In the 1860s and ‘70s, when Sacramento was still in its infancy, the city decided to rise above. After several floods and fires decimated the gold-mining town, it made the bold choice to truck in tons of dirt and earth to lift the street level several feet in order to protect it from future floods and allow it to survive. It’s that determination to survive and thrive that earned the name, the Indomitable City.
The city has another bold plan, this time, to lift its current soccer team, Sacramento Republic FC, to Major League Soccer, and if it’s current demonstration of pride, passion, and great soccer is any indication of what they can do in MLS, then it will be magic.
Sacramento is often a forgotten city in California. The state capital, just a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, and 2 hours from Lake Tahoe, is dwarfed by the glitz of Los Angeles, the trendiness of San Francisco, or the beaches of San Diego. However, the city of 2 million is thriving with trendy downtown districts and tech startups.
“We’re not San Fran, we’re not LA and we’re okay with that. We love the city the way it is, it’s growing, changing, it’s evolving, and we’re excited for what is to come,” said Juan Aguayo, a member of Sacramento Republic’s independent supporters group, the Tower Bridge Battalion.
“It really is sort of a hidden entity,” said Evan Ream, Sacramento Republic beat writer for the Davis Enterprise. “It’s a lot like Portland. People just don’t know about it. But for the people that do live here, they realize that there are a lot of great things here, and there are a lot worse places to live.”
But the one thing the city is lacking is a strong professional sports culture. Sacramento is home to only one professional sports team, the Sacramento Kings, a notoriously poorly-run NBA franchise that is languishing in the basement of the Western Conference, and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006. Add in a minor league baseball team, the Sacramento River Cats, that works as a one night diversion, but not a lifelong passion, and you have a void, with an opportunity to build something special.
Seizing on that void was Sacramento Republic FC.
It’s April 2nd, 2016, Sacramento’s home opener against Arizona United SC and Bonney Field is packed. The atmosphere is so full and feels so essential that you’d think that the city couldn’t exist, couldn’t breathe without the passion, happiness and noise emanating from Sacramento’s east side. The game was the team’s 27th consecutive sellout, and it’s biggest-ever turnout at Bonney Field. While those numbers are impressive, the home opener wasn’t the culmination, but rather another step on what has been a whirlwind existence for the club.
When it was announced in 2013 that a Sacramento franchise would be joining the USL, the city already had a strong soccer history. Several professional indoor and outdoor teams flourished over the years, including the Sacramento Knights, a member of the Continental Indoor Soccer League, which never averaged less than 5,000 fans in its nine-season existence. But what made the Republic resonate was an inspired and enthusiastic front office which matched the passion of the fans.
“From Day 1, they’ve been active and engaging the community in Sacramento,” said Josh Beeman, the editor of Indomitable City Soccer. “There’s a big soccer community in Sacramento, and they tapped into that. They did it well, so the community really flocked to them.”
“The Republic came into a sports market that had room to grow, and sort of did everything right,” Ream said.
Led by MLS legend Preki the team took the USL by storm in its first season, winning the USL championship. In the stands, fans were setting, then smashing attendance records. The club’s first home match in 2014 drew 20,231 fans, nearly doubling the USL Pro regular season single game attendance record, and led the league in average attendance in each of the past two seasons.
Now, with head coach Paul Buckle and several California natives on the squad, the team is off to a 2-1-0 record. Not satisfied with the present, the club is looking towards its future and has started mining the deep pool of talent in the Central Valley, which produced MLS talent like Amobi Okugo and Adam Jahn.
“They’re one of 3 USL teams to have an academy, which is pretty forward-thinking,” Ream said “The goals is, once they’re in MLS, they already have guys coming up. Sacramento is a hotbed for youth soccer. For a long time, there were six different clubs who were producing players but weren’t really unified. Sacramento Republic was able to unify the 6 clubs and have a partnership with them all, so now they’re getting all of the best players in the Sacramento area. Most MLS teams wouldn’t have thought of something like that in their third year.”
With such an upward trajectory and solid foundation, the next progression for the team, fans and city is to join Major League Soccer, which will take a major step towards becoming a reality when MLS commissioner Don Garber visits the city today.
While many cities are vocal about their desire for an MLS team, few have not only vocalized their ambitions and desires, but taken huge, visible steps as both a fan base and organization, to show their preparedness and desire. Along with cities like San Antonio and St. Louis, Sacramento have forced their way into the MLS expansion conversation.
In order to be seriously considered for an MLS franchise, a city must demonstrate several key traits: a dedicated fan base, strong investors and a solid stadium plan. The Republic’s consistent sellouts and strong ownership group, which includes several Sacramento natives and the San Francisco 49ers, are impressive feats on their own. But what sets them apart is the stadium. The club has already released renderings, which include a designated supporter section and entrance, a standing section above the supporters, and key supporter features like pulley systems to unveil tifos.
“We’re in a location that’s in a terrific part of Sacramento, the Railyards, which is a perfect location for it, close to transportation,” said Kevin Nagle, team owner. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of pre-design on it, through a process called Operation Turnkey, which was to move us into a phase right before building the stadium itself. But we’ve now gone beyond that. We’re in the process of selecting who our builder would be. But we’ve selected our architect. We’ve moved into a place right so that, if MLS had to make some decisions quickly, we could act quickly.”
There is a midday block party and a grassroots campaign to encourage as many people as possible to rep Sacramento Republic gear during the Commissioner’s stay, and the Tower Bridge Battalion have plans to demonstrate the cities’ passion for the game, just as they did in 2014 when Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott visited the city.
“We met him at the airport, we interrupted his dinner, there was a rally that night,” said Aguayo. “It was really the whole Sacramento community that showed up for that event, and we expect the same for the Commissioner’s visit.”
However, no matter what happens with Garber’s visit, the culture and the fan base is here to stay.
“Our number one priority is to always support the team,” said Aguayo. “We love the idea of MLS coming to Sacramento, but that’s not our number one focus. Our focus is on the current season, the team that we have, the players that we have, and creating the atmosphere that we love.”