Earning Sacramento a spot in Major League Soccer took years, and UC Davis alumni were working on the effort the entire time.
“This was a five-year journey with some ups and downs,” Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, J.D. ’84, said during the Oct. 21 press conference announcing Sacramento’s future in the nation’s top soccer league. “The ‘wouldn’t it be great if’ era in Sacramento is over. Today we are finally crossing the tipping point — we are a major league city in every way.”
The change amounts to much more than a bigger league for the city’s soccer team. A move to Major League Soccer, or MLS, will come with a new, 21,000-seat stadium — and that stadium will be a cornerstone to a major downtown expansion.
The Railyards, a long-vacant 240-acre area just north of downtown Sacramento, will serve as home for the new stadium, as well as a surrounding entertainment district, an 18-acre Kaiser Permanente hospital campus, a county courthouse, and office and housing projects slated to start construction next year. The Railyards could eventually hold 10,000 residential housing units and is the largest infill development project in the country, developer and part-owner LDK Ventures says.
Just as it will serve as a key point of the Railyards development, the stadium has been a crucial part of the five-year battle to earn a spot in MLS for the city’s United Soccer League team, Sacramento Republic FC.
Warren Smith, who attended UC Davis in the 1980s, co-founded the team and served as its president until last year. He was beating the drum for a local expansion team in MLS before Sacramento Republic FC had even played its first game.
“We’re bringing MLS to Sacramento,” then-Sacramento Bee sports editor Tom Couzins recalled Smith telling him in 2013, a year before the Republic FC’s first game.
But a number of cities were chosen to host new MLS teams before Sacramento, frustrating local fans each time: In December 2017, a group of Republic FC fans traveled to New York City to cheer on Steinberg and others making Sacramento’s case to MLS as one of four finalists. Later that month, Nashville was announced as the latest expansion team.
In October, Smith reflected on the long saga as Sacramento news was filled with reports that an MLS announcement was imminent.
“It was fun and a lot harder than anyone could ever imagine but the cool part was watching and stewarding the community come to life and fight as one,” Smith tweeted. “Sorry that I will not be in Sacramento to enjoy the fruits of the labor when they do play in [the] MLS, but life is funny that way.”
A key factor in Sacramento earning the team was the addition of a new ownership team, MLS commissioner Don Garber said at the October announcement. That ownership team will bear the full cost of the MLS development — no public money will go toward the stadium or team. The biggest name and lead investor is Pittsburg Penguins part-owner and private equity firm founder Ron Burkle, but the addition of Matt Alvarez ’94 — whose Hollywood credits include producer on Straight Outta Compton and several other Ice Cube films — also played a key role.
Alvarez said he and Burkle decided to get involved with MLS and were initially thinking about investing in a team in San Diego until the commissioner recommended Sacramento.
“It’s a great city that has a lot to offer a lot of different types of people,” Alvarez said by phone.
Alvarez said for now, he’s setting aside his work in film to focus on getting a stadium and team ready to start play in February 2022, but added that the two worlds are similar.
“It’s kind of like every game is the opening of a new movie,” he said. “Part of that is fielding a great soccer team and creating a great environment. … Whether it’s a movie or a soccer game you really want to make sure people are coming out feeling really good.”