As team owners work on an MLS deal, Sacramento Republic FC players wait for a shot

Sacramento Republic FC is a team waiting for the call to the big leagues.

It was evident at Wednesday’s game with Las Vegas Lights FC. Thousands of fans filled the metal bleachers and cushy VIP seats at Papa Murphy’s Park for a game televised on ESPNews, the team’s first nationally televised game. A couple hundred members of the Tower Bridge Battalion stood and sang for the entire game.

As Republic FC’s owners hammer out a deal to move the team into Major League Soccer, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence showing the team is ready to move into the biggest American soccer league.

Coach Simon Elliott sounds ready for the big time. After his team took a scoreless tie with Las Vegas, he was asked what the team needed to work on. He answered like Bill Belichick.

“Goals,” Elliott responded.

The reporters chuckled a bit. Then he was asked what he thought the team needed in terms of creating goal-scoring opportunities.

“The ball hitting the back of the net.”

Elliott wasn’t just trying to be cheeky; he was trying to avoid giving away anything to opposing coaches. It was a professional interview response.

That’s something his players know about. Republic FC’s roster features six players that have already played in MLS and others who have caps for their national teams or the English Premier League, one of the top soccer leagues in the world.

Midfielder Jaime Villarreal played in seven games with the L.A. Galaxy in MLS and said getting back to the big time is on everybody’s minds.

“That’s a big motivation for us players, to know this team will potentially go to MLS,” Villarreal said. “It gives us motivation to train harder and do things well. We don’t know how long it will be but you never know. Maybe you have a chance to be on that squad.

“I think we all get that feeling that if we do things well, we have a foot in the door.”

Elk Grove native Cameron Iwasa certainly hopes so. The Republic captain has been with the team for two years, he’s the all-time franchise scoring leader and he leads the team with 10 goals this year. It’s a nice résumé and he likes being in a leadership role but he’s hoping to move up a division.

“I think if there’s anybody in our locker room that doesn’t have the desire and the hunger to get to that next level, there’s something wrong there,” Iwasa said. “At the same time, I think everybody in that locker room understands the road there starts here. We’re all just focused on this current season in the USL.”

That current season features teams like the Lights, who harbor MLS dreams of their own. While St. Louis and Sacramento were seen as frontrunners when the league announced its expansion plan in April, Las Vegas has been gaining traction as a possible expansion city. This team also has plenty of experience to brag about. Coach Eric Wynalda was a star for the U.S. National Team in goals and is in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Other cities have joined the MLS sweepstakes as well. Commissioner Don Garber will soon travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, which is making a late push to join the league, according to previous Bee reporting. Phoenix and Raleigh, North Carolina, have also been mentioned as potential expansion cities.

Still, Sacramento is seen as a strong contender, with a billionaire owner and a stadium deal that’s already been approved. The fans will likely be there by the thousands. Republic FC is among the league attendance leaders at about 10,500 fans a game.

Meanwhile, all the players can do is wait. The team likely wouldn’t play in MLS until at least 2022, a lifetime in a league where a couple of seasons qualify as a lengthy résumé for most players. Recent teams that have moved from the USL to MLS have brought seven or eight players with them as they move up.

“There’s a precedent set by other teams that have gotten expansion ... there’s not a ton of guys on the roster that are gonna go, but I think every situation is unique,” Iswasa said, adding that it’s up to the front office to make those decisions. “From my standpoint, the more games we win, the better we do, the better my chances and everybody else on the team’s are.”

For now, they wait.

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James Patrick has covered the beer scene from Maine to California. (OK, mostly just those two.) He’s worked at newspapers in six states as a sports reporter, sports editor, social media editor and newspaper carrier. He’s as comfortable drinking a High Life as a wild-fermented raspberry sour.