Soccer

Sacramento has a checkered soccer past, from Foot Ball to Gold at Hughes Stadium to MLS

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He still has the ball and peeks at it regularly.

It’s encased in glass now, autographed by players who spearheaded a championship. It has lost air and some of its sparkling leather polish, but not its general meaning.

Greg Van Dusen cherishes the ball as proof of a glorious championship link to the region’s soccer past. The glow of Major League Soccer coming to Sacramento, and the feel-good vibes of the ascent of Republic FC has roots to the ball Van Dusen holds dear in his Placer County home.

Van Dusen was the general manager of the Sacramento Gold of the American Soccer League, a second-division league that promised its fans first-rate fun in the 1970s. Crowds in excess of 10,000 packed into Hughes Stadium, a horseshoe venue on the campus of Sacramento City College designed for football.

The Gold 40 years ago this summer won the ASL championship. Van Dusen has that game ball.

It was supposed to last – the Gold, the winning, the game balls, the fun. Soccer was a big deal here, with a following, and quirky giveaways such as rubber chickens shot out of the sky from loud toy rifles fired by team owner John Andreotti.

Minor league baseball moved out of town by the time the Gold showed up and the Kings would not arrive from Kansas City via NBA relocation until 1985. The Gold represented a sample of the sporting big time, proof that soccer could sell here. But finances eventually buckled the Gold and the ASL, which is fittingly reflective of the lost air in that encased ball.

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“We had it rolling back then, and it was so much fun,” said Van Dusen, nodding. “We made it affordable and fun. We had fans, kids in the stands with jerseys on.

“Sports in Sacramento has a curious history, and some teams and leagues make it, and some don’t. We didn’t make it, but we knew then that we had great fans, that this city could have a major sports team and support it. It was only a matter of time.”

Sacramento has marched its collective soccer cleats through a lot of professional soccer leagues, dating back to the late 19th century when the sport was clearly identified as football, including the California Foot Ball League that led to the California State Football Association in 1902.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, teams such as the Acorns, Celtics and Garibaldis were part of the Sacramento Municipal Soccer League. Games were played in Curtis Park. Teams and leagues came and went like the sunset.

In the 1990s, Sacramento pro teams included the Knights, Geckos, Scorpions and Senators. The Knights competed in Arco Arena, home of the Kings, and set league attendance marks. The Knights won the Continental Indoor Soccer championship in 1999, then relocated to the World Indoor Soccer League and later into the Major Indoor Soccer League – all of which eventually folded under the weight of finances.

Outdoor soccer especially resonated locally. The Gold was initially named the Spirits, born in 1976 during a wave of American expansion of soccer. It was rolling momentum from the buzz of Brazilian star Pele’s profound impact with the New York Cosmos, which sparked a national interest in the sport.

The ASL dated back to 1933, with most franchises located on the East Coast. In 1974, the ASL hired Bob Cousy as its commissioner, desperate for name recognition. Never mind that Cousy’s game of fame was basketball.

Cousy’s contract was not renewed in 1979 because he “hasn’t got soccer in his blood,” according to Willie Ehrlich then (he was the owner, president and coach of the Pennsylvania Stoners). Added Ehrlich then, “The commissioner doesn’t have to be a soccer man, but once he’s bitten by the soccer bug, he’s got to show it. After five years as commissioner, Cousy still goes around telling people he knows nothing about soccer.”

Sacramento’s first season in 1976 was played at Sacramento State. The team finished 4-14-3. In 1977, the Spirits went 18-4-4 and lost to the New Jersey Americans 3-0 in the ASL Championship.

The Spirits in 1978 switched their name to Gold, and by 1979 had moved to Hughes Stadium, with Van Dusen on board as general manager. The Gold in 1979 drew more than 57,000 fans for 14 home matches to lead the league in attendance. Sacramento won the ASL crown over the Columbus Magic, 1-0, on an Ian Filby goal.

And sometimes the best action started on the field and ended in the stands.

“We had a midfielder named Danny Payne, 5-foot-4, and he’d kick players in the ankles or shins,” Van Dusen recalled. “He’d get chased into the stands.”

By 1980, financial issues eroded the league. The Gold forfeited a match at the Miami Americans because they didn’t pay the airfare to Florida. By July, with the Gold still unable or willing to pay for travel, the ASL folded the Gold, only to allow the franchise to continue after Sacramento-area boosters and fans raised nearly $40,000 to keep the team afloat.

The league stripped the team of its Gold name, but the club reached the ASL title game, falling to the Pennsylvania Stoners 2-1.

Within weeks, the ASL folded its West Coast teams. The league lasted through the 1983 season before going under.

Van Dusen didn’t stop his quest to bring a big-name club to his native Sacramento. He was part of the Sacramento effort to bring the Kings west and he worked for years in the Kings front office.

“It was tragic, just awful, that soccer didn’t make it the first time,” Van Dusen said of the Gold. “We had the building blocks to make it work. Sacramento deserved some sort of team. We were the largest media market in the country without a major sports team. And this is a great place to live, close to the ocean, close to Tahoe and the mountains, lots of trees and parks and good schools.”

Van Dusen said Sacramento was on the original plans for an MLS franchise when the league started in 1993.

“This city, we sold 3,000 advance season tickets, and that caught people’s attention,” Van Dusen said. “But we didn’t have a suitable stadium. Hughes isn’t for soccer – too narrow. We didn’t get an MLS team, and so ever since, we longed for a team to come.”

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Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.
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