When people ask why Republic FC will abandon the electric atmosphere at Hughes Stadium after Saturday’s match against Arizona United SC for the significantly smaller, potentially panache-challenged Bonney Field at Cal Expo, Graham Smith is ready to take responsibility.
As technical director for Republic FC, Smith helped convince franchise founder Warren Smith that Hughes wouldn’t be a good permanent home, despite its 20,231 capacity that appeals to Major League Soccer.
Some things about Hughes Stadium wouldn’t mix with the ball-possession style of play demanded by coach Preki, the former MLS player and Republic FC’s biggest marketing asset entering the season.
Hughes Stadium has been sold out for two of the first three home matches and a sellout has been announced for Saturday’s match. The other match drew 17,414 to the recently renovated, high-walled stadium that opened in 1928 on the Sacramento City College campus.
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Though Bonney Field will hold just 8,000, with bleacher seating resembling a high school stadium on an open expanse of Cal Expo near the Capital City Freeway, there are discussions about expanding to 12,000 next season.
But Bonney Field will have something Hughes and few other stadiums lack: a 120-yard by 80-yard grass pitch. According to team officials, it is the largest professional soccer pitch in the western United States, equaling the size of the MLS’ Colorado Rapids’ field.
“When I first went to Hughes Stadium, the first thing I said to Warren was, ‘You better not play on this field,’ ” Graham Smith said. “He looked at me. I think he had just done a deal with the college. I wasn’t being derogatory to the college.
“I was trying to tell Warren we don’t want to play on a (68)-yard-wide field with American football markings on it and an artificial field to boot. The stadium itself is no problem. But get a 75- to 80-yard field and the grass, and we’ll get going.”
Warren Smith quickly bought in, and the sparkling, tightly-trimmed green grass was a big reason he looked like a proud father Wednesday while leading a media tour of the new stadium, still under construction.
While the turf is in, bleacher construction hasn’t reached the halfway point yet. Fencing, lights and the scoreboard still have to be installed, but team officials said the facility will be ready for the June 20 match against the Colorado Rapids Reserves.
Warren Smith said the switch to Bonney Field, despite its smaller size, may help the team in its bid to become an MLS franchise.
“It wasn’t just Graham,” Warren Smith said. “In all fairness, it was Major League Soccer. They would take us more seriously if we played on a full pitch.
“They have challenges selling the sport when people see American football lines. The style of play changes on a narrow field. We’re a control team. We have the ball most of the game, and that’s easier to do on a wider field.”
Republic FC has won six straight matches, including its last two at Hughes after losing the home opener 2-1 to the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders on April 26.
But if the team is playing well now, midfielder Rodrigo Lopez says wait until the fans see the players on Bonney Field’s turf. He thinks the move will only reinforce Republic FC’s goals of making the playoffs and toppling MLS-bound Orlando City as USL Pro champs.
“If they love how we play at Hughes – and I’ve read on social media how much they like how we play – once we get to a full pitch, they are going to see a a lot better Republic who is even more offensive-minded and will have the ball a lot. I think the fans are going to like us at Bonney Field.”
When the club was first formed, Warren Smith expected to draw crowds of 6,000 to 7,000, nothing like the packed crowds for matches at Hughes.
For its first three home matches, Republic FC has averaged 19,292 at Hughes Stadium, exceeding the 19-team MLS average of 18,288.
“I’ve got mixed emotions about leaving Hughes,” Smith said. “I live in Land Park and have many friends who bike and walk to the matches. We’ve had between 2,000 and 3,000 people taking light rail, so it shows that the facility is a gem in our community.
“But we’re obviously excited about Bonney Field. I got chills when looking at the field today. The atmosphere is going to be great because the stands are 12 feet from the field. I’m happy about Bonney Field but sad to be leaving Hughes Stadium.”