They are affiliates now who soon may become competitors.
But either way, Republic FC president and co-founder Warren Smith and San Jose Earthquakes president David Kaval believe the partnership between the soccer clubs will continue to help develop the sport in Northern California.
“They have done a great job in establishing the brand and the fan base and putting an exciting product on and off the pitch,” Kaval said of Republic FC, a third-year USL franchise that played the Earthquakes in a friendly Saturday at Bonney Field.
Smith said the Earthquakes have played a key role in helping Republic FC make a big splash in minor-league soccer while helping to smooth the way to possibly becoming a Major League Soccer team.
“They are a great organization, and they helped us in many ways beyond just the player relationships,” Smith said. “They are a model for us.”
The most immediate benefit of the affiliation for Republic FC has been the players on loan from the Earthquakes. The players, primarily forward Adam Jahn, played important roles in Republic FC’s USL championship in its inaugural season in 2014. While injuries and international call-ups prevented San Jose from making a bigger player commitment last season, late-season arrivals Tommy Thompson, J.J. Koval and Mark Sherrod helped Republic FC qualify for the playoffs.
San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear said he is committed to making the affiliation work better this season, and Republic FC coach Paul Buckle is keeping his roster lean initially in anticipation of the Earthquakes loaning players later this year.
But Kaval hinted the affiliation could change or even end with more MLS teams owning USL franchises. Two seasons ago, the Los Angeles Galaxy II was the USL’s only MLS-owned team. Now there are 11.
“The landscape has changed a lot in this period of time,” Kaval said. “We’re continuing to evaluate whether or not a partnership (with Republic FC) makes sense or whether or not we need more control on the technical side. For now, we’re getting what we need out of it as a club.”
The affiliation certainly will end if Republic FC is accepted by MLS, a move Kaval doesn’t see as a threat to the Earthquakes.
San Jose jumped from near the bottom to No. 7 in attendance last year by averaging nearly 21,000 at newly opened Avaya Stadium. The team nearly has reached its cap of 13,000 season-ticket packages for this season, and Kaval said most of the team’s attendance comes from the South Bay.
“Sacramento is a distinct market,” Kaval said. “For us, we want to see more soccer, see more fans, and we are very much in a growth period for our sport.”
Republic FC’s expected eventual move to MLS could create a derby on par with the California Clasico, the annual match between the Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy that draws crowds in excess of 50,000 to Stanford Stadium. San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York will have a minority ownership stake in Republic FC if it joins the MLS side, which could lead to Levi’s Stadium as a potential site for an annual derby.
“I think if Sacramento becomes an MLS team, of course it becomes a natural rivalry,” Kaval said.
Smith anticipates a rivalry similar to the one between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders.
“The way we view it, and the way I think San Jose sees it too, is that it will be a spirited, but friendly rivalry,” Smith said. “In Northern California, we’ll be growing the sport together. …We’ll still be bouncing ideas off each other, helping each other.”
Smith said Republic FC culled a number of ideas from Avaya Stadium – including its steep sloped seating that puts fans closer to the action – that are part of Sacramento’s $226 million, 25,000-seat downtown stadium plan.
“There were a lot of neat things that they did that will help us,” Smith said.
Kaval showed Smith and Republic FC lead investor Kevin Nagle how San Jose’s stadium project came together.
“We kind of opened our kimono here in terms of everything we’ve done at Avaya, and how that works for us and lessons learned,” Kaval said. “ … They have a super exciting plan for Sacramento with the new stadium combined with the new arena. It will be an amazing showcase for the city.”
Republic FC officials are confident Sacramento eventually will join MLS. The 20-team league already has OK’d new franchises in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Miami, and plans to add four more later, though those cities haven’t been decided.
“Obviously the announcement that they are going to expand to 28 has provided us a lot more hope,” Smith said. “Right now, the focus is to continue to get better at what we are doing to build a squad and a front office that will be able to perform at that level so that when they give us the call, we’ll be ready.”