Longtime soccer devotee Max Kenngott smiled as he looked out at the jam-packed stands and the frenetic action taking place on sun-drenched UC Davis pitch Sunday afternoon.
Republic FC, Sacramento’s new pro soccer team, was playing its first area exhibition game against the UC Davis soccer team in which the upstart Aggies produced a stunning 1-0 upset on Sam Hoeck’s header in the 65th minute.
Kenngott has coached youth soccer for 18 years, most recently as the junior varsity boys coach at El Camino High School. He watches televised soccer nearly every day and is a huge English Premier League fan.
Now he’s a convert of the Republic FC, a minor league team that has yet to play its first official match but already harbors grand ambitions of one day morphing into a Major League Soccer franchise.
“This is a fantastic thing for Sacramento,” Kenngott said. “There is no doubt in my mind that people are going to support this. I feel if they build that stadium at Cal Expo, they’re going to get a lot of sellouts. And then it will be a done deal. They’ll get MLS.”
It’s OK to think big.
Team officials say they have already sold nearly 4,800 season tickets and that they expect to draw a crowd of 20,000 for their home opener April 26 against the Harrisburg City Islanders at Hughes Staduim, the team’s temporary home until a yet-to-be-constructed 8,000 seat stadium is completed on the California State Fairgounds.
The team is a member of the United Soccer Leagues PRO, a third tier league that has 14 franchises spread across the country. While the players are largely unknowns, their coach, Predrag Radosavljevic – better known as “Preki” – is a former MLS star.
“Preki is going to do a fantastic job, and it’s going to be exciting times for us to go watch games,” said 17-year UC Davis soccer coach Dwayne Shaffer. “Soccer is so big in the United States now, and in the Sacramento region it’s huge. So to have a pro team in our back yard that is coached by a legend, they’ll do well.”
Republic FC forward Max Alvarez and UC Davis junior forward Matt Wiesenfarth grew up playing soccer in the area. Alvarez starred at Napa High, then at Sacramento State. Wiesenfarth was a standout at Jesuit High School.
Unlike some former area minor league pro teams from the long distant past, they see pro soccer establishing permanent roots.
“You can see this from the fan base that came out today,” said Wiesenfarth. “The cheering was (mostly) negative toward UC Davis, but you got to appreciate their spirit. This is just a preseason game against some college team. When we get that stadium built, I think we’ll have a big following and MLS will notice.”
Alvarez was disappointed to lose – the former Hornet saw it as another Causeway Cup rivalry match-up – but thinks the future is bright for Republic FC.
“I can already see how excited people are that we are here,” Alvarez said. “Growing up in Napa and playing at Sac State it was always a dream to one day be able to play as a pro. But now it I feel so blessed to do it here and with a team that I think is going to do some big things.”
Republic FC had dominated its previous college match-ups, including a 6-1 win over UC Santa Barbara and 6-0 win against Sac State, the Big West rivals of the Aggies.
Although Republic FC won the possession battle and Thomas Stewart barely missed wide on two attempts in the final three minutes, the Aggies made the game’s biggest plays.
While Hoeck’s goal off a cross by Eddie Manella won the match, reserve goalie John Piasta, a former UC Davis club cyclist, made the game’s biggest defensive stop.
In his first collegiate appearance, the 6-foot-5 junior blocked Rodrigo Lopez’ penalty kick just before the end of the first half. Moments before he replaced Armando Quezada, who had been whistled for a foul in the box on Republic star Justin Braun, a former MLS player.
“Props to him, a memory he’ll always have,” Shaffer said.