Opinion

The dream of soccer in Sacramento: ‘There was nothing that could stop us’

If you thought keeping the Kings from leaving Sacramento was a moon shoot, then who knows how to accurately describe the absurdly implausible notion of Sacramento joining the ranks of Major League Soccer?

It looks like it’s actually going to happen – the league is expanding from 27 teams to 30 and is entering formal negotiations with Sacramento to close a franchise deal with a local ownership group.

The preceding sentence has no business ever being written. Sacramento has no business joining America’s premier league because a mere six years ago Sacramento wasn’t on the MLS map. It wasn’t in the MLS solar system. It wasn’t even in the neighboring solar system.

MLS already had a Northern California team in San Jose. It had two teams in Los Angeles, one in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. The West Coast was done. MLS was looking at the Midwest, the Southeast. MLS craved Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, Minneapolis, St Louis, Cincinnati, and Austin.

An MLS team in Sacramento was the crazy idea of Joe Wagoner. He was an associate of Warren Smith, a former executive with the Sacramento River Cats and a big bear of a man, who is part salesman, part community booster and part coach. Wagoner knew he couldn’t make it work without Smith, who has many business connections.

Wagoner sold it to Smith and Smith sold it to Sacramento. They became co-founders.

They were kicking this idea back and forth when Smith suddenly called me in 2012 and said something like, “Hey Marcos. I have an idea I want to talk about with you over a pint.”

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Well, twist my arm.

We met at Devere’s Irish Pub. It was the middle of the afternoon. No one was in the back dining room but Smith and I. We drank Guinness. The first thing you need to know about Smith is that, when he has an idea, his big face lights up with a cartoon-character grin and his eyes sparkle behind his dad glasses.

That day, Smith was in full sales mode. This was a dark time in Sacramento. The economy was still sluggish and the Kings looked like they were going to relocate to Seattle. The entire national sporting press was predicting the move and writing off Sacramento as a tired backwater.

This offended Smith and this was the subtext of his desire to create another team in another sport. He felt it could make money and he felt Sacramento needed amenities if it was gong to realize its potential as a vibrant city that Smith and many others wanted it to be.

For Smith, and for Wagoner, this crazy idea was simple.

Sacramento was big, young and diverse. The city was blessed with good weather. Smith felt the cross sections of communities with youth soccer leagues were deep enough, and civic pride was strong enough, to support his idea.

He would start with a minor league soccer team that would tap into the wellspring of community support for all things Sacramento among young city dwellers who were just coming into their own. Smith felt big crowds would prove to MLS that Sacramento was a viable spot for a franchise.

We knew that Sacramento could draw big crowds for soccer because the late Art Savage, owner of the River Cats, had done so many times with summertime soccer exhibitions at Raley Field in West Sacramento.

Now, Raley Field is a postcard of baseball beauty, but it is not built soccer. Its dimensions are all wrong for the sport and yet people came anyway – filling up the stadium for exhibitions between Mexican soccer teams. And these sellouts were happening with almost no advertising in English.

Smith felt that a soccer team with Sacramento on its shirt could draw even bigger crowds that would dazzle MLS. The Kings and River Cats were already known for drawing large, passionate crowds. And once the crowds came, for soccer the attention would attract an investor with deep pockets.

And then that investor would attract MLS.

“We always believed Sacramento was destined for MLS, even in those early days of putting our dream of Sacramento Republic FC in place,” Smith said Thursday. “We believed in the people of Sacramento and that as a united community there was nothing that could stop us.”

Smith built a young and energetic front office led by Erika Bjork, Brent Sasaki, Matt Re, Tim Stallings and Brian May. He brought in Graham Smith, a crusty Brit with big-time soccer connections, to put an actual squad together.

On a gray and frigid day in early December 2012, Smith announced that phase one of the plan – a minor league soccer team – would actually happen. The idea was shared with slices of pizza at a news conference at Hot Italian in midtown.

I walked over from The Bee. Honestly, it still seemed so farfetched. Former Mayor Kevin Johnson was there that day, helping the sell the idea, but the Kings saga was all anyone was talking about.

Some local media types even chastised Johnson for taking his eye off the Kings to promote this goofy soccer idea. And remember that Elk Grove was trying to woo MLS as well. Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, who sat on the board of U.S. soccer’s governing body, thought he had the soccer connections to bring a team to Elk Grove.

It was crazy, but Smith’s group forged ahead. It rented space in a cramped little office just down the street from the Tower Theatre. A visit there was like a visit to a soccer frat house, full of young people whose enthusiasm was infectious.

We had soccer exhibitions but not until an unseasonably cold night in April 2014 did Smith’s dream take hold.

Anyone who attended the first game of Sacramento Republic FC will never forget it. More than 20,000 people jammed into Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College. The community spirit was inspiring. The idea of the team – a “Republic” of diverse people coming together – was pitch perfect.

Young Sacramento bought in. The venture was a fine melding of Sacramento’s love of communal gatherings, locally grown food, locally brewed beer and local music.

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The team won the USL Pro championship in that first season. The title game and the many games that preceded it were nothing short of joyous. The Kings stayed in Sacramento, Golden 1 Center was approved, an investor came to buy the Republic just as Smith envisioned and MLS was impressed.

That investor, philanthropist Kevin Nagle, took Smith’s dream and ran with it. Nagle has been a force for good in Sacramento, investing in local businesses and ventures. Whenever Johnson, and now Mayor Darrell Steinberg, needed Nagle, he’s been there. Nagle hired Ben Gumpert, a local guy who had worked for the Kings, to run the Republic.

When Smith and Nagle hit a snag in closing the deal between them, Steinberg intervened and kept a beautiful story from being derailed. Steinberg was then key to helping Nagle attract Ron Burkle, the supermarket billionaire, to close the last part of this unlikely dream: landing MLS.

“My mother always told me to never give up on something you want badly no matter how far behind you are,” Nagle said Thursday. “I wanted this badly and now we need to sprint to the finish line to close it out”.

This would be a huge win for the city because it attracts an MLS franchise and can use it to spur development at the downtown railyards, where the Republic wants to build its new stadium. It is already a huge win for Steinberg, whose skill as a mediator and whose background as a former state senate leader gave him cachet with MLS and big wheels like Burkle. It’s a huge win for Nagle, a self-made man who built a successful business in Sacramento, fell in love with the region and became a booster for it.

Like any great venture, many people reached for this dream to make it a reality. It’s a triumph of community spirit, of stable and smart political leadership and of believing in the idea that Sacramento is a community on the rise.

But lastly, Sacramento in MLS is proof dreams can come true.

Even crazy dreams discussed over beers when no one else is listening. For that, Sacramento owes a debt of gratitude for Smith, Wagoner and the young dreamers who went along with them on a journey that was a crazy idea until it actually came true.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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