‘This is our time’: Republic FC fans eager for MLS move, but there are a few concerns

Much has been made of Sacramento Republic FC’s chance to become a Major League Soccer franchise.

From billionaire Ron Burkle saying in January he’ll take controlling interest in the team to MLS announcing a few weeks ago it will expand to 30 teams, all signs point to Sacramento being awarded a spot in the league after five years of trying.

Everything from what a new downtown stadium will look like to how Republic FC’s move from the United Soccer League to MLS could have an impact on the city has been kicked about.

But what would the move mean to fans who have backed the franchise since Day 1? These people have spent their time and money supporting the club, which played its debut match in 2014 en route to winning the league championship.

A few hours before Saturday’s match against Phoenix Rising FC at Papa Murphy’s Park, which was announced as a sellout, dozens of fans were tailgating, waving large flags, dancing and more. Those who spoke to The Bee are on board with Republic FC joining MLS – but some admitted they have (or had) concerns.

Rafael Delgado is all in. He has attended Republic FC matches since the team’s inception and exhibitions when Liga MX teams play in Sacramento. He’s looking forward to the MLS designation.

“I think it’s very interesting because it’s a global sport and it will bring attention to the city,” Delgado said. “For any soccer fanatics, or those who like sports, it’s a good thing.”

Melvin Stewart – a member of the Tower Bridge Battalion, which bills itself as “an independent supporters group of Sacramento Republic FC” – says he’s “tilted both ways” on the possible change. The Sacramento man, who said he and his wife were married at Papa Murphy’s Park, has concerns about what could possibly be lost in the move up.

“I want them to become an MLS team, but look, this is a community team,” Stewart said in reference to some events the group puts on, one being the annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” fundraiser aimed at combating domestic violence and sexual assault. “We understand that for MLS, the ticket (prices) are going to go up and a lot of people will not be able to afford that price tag. For the Battalion, it’s $17 a ticket. You can bring your family.”

He also wonders what the tailgating scene will be like for the downtown stadium, which will hold nearly double the capacity of 11,569-seat Papa Murphy’s Park. For the first time this season, Republic FC opened a dedicated space for tailgating at the corner of the Cal Expo parking lot closest to the main entrance. It remains to be seen how that area will be affected when the California State Fair is on the grounds July 12-28. Republic FC has two home games during the fair: July 13 and 24.

While spacing is a concern, he doesn’t expect the vibe to be any different downtown.

“Soccer fans love to pull together and enjoy a good party, so that part of it will be the same,” Stewart said.

A longtime fan who’s well known as Rave Bear also believes a change in venue won’t interrupt pre- and post-game partying for the team’s most faithful supporters. His one concern with the MLS move is the connection to the roster.

“The only downside is we really like our access to the players,” he said. “A lot of them are fighting for a spot and working pretty hard. None of them are true superstars yet, so it’s nice to get to know the players while they’re really gunning for it.”

Other than that, he says the change should be a positive experience: “I’m really looking forward to our new home … and if we get to MLS, it will be the opportune time to expand the club and the culture.”

For some fans, being part of the nation’s top soccer league is a long time coming. One in particular is Elisa Rocha Bupara, who said she was involved in Sacramento’s first major women’s league some five decades ago and has been along for the Republic ride since the beginning.

“Soccer has been in my blood for many, many years,” she said.

When Republic FC joined USL, a commercial was shot at Hughes Stadium – the team’s first home – where she said about 100 people were made to look more like 1,000. Now, she looks forward to up to 22,000 people showing up for MLS matches.

“I think it’s a done deal, and if it isn’t, I’m going to be very upset,” she said.

The idea of moving up is “absolutely fantastic,” said Miguel Perez Jr., who moved to Sacramento the same year Republic FC began playing. He came to town to attend Sacramento State.

Perez said the move up makes sense because, unlike major leagues overseas, the U.S. does not have a promotion/relegation system which allows teams to move up to the nation’s top league while pushing down those in the cellar.

It’s a move that should boost the city overall, not just the soccer team.

“I think it’s going to be really amazing for the community,” he said. “We’re so excited for the opportunity. MLS has been teasing us for a long time over whether we’re going to be in or not. Sometimes, we feel snubbed, but we feel like this is our time.”

Sacramento has missed out in previous expansion attempts. The league, which currently has 24 teams playing and spots promised to three others, could increase to 30, with Sacramento and St. Louis as the frontrunners. But, as Republic FC fans already know, being at the front of the line doesn’t guarantee a seat at the table.

Jared Slaff has seen it all, even though he no longer lives in California.

Slaff, who lived in Sacramento’s Lemon Hill neighborhood for nearly three decades before moving to the Phoenix area, has traveled to several cities to see Republic FC play and attended their first game against Phoenix Rising FC in Peoria, Ariz.

“There were maybe only 1,300 people there, but of course the Battalion made its presence felt,” he said.

He was in town for the MLS block party in April 2016, when MLS Commissioner Don Garber talked about the city’s plan to join the league.

However, Sacramento was not awarded a franchise.

“I was a little irritated that we couldn’t quite get it at that time,” Slaff said. “I get that we might not have had the proper funding for it, but with Ron Burkle on board … this all but practically cements us getting MLS here in Sacramento.

“It’s all just a matter of patience that we had to have. … We’ve already had the stadium deal. We’ve already had the fan base. We’ve already had the backing of corporate sponsors.”

Getting to MLS would be “the icing on the cake.”

Slaff, who attended his first Republic FC tailgate Saturday, was impressed with the turnout and envisions a bigger scene downtown.

“This could be something that I see on (television network) FS1 on Saturday mornings,” he said. “For Sacramento to get in on this and have a major tailgating scene and a movement of Republic FC fans just taking over, that’s going to put us on the map. That’s going to say, ‘Sacramento is here, Sacramento is loud, Sacramento means business.’ ”

If Sacramento is awarded an MLS franchise, business for Republic FC in the league could kick off by 2022.

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