As it approaches the home stretch of its inaugural USL PRO season, Sacramento Republic FC is making waves both on and off the pitch.
Thanks to a 6-1 away win Sunday against the Orange County Blues, Sacramento became the third team to clinch a playoff spot, improving its record to 14-6-3 in the midst of a six-game unbeaten streak.
Part of the reason for the team’s hot play has been the breakout of Northern Irish forward Thomas Stewart.
After beginning the season as a fringe starter, the 27-year-old has banged in six goals during the Republic’s unbeaten streak, including the club’s first-ever hat trick on Sunday.
Also enjoying a strong season is the diminutive Rodrigo Lopez, Sacramento’s heartbeat in the midfield.
With seven goals and a joint league-leading eight assists, the former Portland Timbers player figures to be in the running for the league’s MVP award.
Davis’ own Adam Jahn, on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS, also has been on fire as of late, bagging three goals in the past four games to take his season total to six, the third most on the squad.
The locals have five matches remaining — four of which are at Bonney Field in Sacramento — before the single-elimination playoffs begin in the second week of September.
Republic FC sits in third place in the standings, four points behind second-place Richmond, albeit with a game in hand. The higher seed in each playoff match will host the game.
While Sacramento seems poised for a deep playoff run in its inaugural season, something else has made waves on the national level: the possibility of MLS expansion, with an announcement coming perhaps as soon as December.
As first reported by The Enterprise, Republic FC president Warren Smith is in talks with possible investment groups who could put up the capital to provide financing for an expansion fee, estimated at $70 million to $100 million, as well as a downtown soccer stadium.
Sacramento Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive confirmed that he is in talks to buy Republic FC and attempt to gain expansion into the league, which has 21 teams but hopes to expand to 24 by 2020.
According to the Sacramento Bee, a contingent including Smith, Kings President Chris Granger and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson made a 75-minute presentation to MLS executives during the annual All-Star Game meetings.
An MLS visit is scheduled for sometime in September according to that same Bee report.
Smith told The Enterprise in July that even if an expansion franchise is granted this year, the team likely wouldn’t begin play in MLS until 2018 due to an anticipated staggering of the entry of expansion franchises.
According to Smith, MLS generally looks for markets to satisfy four criteria for entry into the league: strong fan support, a decent market size, deep pockets and a downtown stadium location.
The Republic already has broken the USL PRO overall attendance record, set last year by 2015 MLS expansion side Orlando City Soccer Club.
If slotted into MLS today, Sacramento would rank as the league’s 12th-largest television market according to Nielsen, larger than the markets of well-supported teams such as the Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake.
With the first two boxes checked off — and the third if Ranadive’s group invests in the team — it seems that the future of MLS in Sacramento hinges upon securing a downtown soccer-specific stadium, something Mayor Johnson indicated would not be supported by public funds.
For now, though, the team will focus on what it can do on the field, knowing that the deeper it goes into the playoffs, the more local support it will gain.
— Reach Evan Ream at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanReam