It isn’t quite a rivalry yet, but the Earthquakes’ 2-1 win over Republic FC in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match Wednesday night at Kezar Stadium showed what might be in store for professional soccer in Northern California.
In their third incarnation, the Earthquakes are an established Major League Soccer franchise that has battled the ebbs and flows through the years of a Bay Area market saturated with pro and major college sports.
Republic FC is an upstart minor-league expansion team in a pro-franchise-starved market that has taken American soccer by storm, drawing MLS-type crowds averaging nearly 20,000 through its first four home matches at Hughes Stadium.
Republic FC hopes to share the Northern California pro soccer market with the Earthquakes, a team they are outdrawing nearly 2-to-1.
So while some jealousy and a little trepidation might be expected, Earthquakes officials see Republic FC’s sizzle as a win for them, too.
“We’re very excited to see the success the team has had on and off the pitch,” said Dave Kaval, the Earthquakes’ president. “It shows the growing interest for our sport and solidifies the relationship between our clubs.”
The Earthquakes have an affiliation with Republic FC and loaned the team forwards Mike Fucito and Adam Jahn and goalkeeper Billy Knutsen earlier in the season, though all are currently with their parent team.
“For us, it’s a valuable relationship because it’s close, so we can easily send players back and forth,” Kaval said. “We have some natural connections, some marketing connections. We see it as a big positive.”
Having MLS players participate not only enhances Republic FC’s on-field reputation (they also have players on loan from the Portland Timbers), it helps the Earthquakes maintain their brand in the Sacramento market, where, Kaval said, they have an established foothold.
Despite that, Kaval doesn’t see a conflict with Republic FC wanting to become an MLS team.
“I think Sacramento is a distinct market,” Kaval said. “I could see a derby (inner-area rivalry) between the clubs. But as a stakeholder with MLS, any new team has to show a recipe for success. Right now a lot of cities want into MLS. But if they continue to grow in an appropriate way, Sacramento would be part of that.”
Republic FC technical director Graham Smith said a rivalry between the clubs makes sense.
“I honestly think that a healthy rivalry in football is necessary,” Smith said. “The fans need it; the players need it. Dave’s a sensible guy. He knows if we execute, it’s going to be to his advantage. He knows at least two of his games are going to get a full stadium when Sacramento comes to town.”
Just as Republic FC has established a rivalry with the first-year LA Galaxy II, San Jose has had a longstanding rivalry with the Galaxy, perhaps the best in MLS. Their annual California Classico matchup at Stanford has drawn sellouts of 50,000-plus the last two seasons.
It’s one of a handful of off-site events that help the Earthquakes’ attendance, which ranks among the lowest in MLS because they play at 10,500-seat Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara. That will change next year when the Earthquakes move into their new $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium in San Jose.
While the Earthquakes will move to a larger stadium, Republic FC is downsizing by going from Hughes to the soccer-friendly, temporary 8,000-seat Bonney Field at Cal Expo while plans continue to build a permanent stadium.
Kaval said Bonney Field is a better facility for their affiliation. They want the players they loan to Republic FC to play on grass.
“I’m excited to see one of their first matches up there,” Kaval said.