Professional soccer in the United States continues its impressive growth year after year. A year ago, during halftime of MLS Cup, commissioner Don Garber revealed that Major League Soccer, currently at 19 teams, would expand to 24 clubs by the end of the decade. In short order, those 5 available spots in America's top-tier professional soccer league have nearly all been accounted for.
Back in the summer, the long-rumored second New York team in MLS was confirmed as the 20th club and will begin play in 2015. Just this month, MLS announced that Orlando City SC would also join the league in 2015 as team #21. David Beckham's bid to bring a team to Miami is still on course and Arthur Blank's Atlanta prospects remain strong to secure a third team for the once barren Southeastern corner of the country. Simple math indicates that for Garber's plan to be realized, only one more franchise needs to be added.
And that is what the ownership group of new USL PRO side the Sacramento Republic FC are aiming to be. In a detailed article breaking down the formation of the Republic and outlining their MLS ambitions, the Sacramento Bee paints a picture of a team that is long on dreams but somewhat short on reality. The Republic will play its very first game this March at a still-to-be-built stadium at Cal Expo in the California capital and, like fellow USL PRO side Orlando City, has a goal of kicking off its first MLS game three years later.
In the meantime, the Republic FC will look to align itself with MLS through the newly formed USL PRO/ MLS affiliate program. Initiated this past January and featuring four affiliations in its first year, the partnership between the third and first tier professional leagues is intended to provide improved visibility for the former and player development opportunities for the latter. In 2013 the four affiliations were between Sporting Kansas City, the New England Revolution, DC United, and the Philadelphia Union and USL PRO teams in Orlando, Rochester, Richmond, and Harrisburg respectively. By virtually all measures, the partnership was a rousing success.
When the new Sacramento franchise was announced earlier this year, the immediate conjecture was that it would quickly align itself with the San Jose Earthquakes. Separated by a mere 2 hour drive along Interstates 80 and 680 (off-peak traveling times, obviously), the two clubs make a logical pairing as part of the USL PRO/MLS partnership. Loaning Earthquakes reserve players to the Republic would involve little logistic challenge and even allow supporters of both clubs to watch them play live.
However, it has recently become clear that the two organizations are not destined to partner. In the Sacramento Bee earlier this month, a potential partnership with the Portland Timbers was reported as being very close. In the recent detailed account of the Republic's MLS ambitions in the Bee, the prior work of the Republic's leadership in keeping alive the pre-MLS Timbers in the mid 2000's was mentioned as a strong connection between the two organizations. A Timbers' partnership with Sacramento makes sense for the MLS side as it would be able to tap into the fertile central valley soccer scene for player identification and development.
Nothing has been announced by either Portland or Sacramento, but a partnership between the two will certainly be a blow for San Jose. Sacramento falls outside the 75-mile radius geographical zone reserved for the Earthquakes academy, and prospective players from the California capital region could be scooped up more readily by the rival Timbers. The previous relationship between the Timbers and the Republic leadership team likely precluded San Jose's involvement with the new USL PRO side, but it still looks unfavorable to have the Portland incursion in its own back yard.
Meanwhile, the Earthquakes have not made any news regarding their interest in the USL PRO/MLS partnership. The Quakes will field a team in the PDL starting in 2014, though details of where the team will be located have yet to be announced. The PDL will provide a good link between the Earthquakes youth academy program and the first team, but it will not be a destination for the current reserve players to increase their development and playing time. Still, it is a first step in the right direction in increasing the club's footprint outside of San Jose.
Should the Earthquakes be concerned that the Timbers are poised to set up shop in Sacramento? In the short term, perhaps, but the Quakes can certainly keep pace with Portland with a USL PRO/MLS partnership (to be determined) of their own.