Warren Smith, founder of Sacramento Republic FC, jumps up and down as he chants “I believe that we will win” with fans during a party at 20th and K streets in midtown last September to promote the city to a delegation from Major League Soccer. Minneapolis has become the front-runner for getting an expansion team, MLS confirmed. José Luis Villegas Sacramento Bee file
Warren Smith, founder of Sacramento Republic FC, jumps up and down as he chants “I believe that we will win” with fans during a party at 20th and K streets in midtown last September to promote the city to a delegation from Major League Soccer. Minneapolis has become the front-runner for getting an expansion team, MLS confirmed. José Luis Villegas Sacramento Bee file

City Beat

News, insight and discussion on Sacramento and its neighborhoods

City Beat

Major League Soccer confirms talks with Minneapolis

By Ryan Lillis and Dale Kasler

rlillis@sacbee.com

March 16, 2015 12:33 PM

Major League Soccer announced Monday it is in serious discussions to award an expansion team to Minneapolis, dealing a blow to Sacramento’s immediate hopes of joining the league.

However, MLS also said for the first time that it will evaluate going beyond its previous goal of 24 franchises, leaving the door open for a Sacramento team in the foreseeable future. Some experts on MLS say Sacramento is probably the leading candidate for a spot if the league expands beyond 24 teams.

Minneapolis, a much larger and wealthier market than Sacramento, emerged as a front-runner for the final expansion spot in recent weeks. MLS’ statement Monday confirmed the front-runner is a group led by William McGuire, a health care executive who owns Minnesota United FC of the second-tier North American Soccer League.

“We are in advanced discussions with Bill McGuire and his partners in Minnesota to bring a Major League Soccer expansion club to the Twin Cities and are particularly excited about their plans for a new soccer-specific stadium that will serve as the club’s home,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “We remain on track to announce the next MLS expansion market in the next 30-45 days, though no specific date for an announcement has been set.”

Garber has long made it clear he wants a team in Minneapolis, helping fix a shortage of teams in the Midwest. The ultimate decision will be made by a vote of the league’s owners.

MLS’ statement doesn’t doom Sacramento’s effort. The city and its minor-league team, Sacramento Republic FC, would see their chances improve dramatically if investors in Miami, led by international soccer star David Beckham, can’t deliver a stadium deal for the expansion team that was tentatively awarded last year.

Regardless of what happens in Miami, the league’s willingness to consider additional expansion spots is encouraging for Sacramento. Until now, MLS has said it wants 24 teams playing by 2020, and Miami and Minneapolis would fill the final two spots. Garber’s statement follows months of speculation that MLS, whose popularity is growing, is interested in bringing the sport to even more cities.

“Over the course of 2015, we plan to evaluate potential expansion beyond 24 clubs,” Garber said.

MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott, in an interview, said the league hasn’t established a timetable for deciding whether to expand beyond 24 teams. He said the strength of bids from several cities, including Sacramento, influenced the decision to explore additional expansion.

“The number of quality markets that are interested in Major League Soccer have caused us to at least consider whether we should go beyond 24,” Abbott said. Other cities in the mix include San Antonio and St. Louis.

Despite their disappointment over the Minneapolis news, Sacramento officials said they would keep pushing for a team.

“While this wasn’t the news that we were hoping for, I can’t be more proud of our efforts,” Mayor Kevin Johnson said in an email. “Sacramento has done everything it could do to be in a position to succeed: a great ownership group; a clear path to a world-class facility; and, most importantly, the strongest fan support shown by any community pursuing an MLS franchise. We respect the MLS process and are optimistic based on MLS’ guidance, that Sacramento is very much in play for the next round.”

Kevin Nagle, lead investor of Republic FC, said in a statement: “We are in the best position of any market for the next MLS franchise and look forward to continuing our full pitch to MLS on why the time is right for Sacramento.

“Less than a year ago, Sacramento wasn’t on the map for Major League Soccer,” Nagle added. “In that short time period, we have demonstrated a market, assembled one of the best ownership groups in sports and secured a site and funding for a downtown soccer-specific stadium.”

Republic FC sold out its home games at Bonney Field en route to the USL championship in 2014, its inaugural season. It is adding more than 3,000 seats to the stadium for this year and would build a privately financed permanent stadium at the downtown railyard if granted MLS admission. To fortify its bid, the team also has brought the Sacramento Kings and top owners of the San Francisco 49ers aboard as investors.

Experts on the business of soccer said Sacramento has greatly impressed league officials and is probably next in line after Minneapolis for a team. “Beyond the 24 (teams) would probably be Sacramento, one would think,” said Ted Philipakos, adjunct professor at New York University’s Tisch Institute of Sports Management, Media and Business.

With so many cities trying to get MLS teams, Philipakos said it’s hardly a shock that the league will now consider additional expansion beyond the 24 threshold. “These numbers, they’re always evolving,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to draw a red line and keep Sacramento out.”

Patrick Rishe, a sports economist and visiting professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said Garber’s announcement about possibly expanding past 24 teams gives the league flexibility to deal with Miami and Sacramento. If Beckham falters in Miami, the league can opt for Sacramento without necessarily killing off Beckham’s prospects. If Beckham pulls together a stadium plan quickly, MLS can still bring in Sacramento as a 25th team.

“He wants to hold a spot open for (Beckham),” Rishe said. “He also wants to go forward with 24 teams, and he’s not blind to what’s happening in Sacramento.”

Abbott, however, wouldn’t say if Sacramento is first in line for the next franchise. “It’s premature to sort of rank markets or assign probabilities,” the deputy commissioner said. He added: “We have been impressed very clearly with the effort that the mayor and Kevin Nagle and Warren (Smith, the founder of Republic FC) have put together.”

Even if the league decides to allow more teams, Sacramento could have to wait awhile. Philipakos said it could be several more years before a Sacramento franchise actually begins playing in MLS. The league has already added two teams this year, in New York and Orlando, and is set to add Atlanta and a second Los Angeles team in 2017. The new Minneapolis team is likely to begin play in 2018, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“I don’t think they want to grow too fast too soon,” Philipakos said. Rapid expansion threatens to dilute the quality of play, a major consideration for a league that’s still striving for respect in the international soccer world.

Monday’s announcement appears to end the duel between two Minneapolis groups. One group, led by owners of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, proposed putting a team in a new indoor stadium the Vikings are building. The McGuire group has the backing of baseball’s Twins and the NBA’s Timberwolves, and also has something the Vikings’ owners lack: a track record in soccer.

Minnesota United drew an average of 6,400 fans last season to its home games in suburban Blaine, Minn. McGuire is proposing an outdoor, soccer-specific stadium in downtown Minneapolis, although he hasn’t announced detailed plans and it’s certain that MLS will insist on a solid stadium proposal before it awards the franchise.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.