Opinion

Sacramento’s optimistic sprint now includes Major League Soccer. It’s a beautiful thing

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MLS & Sacramento

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Major League Soccer will officially welcome Sacramento into its league Monday with a full on downtown celebration that will be exciting for the region even though it still seems unreal to me.

As the most senior writer at The Bee, I have followed this unlikely tale from the beginning, when it was just a gleam in the eyes of Warren Smith and Joe Wagoner – the two guys who first dreamed MLS in Sacramento. Wagoner thought of it it, sold Smith on it and Smith – a former Sacramento River Cats executive – began selling the idea to anyone who would listen in 2012.

Five years before that, I wrote a column on July 7, 2007 that said: “How about a Major League Soccer franchise for Sacramento? The market is here, the region is growing. There are influential people in Sacramento with a passion for soccer and an ability to make things happen.”

I wish I could say there was a connection between my 2007 column and the brainstorm of Warren and Wagoner, but there really wasn’t. The only real link between us was a love of and belief in Sacramento, despite the brutal economic times this region faced when the idea of MLS in Sacramento was born.

So many businesses in Sacramento were battered by the Great Recession during those years, including my place of work. I remember attending “State of the Downtown” and “State of Sacramento” gatherings that were simply depressing. When the first phase of the MLS in Sacramento was presented to the public in December of 2012, it was no more concrete than this:

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Sacramento would have a minor league soccer team beginning in 2014 and the team had no name. Oh, and the team with no name would crush it and rich guys would get interested and invest in it and then MLS would come calling.

This idea was presented then at a news conference at Hot Italian, the midtown pizza joint, on a steely cold day. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson was still trying to keep our NBA team in town as the Kings were possibly on the move to Seattle, and that whole drama was still very much in doubt.

One local sports media person wrote that Johnson was wasting time focusing on minor league soccer when the Kings needed his undivided attention. Meanwhile, a group in Elk Grove was also lobbying MLS and it had no more credibility than Warren. Truthfully, all of this seemed a bit fanciful given the bleak times.

The pizza was impressive at that news conference. Johnson and Warren donned soccer scarves and big smiles for the cameras. But the soccer idea had the slight whiff of a sad consolation prize for the pending loss of the Kings. My memory of Johnson that day was that he was trying to put on a brave face. Warren was gung-ho, but if you know him, you know he always is.

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Man, who knew that the development of Sacramento’s soccer dream within months of that event was part of a winning streak that Sacramento has been on ever since? In July of 2013, Warren and his group staged a hugely successful “Soccer Day” at Raley Field that drew a sellout crowd. That was three months after a local ownership group had taken control of the Kings, ensuring the team would not relocate to Seattle.

By 2014, the newly named Sacramento Republic FC was drawing more than 20,000 fans at Hughes Stadium. The team had tapped into a younger fan base. Republic games celebrated everything local about Sacramento, its beer scene, its music scene, its new soccer scene.

The name Republic came from the idea of a powerful community of diverse people united behind the team logo, the players and the community they represented.

That MLS is elevating this up-from-nowhere success story into the ranks of America’s premier soccer league Monday is significant for many reasons , not the least of which is this fact:

Sacramento Republic FC will be the first sports franchise to enter a front-line professional league that was created and brought to market right here by local people. As beloved as they are, the Kings came from Kansas City in 1985. The River Cats are minor league sensation and a Sacramento institution, but they relocated from Vancouver.

In addition, the future home of the team will be in the downtown railyards, a piece of property that has sat empty for generations until now. Because of all this, the Republic should symbolize how ideas – no matter how unlikely – can happen if enough people believe in them.

I have to admit that as much as I’ve always loved Sacramento in 30 years of living here, a pessimistic strain ran through this town in my first 20 years here and was very unappealing. People fought hard to scuttle the River Cats from locating here, which sounds preposterous now after two decades of glorious summer nights at the ballpark in West Sacramento. Remember the plan to build a baseball stadium in Natomas that ran out of money and whose foundation sat for years like a tombstone for local aspirations?

Sacramento used to be the place where people were suspicious of change, of ideas. But now the effort to save the Kings, the development of downtown, the explosion of a local dining scene, beer scene, the celebration of art and food, the efforts to house the homeless are all part of an optimistic spirit in Sacramento.

That spirit will be validated Monday, when the Commissioner of MLS officially announces that, yes, Sacramento did prevail even though MLS never had no intention of doing business here.

A community – a Republic – forced its way into the conversation. Out of thin air, and pure belief, an idea will become a real amenity that a city and a region can get behind. It’s not the be-all-end all, but it is emblematic of a community spirit that should be celebrated along with the soccer team.

This beautiful moment for a beautiful game belongs to everyone. And it’s a beautiful thing.

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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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