same time, the league has allowed Miami’s floundering expansion bid to hang on for nearly three years, even as stadium plan after stadium plan in South Florida has evaporated.

What seems most likely is that by December, MLS will finalize its timing for moving from its current roster of 24 franchises to 28. And with Sacramento “wired pretty tight,” that timing could essentially tell soccer fans here when Republic FC will finally make the leap to the big leagues.

Johnson won’t be the mayor to cut a ribbon on a new downtown soccer stadium. But Garber still has time to make good on his pledge to hand Johnson a parting gift on his way out the door.