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916 & Heartbreak: Sacramento fans left holding bag on MLS quest

Keep dreaming, or not, can’t really blame you either way.

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Sunderland v Sacramento - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The thing is, this isn’t even new for Sacramento.

On Friday, the city learned that their soccer team, Sacramento Republic, was suddenly no longer going to join MLS as an expansion team in 2023, after the lead investor, billionaire Ron Burkle, pulled out with a phone call to Commissioner Don Garber at around 2 pm PT. Instead of MLS dropping the bad news in a “Friday news dump” to try and avoid as much negative press as possible, it appears Burkle got that ball rolling himself and the league worked quickly to get the news ready for the world.

While the MLS release is very carefully worded, so as to keep the possibility of Sacramento entering the league at some point open while also announcing to the world the process of finding a 30th expansion team has suddenly re-opened, the real losers in all of this? Sacramento fans, of course.

I think this would be a terrible blow for any city, obviously, but the context of Sacramento makes it even more galling. After Republic FC blew the doors off the USL when they launched in 2014, winning the league title in their debut season and bringing unprecedented attendance numbers to the then-third tier of American men’s pro soccer, the club didn’t hide its aspirations to one day join the top flight, and Garber teased the local community more than once by hinting that the day would come, someday, for Sactown.

In the meantime, nine MLS expansion teams have entered or are on the cusp this year of entering the league and beginning play, three of those teams coming from USL ahead of Sacramento.

That’s hard enough.

Then, add insult to injury. MLS announces in 2019 that the team is coming! Burkle is the lead investor, grab the shovels and let’s celebrate, it’s all happening!

Except behind the scenes, it apparently wasn’t. With Sac Republic existing throughout but under different ownership in the now-USL Championship, the MLS bid remained at a strange distance with Burkle the point person of that effort. After participating in the public celebration announcing the MLS expansion team, he disappeared from view and to my knowledge hasn’t been in the spotlight since related to Sacramento and MLS.

In the meantime, Burkle reportedly didn’t pay a dime of the expansion fee or sign the final contracts with the league, the club dragged its feet on starting construction for the new stadium for the MLS team due to costs and still haven’t fully started the project, even with all approvals complete, the club decided to hold off for a year and enter a year later than previously announced, and now, actually, it’s all off, possibly for good. Essentially for about a year and a half, we were all led to believe this was a done deal, but it was effectively a charade.

It’s unclear if this limbo period is common among billionaires who need to move assets around and Burkle took advantage of a grace period to get his house in order to move ahead until he ultimately ghosted them, or if MLS jumped the gun in announcing the deal with no contracts locked in and financial commitment made up front.

But if you’re from Sacramento, you can’t forget the saga of the Sacramento Kings, the NBA franchise that had seen some highs and many lows over the years, but had a committed fanbase locally. When the Maloofs nearly sold the team to Chris Hansen in 2013, who had plans to move the team to Seattle, the loyalty and commitment of Sacramento shined through and they successfully fought off the relocation effort. It is one of a very, very few efforts in American pro sports history where the will of the wealthy team owner class was successfully thwarted by the local community in a relocation effort.

While it’s possible Sacramento Republic can survive as a USL Championship team for the foreseeable future if MLS expansion ultimately fails for the city, there’s a de facto symbolic relocation effort taking place right now. Once again, the fans and the city has to prove that it “belongs” in the top flight, as a market and as a club, a seemingly unending saga. They can do everything right and if the right rich person or people don’t come along, it’s a failure. Maybe the 11th hour rescue can only happen once, and in that case, it’s already happened with the Kings.

So yes, there is still hope that Sacramento can get it together, find a rich person or persons who will actually pony up the cash, and take Sactown to MLS. But as the dread sets in locally, folks around the country are writing off Sacramento again. Maybe MLS is, too, and they’re just letting the city down gently. Either way, the promise hasn’t yet been fulfilled and Sacramento soccer fans may be left holding the empty bag. This time it might be for good. And it’s all pretty rotten.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.