SACRAMENTO — Sitting in the VIP section of the brand new Bonney Field, while neon-colored roller coasters and Ferris wheels whirled at the nearby State Fair, Sacramento Republic FC president Warren Smith opened up about the future of Republic’s $3 million Cal Expo-located field and the possibility of gaining entry into Major League Soccer.
MLS, which plans to expand to 24 teams (up from 19) by 2020, always has been the stated goal of the first-year franchise ever since it first announced itself as a USL PRO expansion team in 2012.
“We’re in this for Sacramento,” Smith said. “(Soccer is) a great sport, we love it, it’s been a lot of fun, but we deserve more in Sacramento. We want the best. The best league in the country is MLS so we want that for Sacramento.”
The blueprint toward gaining an MLS franchise always has included four things: strong fan support, a decent market size, a soccer-specific stadium and a group of wealthy investors.
With the moderately large metropolitan area that is Sacramento, pairing with the 14,587 fans that the team averaged coming into Thursday night’s game against MLS-bound Orlando City Soccer Club, Republic FC seemingly has the first two boxes checked off and is now looking to fill the latter two.
To fan the MLS flames even further, Sacramento Republic FC had 5,908 season ticket holders as of Thursday morning according to team officials.
While the 8,000-capacity Bonney Field is unprecedented at the USL PRO level, MLS requires roughly an 18,000-plus seat facility, preferably in a downtown location, both things that Smith says the team is working on.
He wasn’t at liberty to speak about what those locations might be, or what potential investors he is in talks with, but he did mention that Bonney Field likely will be expanded before next season.
To get to MLS, Republic FC needs the fans to continue to pack it to the brim as they have been.
“We’re looking into the feasibility (of expanding Bonney) now,” Smith said. “We’re permitted for 8,000. We’ve been working with Cal Expo to expand that permit. We’ve asked the capacity to be up as high as 14,000 but we don’t know yet what we’re going to land on.”
Even if the stadium expands to that number, the Republic will need to construct a new field to meet MLS standards.
“At the MLS level, you need to have at least 18,000 seats. This is great quality but at the same time place is just as important as the team you put on the field,” Smith added. “We will need to build another facility. We’ve been in conversations with the city about what we might be able to do and where we might be able to build, but that’s a longer-term objective right now. Even if we were awarded the franchise next year, we’re not starting play until 2018.”
But despite all that, Smith remains confident with what lies ahead.
“I’m very confident that we will get there, to MLS,” Smith said. “I was asked recently if I could put a percentage to it. I’d love to say 100 percent, but you know I can’t do that, it’s not our decision, but I’d say 75 percent.”
Note: Orlando and New York each have expansion franchises launching next year while Atlanta is set to begin in 2017. Miami has been granted a franchise provided they secure their a stadium, making 23 of the 24 spots in the league spoken for. Smith says that Sacramento currently ranks behind a possible Minneapolis bid for the last of 24 spots. There is no timetable for further expansion.
— Reach Evan Ream at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @EvanReam