Over the last month or so, rumors have been flying that the Portland Timbers have secured an affiliation with the newly formed USL team Sacramento Republic. While it has yet to be confirmed, recent reports suggest that it is almost a certainty at this point in time. In most quarters, this news has been met with interest, but isn't seen as having much of an impact on the team. But there are some interesting politics surrounding this announcement, and I think that its importance may have been overlooked.
The Sacramento Republic is one of a generation of lower level teams hoping to follow the path that Portland and Vancouver pioneered, and that Orlando seems to have paved and mapped. Start a lower level club, grow the fan support to 5 figure levels, and then find enough outside investment to afford a stadium and an MLS franchising fee. This is a particularly popular business plan for small market teams such as Sacramento and Indianapolis, cities with metro areas of around 2 million, who don't have the instant pull of areas like Atlanta and Miami. Only, I'm not so sure that this type of business model will continue to be successful into the near future. With the recent bout of expansion, MLS doesn't necessarily lack for enthusiasm in the stands. Looking at the history of MLS expansion since 2007 or so, the addition of places like Portland and Orlando look like brief aberrations in a slow march to cover major US and Canadian markets. In the future, MLS expansion is going to become less and less about fan support, and more about geographical and TV coverage, particularly as old-school MLS teams like Sporting Kansas City can rebrand and reinvigorate their support. MLS suffered from an enthusiasm gap when this phase of expansion began. That gap is slowly closing, and soon lower league fan support will not be as great of a deciding factor as it has been in recent years.
Sacramento is in a particularly poor position here. Republic president Warren Smith has stated that his goal is to get Sacramento into MLS by 2016. They seem to view this Portland affiliation as a relatively short-term deal. But odds are good that it will be a considerably more long term partnership. As an expansion city, Sacramento does have a few things going for it. It has little sports competition, particularly for a city of its size. And the Far West (and West in general) has embraced soccer with an enthusiasm that eastern teams just haven't been able to muster. Sacramento's TV market is a good bit higher than its raw population numbers. But compared to its competition, Sacramento is probably about fourth in line. Minnesota United just announced plans to shop for a stadium site, which would immediately make them one of the top expansion candidates in the country. The Minneapolis metro area is about the size of Seattle, and is one of the largest remaining uncovered MLS markets. They are a city that has something of a golden ticket if they announce a credible plan. San Antonio has massive fan support already, and combined with the Austin metro area, can claim a market of over 4 million people. And Indianapolis 11, another team following the Orlando City FC model, has sold more season tickets than some MLS franchises, and looks like they would easily eclipse a Sacramento bid.
Going four-six years down the line, I'm not sure their prospects become any better. You're going to start seeing US soccer meccas like St. Louis and San Diego get their acts together. Detroit and Phoenix are too large of markets for MLS to ignore. North Carolina will eventually be a sure fire addition. And places like Pittsburgh and Las Vegas will start to come into play as well. So now, we're looking at a much more long term affiliation with Sacramento. But if you're just a little bit cynical, there's a very strong possibility that Sacramento never makes MLS. Is that a bold prediction? Try this experiment: add teams to MLS until you've reached 32. Use wikipedia's list of cities by core-based statistical areas. This is what I get:
24. San Antonio
27. St. Louis
30. San Diego
Who do you knock off that list in favor of Sacramento? Even without a Pittsburgh or an Indianapolis, Sacramento is still competing with a bunch of other cities for that replacement spot: Las Vegas, Baltimore, Tampa, maybe Nashville, maybe even another Canadian city once we're 10-15 years down the line. And Sacramento isn't even adding a market currently unserved by MLS, it's cannibalizing a portion of the San Jose Earthquake's existing market. That is going to be a major strike against them every time they come up against a team in a state without MLS. I don't see any room for Sacramento in MLS, and that's with a 32-team league, something a lot of people think is at least 8 teams too many.
So why is this a big deal for Portland? In a word, youth development. Everyone agrees that the MLS academies are the future of soccer in the United States, and they will eventually supplant the Superdraft as the primary method for acquiring American talent. Which is all well and good for FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy, but for cities like Portland, with a relatively small metro area and a not much larger population base from the greater state, a future where the academies provide most of the talent is a future where the Timbers are at a significant disadvantage from the get go. Garth Lagerway made waves a couple months back when he stated as much in an interview with MLSSoccer.com. Even against small market teams, the Timbers come in at a pretty serious disadvantage, since there just aren't many population centers anywhere nearby that the Timbers can utilize to bring their numbers up to par. The Columbus Crew may be a small market team, but it's ability to develop all of Ohio means that it has access to 11.5 million people. Timbers fans talk about doing some youth development in Boise, but that's hardly more of a boost than the academy affiliations the Timbers have set up with Eugene. Even going further afield, a lot of territory has already been claimed by MLS 1.0 teams, even in regions that don't have MLS teams. The Chicago Fire does development in Mississippi, and Real Salt Lake has claimed Arizona for its own.
But if the Sacramento affiliation turns into a long term, or even a permanent deal, then the Timbers could set up an academy in conjunction with Sacramento, and gain access to a population base almost as large as their own. In fact, there's already a Sacramento team playing in the US Soccer developmental league, the San Juan soccer club. Adding Sacramento to their home territory doesn't necessarily close the gap with the Dallas or Red Bull academies, but it gets Portland out of the population basement.
This conceivably brings Portland into conflict with San Jose's youth development territory. But there's an interesting wrinkle here. It's not entirely certain where San Jose's home territory ends. Depending on the definition, Sacramento could lie outside the boundary. Furthermore, San Jose's academy efforts have been fairly unenthusiastic, and the Earthquakes have famously ignored even US U-20 talents from Northern California. San Jose might not even protest the Timbers in Sacramento even if they thought they had a case. Sacramento and the Bay Area combined have about 9.5 million people. Even without Sacramento, it's still one of the largest population bases in MLS.
Map of existing San Jose home territory, and territory when the new Earthquakes stadium is built. Like all MLS rules, none of this is certain. h/t casports.org.
If all this wild speculation is correct, the Timbers would make a move after the 24th team is announced. Assuming Sacramento continues to be a USL team, Portland would suggest that they help establish a Sacramento academy with some complicated agreement about claiming Sacramento players as homegrowns, rights which would pass back to Sacramento if they were accepted into MLS. The initial academy would not be particularly complicated. Most likely it would be an integration of the existing US development team with some additional support and resources from Portland. If Sacramento continued to be passed over, the Timbers could begin to establish a more solid presence, contributing facilities and coaching, gradually integrating the academy team more closely into their own system.
Sacramento is an appealing affiliation because of its relative proximity to Portland. It's a very quick plane ride, and you could conceivably make a day trip by train. But in any case, I feel Portland needs to start casting its eyes further abroad for academy talent. Fresno is another Northern California city which is definitely outside of San Jose's range. And although it's not much bigger than Boise, it is known for producing some very good soccer players. Las Vegas is even further afield, but it's also a major city with almost no major soccer development and remains unclaimed by existing MLS teams. New Mexico also remains unclaimed, and it's proximity to the Mexican border means that the soccer talent there is a bit stronger than many places further North. I also think that the Timbers should look into doing some soccer development in Honolulu. Although Hawaii is too far away to integrate into the existing development leagues, the state tends to produce a disproportionate number of professional athletes in leagues like the NFL. Setting up a team in an existing Hawaiian league could bring the Timbers more players like Bobby Wood, a native Hawiian currently playing for 1860 Munich.
This is, of course, all complete speculation, and I have no particular insight into soccer development, or Timbers infrastructure moves in general. But it's a topic that continues to fascinate me, and one that I hope the Timbers will pursue aggressively once the home Academy in Portland is running at full strength.