Every four years, some Americans are still surprised by the global reach of soccer and the passionate celebration of a World Cup tournament, this year starting today.
In Sacramento, that surprise is giving way to the communal feeling of exultation seen in the galleries of fans swarming to see the Sacramento Republic FC – the minor league soccer team taking the region by storm.
Republic crowds have surpassed 20,000 on three occasions and on Wednesday, the night before the World Cup opened, the faithful traveled by bus to “represent” here. They sang until their vocal cords shredded in the frigid chill of a San Francisco evening. Their chants celebrated their home: “Sac-ra-men-to!” Or they spoke of a long-shot belief in their team: “I believe that we will win!”
The Republic were here to face the heavily favored San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer – a clash of big leagues against minor leagues – in a tournament where the upstarts can take a shot at the big boys.
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And take a shot they did – the Republic more than held its own, to the delight of an ultimately hoarse fan section from Sacramento that never stopped chanting.
What in the world is driving all this?
With World Cup soccer all over television and social media starting today and for the next month, the uninitiated need know only one word of explanation: Community.
All sports celebrate the home team, but no sport creates global, national and community connections like the sport played from Hughes Stadium in Sacramento to Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janiero to every other stadium on every continent.
For the next month, the world is one community following the World Cup.
Americans may be late to this party, but they are catching up by sending more than 20,000 fans to Brazil, according to some media estimates.
A trip down Interstate 80 on Wednesday was not as exotic as being in Brazil today for the opening World Cup game between host-nation Brazil and Croatia. But it was no less meaningful to the group calling itself the Tower Bridge Battalion.
These are lawyers, professionals, working folks and retired fans. Some played soccer at a high level and others have just learned the game.
They are the group at Hughes Stadium beating the drums and singing songs from kickoff to final whistle. To them, the Republic means more than soccer. The team is an expression of a new day in Sacramento – a new era where an old “cowtown” is eager to take its place in a broader community.
“This team celebrates community,” said R.J. Cooper, a Sacramento lawyer and a Tower Bridge Battalion stalwart.
“We’re proud of our city. Our city is like a Republic. The food trucks. The restaurants. The new arena. The Republic. We’ve got a feeling that something is happening in Sacramento.”
The goal of Republic owners is for their minor league team to join the MLS, perhaps as soon as 2016. If that happened, Sacramento would join the premier soccer league in the United States – the league where most of America’s World Cup squad plays.
An MLS berth would also create natural, passionate rivalries with San Jose, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle – the city that tried to steal the Kings.
“Some people are surprised by the support of the Republic, but many of us are not,” said John Dugger, who works at a car dealership in Davis. “Sacramento is a mix of so many different cultures, so many different backgrounds – all these people from different backgrounds that love soccer.”
Despite being without six players due to injury and suspension, the Republic took the game to the Earthquakes – one of two MLS clubs that sends its young players to Sacramento for seasoning.
The game mirrored a regional dynamic where Silicon Valley is larger, richer and more noted than Sacramento.
Yet for big swaths of the game, the tempo was controlled by the underdogs as Republic players pressed the action and showed they weren’t afraid to knock Earthquakes players to the turf.
When the Republic scored first, at the 42nd minute, on a header by forward Justin Braun, the shouts of the Sacramento cheering section rang through Kezar Stadium – the site of Wednesday’s game because the Earthquakes’ home field was unavailable.
The Earthquakes quickly equalized, but they knew they were in for a fight. The game was like the World Cup itself – where small nations like Belgium, impoverished nations like Nigeria and newbies like the United States take on global powers such as Brazil, Germany and Spain.
In this game, the big boys – the Earthquakes – won 2-1 as the Republic were forced to play one man short when one player was ejected. Soccer can be cruel that way.
But for the fans supporting Sacramento, the game served as a warning – Sacramento wants to play. The city and the sport have arrived.
“It’s not a watershed moment,” Cooper said. “ It’s like water spilling and seeping into the mainstream.”
People were here Wednesday because they wanted to be part of it – part of the growing community.
“I live in Santa Rosa, but I’m moving back to Sacramento,” said Meghan Kauffman, a Republic fan who traveled with others by bus to San Francisco.
“I moved away when I was 18 because I didn’t feel there was a lot to do. I’m 30 now, and I want to be part of what is happening.”