Sacramento Republic FC won’t play its first game until late March, but it’s already winning. The fledgling minor-league soccer outfit with dreams of growing into a Major League Soccer franchise took another step in that direction Thursday by joining forces with two MLS teams, the San Jose Earthquakes and Portland Timbers.
When Republic FC kicks off its initial season in the USL Pro league, it will do so as the shared affiliate of the Earthquakes and Timbers.
Think River Cats as the minor-league feeder for the A’s, add an additional parent club to the mix, and you had many smiles at Republic FC headquarters.
In most relationships, a third party signifies dysfunction – but not here.
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“This is the best of both worlds,” said Warren Smith, the former River Cats executive who is president of Republic FC and leading the effort to make Sacramento an MLS city.
By partnering with the Earthquakes, Republic FC is laying the groundwork for what could be a fantastic future regional rivalry in MLS with San Jose – a franchise steeped in MLS success and months from completing its own soccer-specific stadium.
By partnering with the Timbers, Republic FC will be affiliated with a model MLS franchise to emulate. The Timbers were once a USL Pro team, and they play in a smaller market with an NBA franchise – very much like Sacramento.
In Portland, the Timbers have created an unbelievable atmosphere on game days, with matches evoking the passion of the English Premier League.
In Sacramento, Smith and his team are trying to build a local equivalent – piece by piece.
It begins with a brand rooted in Sacramento lore.
The team name – Republic FC – derives from the idea of Sacramento as a diverse republic pulling together as it has throughout its history. The team sponsor – UC Davis Children’s Hospital – is a venerable Sacramento institution. The Republic colors are from the state flag of California.
Smith will need Sacramento to rally behind soccer and buy tickets in a big way. Republic FC has received just under 4,000 season ticket deposits – with the goal of selling out an 8,000-seat stadium they hope to erect at Cal Expo.
Republic FC needs to win games, and to that end, Smith hired legendary former MLS player Predrag Radosavljevic – aka Preki – as its coach. The team is deep into tryouts and hopes to announcemore player signings in the coming days.
By affiliating with the Earthquakes and Timbers, Republic FC will receive a steady stream of prospects trying to make those clubs. And on the way up, Earthquakes and Timbers players will gain valuable experience while wearing Republic FC colors.
For Thursday’s news conference, both MLS franchises sent their top executives. So I asked them: Is it realistic for Sacramento to land an MLS team?
“It’s very hard to say right now,” said Gavin Wilkinson, general manager of the Timbers. “You have to create a recognizable brand. It needs the backing of the community and the business community. ... But people in MLS are well aware of what Sacramento is doing.”
David Kaval, president of the Earthquakes, said Sacramento will get on the MLS radar by selling a lot of tickets this season and landing a major investor to help develop a stadium plan suitable for MLS.
That group would have to show it could invest in an MLS franchise as well as an academy for young players.
MLS has 19 franchises, Orlando and a second New York team begin play in 2015, and the league hopes to grow to 24 by 2020. A decision regarding an expansion team in Miami headed by former star player David Beckham is expected in February, and an expansion effort in Atlanta is being headed by Falcons owner Arthur Blank. That would leave Sacramento fighting with cities such as San Antonio and Minneapolis for a final spot. Or perhaps a struggling MLS franchise could relocate to Sacramento?
It’s all speculative. It took Portland 10 years to grow from USL Pro to MLS. Sacramento aims to do it much faster. Smith has said he hopes to secure the rights for an MLS team within three years.
With a winning logo, name, coach and a team sponsor and parent clubs – what’s left now is winning on the field and at the box office.
Once the club is up and running in the spring, the pressure will be on Smith to attract that big investor so a stadium deal becomes feasible.
Smith and Republic FC have made all the right moves so far – there is no reason to dismiss the viability of this dream. The 2014 USL Pro schedule should be released any day. March is around the corner. It’s beginning to feel like a soccer movement is growing in Sacramento.