Republic FC’s festive friendly against the New York Cosmos and Spanish legend Raul at sold-out Hughes Stadium on Saturday night proved to be another strong audition by the second-year minor-league franchise for a place in Major League Soccer.
The attendance was announced as 20,231, and it appeared almost everyone showed and cheered despite the chilly, though dry weather.
While Republic FC lost the preseason match 3-1 – the incomparable Raul scored the first goal in the 68th minute – it marked another milestone for the franchise.
Republic FC usually plays its home matches at cozy 8,000-seat Bonney Field at Cal Expo. It has an expansive grass surface the players prefer over the tight confines and multipurpose synthetic surface at the Sacramento City College stadium.
But the match against the Cosmos was moved to Hughes while Bonney Field undergoes an expansion to 11,000-plus seats.
Before Bonney Field opened last June, Republic FC played four matches at Hughes Stadium, three of which were sellouts.
Adding Saturday’s turnout, Republic FC has drawn an average attendance of 19,667 for five Hughes matches. That would have outdrawn 11 MLS teams last season.
Supporters saw the match as another chance to show MLS the continuing strong community support for Republic FC.
Plenty sounded off on Republic FC’s popular Facebook page, which has nearly 69,000 likes.
“This has to be a wake-up call for MLS if we sell out a 20,000-people stadium for a minor-league exhibition game,” Nick Read wrote.
Added Jeremy Leete, “MLS you paying attention?”
Fans at the game agreed.
“This is the fourth sellout here. They shattered USL’s attendance record, and they won the league last year,” said Nicole Wilson, an Auburn resident and former Del Oro High School soccer player. “The support is there. The funding is there. What more could MLS want?”
Sacramento is in a head-to-head battle with Minneapolis for the last expansion franchise. It will bring MLS to 24 teams through its designated 2020 expansion window.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted the latest sellout during an interview Friday with Sports Illustrated.
“They’ve sold 20,000 tickets for (a minor-league match), which is amazing,” Garber said. “So there’s a lot of activity in Sacramento.”
Republic FC president and founder Warren Smith said playing at Hughes was more about giving fans a chance to see the team than making a pitch to MLS.
“This allows us to pick up those who may not be as familiar with soccer but love entertainment, love sport, love Sacramento,” Smith said. “We know if we keep doing our things, MLS will keep taking notice. The community is supporting us very powerfully, and that says a lot.”
Republic FC saw another benefit from playing at Hughes. It gave fans a glimpse at the kind of atmosphere they can expect at the proposed downtown railyard stadium should Republic FC become an MLS franchise.
“Wherever the team plays, they are going to have the support of the fans and fill a stadium,” said Jeannette Wilson, Nicole’s mother. “When they moved to Bonney Field, a lot of people were disappointed because they could no longer see the team. This just shows that the sport is huge here.”
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AT UC DAVIS
When: March 14, 3 p.m.