English Premier League teams see the Untied States as a monstrous untapped soccer market as they continue to build their brand, and now Sacramento has a piece of the action after hosting West Bromwich Albion FC in friendlies on Monday and Friday at Bonney Field.
The doubleheader was a bit of a coup for Republic FC, a first-year team in the third-tier USL Pro.
Sacramento is one of only three minor-league teams that landed a match against an EPL squad this summer – and it is the only one playing an EPL team twice. Minnesota United of the second-tier North American Soccer League beat visiting Swansea City 2-0 on July 19, and the USL Pro Richmond Kickers will host Crystal Palace on Tuesday.
Nine of the 20 EPL teams are touring the United States this summer. EPL heavyweights such as Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United are playing big-name teams in huge stadiums. Manchester United, after beating the Los Angeles Galaxy 7-0 on Wednesday at the Rose Bowl, will play Roma on Saturday at Sports Authority Field in Denver, Inter Milan on Wednesday at FedExField in Washington, D.C., and Real Madrid on Aug. 2 at Michigan Stadium.
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While European teams use the summer tours to train for their upcoming seasons, they also hope to make marketing inroads.
NBC and NBCSN’s EPL broadcasts for 2013-14 nearly doubled the ratings in 2012-13, when matches were on ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Soccer.
EPL chief executive Richard Scudamore said the growing thirst by Americans for elite soccer is a boon for the world’s oldest professional soccer league.
“Anything which grows the popularity and uptake of soccer will be of benefit to all of us,” Scudamore told Sports Business Journal last month. “The indications are that football can continue to grow in the U.S. If you look at MLS, the quality of football has improved, and attendance is very strong.”
In its first season, Republic FC also is building a brand.
“We made a commitment early that we wanted to bring the best talent to Sacramento, and this is an example of it,” said Erika Bjork, the team’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We also wanted to leverage our relationship with our technical director, Graham Smith, because he has so many contacts.”
Smith, who is English and the president of a sports marketing firm, once served on the board of directors of the EPL Chelsea Football Club. He has facilitated pro soccer tours between European and American teams for a number of years, bringing Everton to the United States six times during his 24 years promoting the sport.
Smith also brought Norwich City of the EPL to Sacramento last summer to play Mexican side Dorados de Sinaloa as part of the Republic FC’s first Soccer Day at Raley Field.
But the marriage of Republic FC and West Bromwich Albion FC didn’t come together until last month and not without some financial concerns.
“The margins are very, very slim because everything is paid for by the host team,” Smith said. “EPL teams are used to being looked after as far as the accommodations, the food, the facilities.”
But Smith said playing matches against teams like West Bromwich Albion and Rangers FC of Glasgow wasn’t about profits.
“We wanted to promote the Sac Republic brand,” he said.
For West Bromwich Albion, coming to California and spending all 11 days in Sacramento – the Baggies fly home Sunday – was a chance for new coach Alan Irvine and his staff to focus on bonding, training and putting together a team without the glare of fans and media back home. By staying in one city, they also could maximize their training time.
It didn’t hurt that the Baggies got two competitive matches from Republic FC. The Baggies triumphed 3-1 Friday after winning 1-0 on Monday.
The two-match addition meant some big adjustments for Republic FC coach Preki and his players. Injuries have plagued Sacramento this season, and it didn’t get any better on Friday when defender Chad Bond had to be carted off with a dislocated right toe.
Republic FC had to play six matches in a 14-day period – it has a seventh on Sunday at home against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds – so Preki started nine players on Friday who did not start Monday’s match against West Bromwich Albion.
“We looked at the pros and cons, and took a considered management decision to go forward,” Smith said. “We talked to the players about the toll it might take, but at the end of the day, everyone felt it was worthwhile.”
WEST BROMWICH ALBION FC 3, REPUBLIC FC 1
Highlights: The English Premier League team made it a sweep after taking Monday’s friendly 1-0 on an early penalty kick. But unlike that match, in which Republic FC outshot the Baggies 21-11, it had no answer for West Brom’s physically imposing forward duo of Saido Berahino and Victor Anichebe during the second annual Sacramento Soccer Day at Bonney Field. Both scored impressive goals, and Berahino added an assist on Youssouf Mulumbu’s goal. The Baggies, up 2-0 at halftime, outshot Republic FC 18-15.
Goal of the match: J.J. Koval, on a one-day loan from the Earthquakes, scored off a rebound in front of the West Brom net after Peter Gilbert’s header from the opposite side hit the back post and ricoheted to Koval. The play started on a Max Alvarez corner kick.
Another injury: Defender Chad Bond had to be carted off after dislocating his right toe early in the first half. Portland Timbers loanees George Fochive (right leg) and Alvas Powell (knee sprain) and forward Justin Braun (hamstring) have missed recent matches with injuries.
Up next: Republic FC will return to USL Pro play at 7 p.m. Sunday against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Bonney Field. The Riverhounds beat the Real Salt Lake Reserves 5-2 on Friday as Jose Angulo scored a hat trick, all on penalty kicks.