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Soccer newsletter: Sacramento Republic’s future is very much in doubt

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer and we start today in Sacramento, where the Republic’s bid to join MLS was scrapped last month when billionaire businessman Ron Burkle, the team’s chief financial backer, abruptly pulled out.

That has left the Republic’s MLS future very much in doubt.

The franchise already has a team, which is beginning its eighth season in the second-tier USL Championship, and plans for a handsome soccer-specific stadium in the city’s railyard district have been approved. What the team doesn’t have is a signature on the formal expansion agreement with the league nor the money to fund stadium construction or pay the $200 million MLS expansion fee.

Getting those things is Todd Dunivant’s job. The former MLS defender, who won five MLS Cups – four with the Galaxy and one with the San Jose Earthquakes – was promoted to president of the Republic two weeks ago and tasked with getting the expansion project back on track. And he’s taking the challenge as seriously as he did any game.

“Our timeline is just urgency,” he said. “We’re trying to get new investors because we’re ready. There’s already been a lot of work done on the stadium site in terms of clearing the land, the approvals, the environmental goals. All of that is done so we’re ready to go. We’re working with a sense of urgency to find that investor.”

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MLS awarded Sacramento the rights to an expansion franchise in October 2019, 10 months after Burkle came on board as the major money man. But the Pomona-born private-investment firm partner, who also is part owner of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, walked away in late February due to “issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to an MLS statement.

People close to the league and the Republic privately say Burkle walked away because of spiraling construction costs for the stadium project, which has increased from $252 million to nearly $400 million (a number that, while reported, is considered by some to be inflated). Much of that increase was caused by foot dragging on the part of the investor group and by ordered modifications to the stadium design.

Either way, with the unpaid expansion fee and the increasing stadium costs, Burkle was left facing a bill of nearly $600 million. And that’s before the team signs any players or coaches.

Burkle also was the lead investor for an expansion NWSL franchise in Sacramento, which was scheduled to share Railyards Stadium with the MLS team. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird confirmed in January that Sacramento would enter the league in 2022 alongside Angel City FC, and the team reportedly has paid its expansion fee. But two months later there has been no announcement from the ownership group regarding the team or where it would play and the stadium project, which is shovel-ready, remains in limbo.

“We’re in contact with NWSL and the commissioner’s office about what’s next for Sacramento expansion,” a club spokesman said Monday. “To bring NWSL to Sacramento, our city needs a world-class venue worthy of the best female footballers on the planet.”

In the meantime Sacramento’s bid to join MLS, which developed during a nine-year courtship between the league and the city, has been placed on indefinite hold and the Republic’s logo has been removed from the league website.

Dunivant, who as the Republic’s general manager also remains in charge of the team’s soccer decisions, said he’s received calls from prospective investors. Sacramento, with a metro population of 2.5 million people, is the second-largest market in the nation with only one top-tier professional sports team, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. It’s also the nation’s 20th-largest TV market and among the fastest-growing of California’s major cities.

And, Dunivant said, it deserves another big-league team to cheer.

“There’s a void there,” he said. “Sacramento Republic fills that void at the USL level and are absolutely poised to fill it at the MLS level.”

Don’t bet against that happening. Sacramento’s city motto is Urbs indomita, Latin for Indomitable City, a slogan that also appears on the Republic’s crest.

“I’ve never backed down from challenges. This city has never backed down from challenges,” Dunivant said. “We’re sort of built for this.

“Anything that’s in the way, we’re ready for it.”

In fact, this is exactly the kind of challenge the 40-year-old Dunivant has been preparing for his entire life. He excelled on the field and in the classroom at Stanford, where he led the Cardinal to the 2002 NCAA final while becoming the only player in the nation named to both the All-American and Academic All-America first teams. He graduated with a 3.33 grade-point average and a degree in economics.

As a pro, only former teammate Landon Donovan won more MLS titles than Dunivant and just 16 defenders in league history played more minutes. He also made a lot of connections and learned a lot about the business side of the game during a 13-year career during which he had a leading role with the players union and closely watched general managers such as Bruce Arena and executives like Tim Leiweke and Chris Klein.

“You see former players that went on to be part of the organization and be really involved,” said Dunivant, who was among the steadiest and most popular players in Galaxy history. “It was helpful for me to just get little bits of advice and words of wisdom.”

He put that to immediate use as director of soccer operations and business development for the San Francisco Deltas, who won the 2017 NASL title in their first year, then disbanded 12 days afterward.

Two months later, Dunivant was named general manager of the Republic. But he didn’t lose his competitiveness nor his love for the game in the move from the field to the front office. Both traits – passion and persistence – likely will serve him well in this latest task.

“I know this club incredibly well and believe in its mission and the things that we do every single day,” Dunivant said. “I’ve been really impressed with the response of our fans, of our civic leaders, of the business community, of really everyone involved here on the ground.

“Sacramento has been through this throughout its history … and come out stronger on the other side. So in a lot of ways we were built for this.”

Designated down time?

MLS commissioner Don Garber said his league, which is heavily dependent on game-day revenue, took a nearly $1 billion hit in 2020, when COVID-19 forced MLS to play the majority of its games in empty stadiums. And that is reflected in designated-player signings this winter.

Just four new DP’s have signed ahead of the 2021 season. At the same point in the preseason last year 19 new DP’s had been signed. Soccer America reported clubs have made up for that by signing 33 homegrown players through the first week in March, a jump from 20 last season.

There are a number of conclusions one can draw from those numbers. Homegrown players are much cheaper, of course, so with the coronavirus and the protracted collective bargaining talks with the union clouding the financial picture this winter, it’s likely few teams were willing to make large financial commitments.

There’s also the league’s new Under-22 initiative, which allows teams to acquire players 22 and under and pay them up to the maximum budget charge of $612,500, but no more than $200,000 of that will count against a team’s salary cap. That’s about a third the size of the budget hit for a traditional DP.

The lack of designated-player spending also may be a reflection of teams turning more to their internal player-development systems. The next test of whether this was just a blip or fundamental change in strategy could come in the summer transfer window. If COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted and stadiums fill to near capacity, spending on DPs could pick up. Teams also can restructure contract to change DP status up until roster compliance.

There has been some money spent this winter, with FC Cincinnati investing $13 million – the third-largest transfer fee in MLS history – on Brenner, a 21-year-old Brazilian striker. Some of that money will come from the team’s move into West End Stadium, it’s new soccer-specific home.

Austin FC, an expansion club which will also open a new stadium this season, paid $2.5 million in transfer fees for its second DP, Argentine midfielder Tomas Pochettino. The club’s first DP, winger Cecilio Dominguez, signed last year, then played with Paraguayan club Guarani on loan.

The fourth new DP is Argentina midfielder Marcelino Moreno, who signed with Atlanta United last fall and played six games in MLS in 2020. He’s currently listed as a designated player but there is talk his salary may be brought down with allocation money.

How an earlier pandemic impacted Spanish soccer

Every story has a soccer angle, provided you look hard enough. So here’s a pandemic-related one from the British publication FourFourTwo involving Real Madrid, which has advanced to the knockout round of the Champions League seeking a 14th title, twice as many as any other club.

And by pandemic-related, we’re not talking about COVID-19 but the “Spanish” flu pandemic of 1918, 16 years after Real Madrid was founded as the Madrid Football Club.

Many of the world’s powers – Germany, France, England, the U.S., and Russia – were fighting in World War I when the virus hit, so they downplayed the crisis to maintain morale. But in Spain, which was not involved in the war, the press reported extensively on the virus.

As a result, Spain appeared especially hard-hit by the disease and it wound up being called the Spanish flu despite the fact the first known case was traced to a military base in Kansas.

Among those infected was Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, who was said to be gravely ill. When he recovered, Spanish authorities launched a campaign to encourage exercise, according to FourFourTwo, and a priority was placed on sport. As part of that campaign, the king placed the royal designation Real on Madrid FC, as had earlier been done with Betis, Espanyol, Sociedad and La Coruña.

The title later was given to Celta de Vigo, Mallorca and Zaragoza and eventually came to influence the naming of an MLS expansion team in Salt Lake City.

Maybe none of that happens with the so-called Spanish flu.

And finally there’s this…..

Road teams have won more than a third of the English Premier League matches that have been played without fans this season, up 20% from previous seasons with fans present, according to data compiled by the sports data-tracking group Sportmonks. The group said its research of games played between June 2020 and January 2021, compared with games played in the previous four seasons, indicated officials are more balanced without the influence of partisan crowds and have handed out 16% fewer yellow cards … Yunus Musah, an 18-year-old midfielder eligible to play internationally for England, Ghana, Italy and the United States, has chosen to represent the U.S. Musah, who has made 24 appearances this season for Valencia in Spain’s La Liga, played for the U.S. in two friendlies last November and is expected to rejoin the team for upcoming friendlies against Jamaica and Northern Ireland later this month … With weekend wins over Colorado and Utah last week, UCLA’s women are a perfect 8-0-0 … South America’s marathon World Cup qualifying tournament could be played in neutral sites in Europe under a plan currently being studied. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions between Europe and South America, FIFA has given European clubs the right to decline national team call-ups for its players. As a result, all of March’s scheduled qualifiers were cancelled. If the next qualifiers in June are postponed, it could mean the final seven rounds of the qualifying tournament might not be finished in time for next year’s World Cup in Qatar.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Quotebook

“There’s no player in the world who hasn’t been raised listening to stories about [Pele’s] games, his goals and his achievements and I’m no exception. For that reason, I’m filled with joy and pride as I acknowledge the goal that puts me on top of the world’s goalscoring list.”

Cristiano Ronaldo, writing on Instagram, after his hat trick for Juventus on Sunday gave him 770 career goals for club and country, moving him past Pele’s 767 official goals. Pele, who, claims to have scored more than 1,000 times including unofficial matches, offered Ronaldo warm congratulations

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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