A new way of thinking appears to be taking hold with Republic FC, born from the realization that four years is an awfully long time for soccer fanatics to put their passion on hold. We’ve been tantalized by the prospect of joining Major League Soccer, but it looks more and more as if that won’t happen until 2020 at the soonest.
First, MLS must get Minneapolis and Atlanta going next year. Then the league must accommodate a second team in Los Angeles. As everyone knows, there’s not enough to do down there as it is. The beaches, the mountains, the deserts, the newly returned Rams, USC, UCLA, the two baseball, basketball and hockey teams, Disneyland, the Hollywood Bowl, Universal Studios, the Getty, L.A. Live, the tasty street tacos of MacArthur Park – the place is an absolute bore. Nobody expects that L.A. can go on without a second MLS team. This void likely will be filled in 2018.
Miami also is slated for entry into MLS, about the same time as Los Angeles II. But as they say at the races, hold all tickets until the results are official. David Beckham’s group has only two-thirds of the land it needs to build a 25,000-seat stadium. Can it get by with room for only 16,666? Or maybe the Miami plan goes under, which would open the door to a Sacramento entry ahead of schedule.
We’re not pulling our eyes off MLS, but we can’t control their timetable. We just want to focus on what’s in front of us right now …
Warren Smith, Republic FC president
We’d all been stressing about getting Republic FC into MLS until April, when MLS Commissioner Don Garber came to town. We stood on L Street and cheered when Garber took the stage outside the Firestone Public House and told us he expects Sacramento to be part of the league’s next expansion, from 24 to 28 teams.
You look at the timetable and conclude this won’t happen any sooner than 2020. So if you’re a Sacramento soccer fan and you want to watch a professional version of the beautiful game in person, you’re going to have to be satisfied with the USL.
Republic FC has done a terrific job of making that a satisfying experience. It won the USL championship in its inaugural 2014 season, retained its relevance last year and is tied for first place in the Western Conference after a 4-0 victory over the Portland Timbers 2 on Saturday night. It was the second consecutive match in which the team scored four goals and its fifth in a row without a loss.
As the 2016 season has unfolded, the club has fashioned itself with a new identity, moving well beyond the star-centric squad that had been built around the play of Rodrigo “RoRo” Lopez, who shipped out of Sacramento to play for second-division Celaya in Liga MX.
Coach Paul Buckle said his preference is “to have 20 plus heroes on the club, not one or two.” He is getting a lot of contributions these days, but if there is a new face of the franchise, it can be found beneath the tight ponytail atop the head of Cameron Iwasa. A local hero out of Jesuit High School and UC Irvine, Iwasa scored a goal Saturday to give him 10 on the season, same as RoRo the past two years. Thomas Stewart holds the club season record with 11 goals. With six regular-season matches left, Iwasa, 23, has a good chance to catch and pass him.
Bogota, Colombia, native Danny Barrera, 26, also is doing his part to help Sacramento fans forget about RoRo. On Saturday, he chipped a free kick over Portland’s encroaching back line to Thompson, who moved in for the score. It was Barrera’s league-leading eighth assist. Barrera set up Iwasa’s goal, too, although he didn’t get credit for an assist because Iwasa bounced it first off the Portland goalkeeper before he chested it in. Barrera also got things started on Sacramento’s first score with a volley beyond the far post that Thompson headed back to Mike da Fonte, who headed it in.
5 Republic FC’s unbeaten streak that has lifted it into first place in the USL’s Western Conference
As always, fans at the packed stadium had a terrific time, standing, singing and pounding drums if they sat in the Tower Bridge Battalion section, while the rest of the house merely enjoyed the cooling Delta breeze with families and friends. Everybody seemed content.
“Be Here Now” is what Baba Ram Dass used to say, and for Republic FC and its fans, that means first place in the USL, at the Bonney Field Social Club, after Happy Hour, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Club president Warren Smith acknowledged after Saturday night’s match that maybe too much of the focus the past year or so had been on a future in MLS. The organization has put a lot of cash into preparation for the step into the big league of American soccer, in expanding the seating capacity at Bonney Field, in building its youth academy. Recently, he sent a letter to season-ticket holders that sounded a little bit like an apology for the club maybe getting a bit ahead of itself.
The bottom line for the team now is to embrace the present and let the future take care of itself.
“We’re not pulling our eyes off MLS,” Smith said Saturday, “but we can’t control their timetable. We just want to focus on what’s in front of us right now and making this club as special as it can be – where we are, right now.”
For now, that approach is just fine with the fans.
Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo
Editor’s note: This column was updated on Aug. 22 to correct that Republic FC’s scoring record is held by Thomas Stewart.