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It’s been a whirlwind for Sacramento Republic FC supporters and local soccer fans the past few years.
When MLS commissioner Don Garber visited Sacramento in 2015, he said it was a matter of “when, not if” the city would land a professional soccer team. In the fall of 2019, it looked like a done deal. Fans packed downtown Sacramento and celebrated after an official announcement that the club would be turning pro in 2022 was made.
Then, COVID-19 hit.
Sacramento’s bid to the MLS was delayed another year last summer to 2023 because of uncertainty about how to design a stadium for the post-COVID-19 era. Construction on Republic’s $300 million downtown Sacramento stadium was expected to start last fall.
The news dump on Friday night that lead investor Ron Burkle would be backing out of the ownership group — leaving Sacramento’s MLS bid in limbo — had fans feeling mixed emotions.
“I’m probably in a tiny minority. I’m fine with it. The MLS expansion system, with the need to find a billionaire white knight to buy his way in (and become an enriched/entrenched part of the problem in the process) is tawdry. But I’m one of those promotion/relegation weirdos.” Dan Murphy said on Twitter.
“Never ending gut punches is all we are used to. Disappointment after disappointment is the standard here. The only victory we celebrated was keeping the pathetic Kings.” @mattinthe916 said on Twitter.
Fans in Sacramento aren’t the only ones confused and saddened by the news. Andrew Davis is a fan living in Portland, where the Portland Timbers of the MLS and Portland Timbers 2 of the USL play.
“My reaction to the news about the Republic is confusion and sadness,” Davis said in a direct message. “Sadness because I have been to many (Portland) Timber’s games and can see how a city rally’s behind a soccer team in America. While Sacramento represents itself well at Kings games the atmosphere is definitely different. At soccer games, the fans are allowed to do so much more such as show the soul, art, and culture of the city. MLS would have been stage for us to show out who we are on a more national stage. Then we get to confusion about where we go next such as do we drop back down to USL, do we ever get a chance to get back to MLS, and how will fans react to this loss of momentum. I will always support no matter what comes but this was a blow.”
The news about Burkle could have a domino effect. The new Railyards stadium was set to host the semifinals and finals of the NCAA college men’s cup in 2024 and women’s in 2025. The Railyards project was also viewed as something that would give the economy of downtown Sacramento a huge boost — similar to when Golden 1 Center was built in 2016.
“Not fine with it at all,” Sac Republic fan Peter Halloran said on Twitter. “The new stadium would have been a huge positive change for downtown. We need to get MLS done before that hole gets filled with something boring and less impactful. But if Burkle was not committed and would rather put his money in Neverland Ranch we should move forward with someone committed to the team.”
It’s unclear whether this news will impact an NWSL expansion franchise coming to Sacramento. In January, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird confirmed the expansion franchise would join the league in 2022. In preparation for the move, Sacramento reportedly hired former women’s national team coach Jill Ellis for a front-office role for Sacramento’s NWSL team. According to reports, it was also in the plan for Ellis to assist with Sacramento’s MLS team.
There is still hope and optimism that a new lead investor could be found. In a statement Friday, Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg said, “We will still bring MLS to Sacramento, and we will work with the league to find a new lead investor…. We have an approved stadium plan and an approved plan to build and pay for infrastructure. We also have the best fan base in the country – one that has shown time and time again that it can support an MLS team.”
Sac Republic FC Chairman and CEO Kevin Nagle added in a statment, “My partners and I are committed as ever to bring MLS to Sacramento, which this city and fans deserve. When one door closes, another opens.”