Lovely Raley Field was packed Thursday night as it has been so many times for Triple-A baseball. But this time, throngs filled the yard in West Sacramento for soccer – a sport ready to be embraced fully by the Sacramento region.
Proof of this filled the Raley Field galleries and spilled over into the grassy berms where fans watched two international teams play "the beautiful game" in the shadow of the Tower Bridge and Sacramento skyline.
An announced crowd of 14,014 – a sellout – turned out to watch Norwich City of the English Premier League beat Dorados de Sinaloa of Mexico 3-0. It was a remarkable show of fan interest for soccer, given a modest advertising campaign to promote an exhibition game.
Imagine the crowds if Sacramento had its own Major League Soccer team to support.
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It's a dream waiting to happen.
Already, the signs are good.
Warren Smith, the president of Sacramento Pro Soccer, has made all the right moves to set the stage for MLS in Sacramento.
First, Smith had the connections to bring an English Premier League team to a city without an MLS team or proper soccer stadium. Smith aligned himself with the right people with connections to land Norwich City, not a glamour team but a legitimate one more than holding its own in one of the elite soccer leagues in the world.
Smith, a former River Cats executive, will run a USL Pro soccer team, which is the equivalent of a Triple-A baseball team, in Sacramento next year.
He's hired a name coach in Preki, an MLS legend and former goal scorer for the U.S. National team. On Thursday, Smith unveiled the name for his USL Pro team: The Sacramento Republic FC.
The logo is a beautiful team crest with a star, the California bear and Latin words signifying "Indomitable City." The word Republic fits the capital of California and speaks to a community "from all walks of life, colors, ethnicities and creeds coming together as one," according to the team.
The name and logo are meant to rally the Sacramento community and signify the ascension of a soccer community behind one team and one shield.
Smith designed a crest that could one day jump from the minor leagues to MLS. Everything about the Sacramento Republic is with MLS in mind.
Before Thursday's game, Smith estimated that he could build on enthusiasm from the Norwich-Dorados match to sell Republic tickets. If the Republic can put butts in the seats at Hughes Stadium next year, it will help Smith in his quest to develop a stadium plan for Sacramento.
With any luck, an MLS team can be secured in three to five years – time enough to figure out how to finance a stadium and attract more equity partners.
The interest is there. On Thursday, a festive crowd watched an EPL team and Mexican second-division team play two vastly different styles of the game.
Norwich was the more physical, befitting the bruising EPL. Dorados played a speed game and created the initial chances.
In a month, Norwich will begin its season against Manchester United and other titans of world soccer. Its match Thursday was the first step in that campaign.
But here in Sacramento, it was a first step of a broader campaign to become an MLS city.
"If you look at the region and all the kids that play – and guys like me that used to play and want to see a good game – I think (MLS) is very possible," Greg Gumnor of Sacramento said.
The campaign starts now.