Coaching is a kick for Sutton

This is a busy time of year for Antonio Sutton.

When he’s not helping Republic FC as an assistant coach, he’s coaching and training four youth teams in the River City United Soccer Club.

“When I’m not here, I’m out on the pitch somewhere,” said Sutton after Tuesday morning’s Republic FC practice at Cosumnes River College. “I love the outdoors. I love soccer. Put it all together, and I’m in the perfect world.”

Sutton spent 17 years playing indoor soccer professionally.

He started his indoor career with the popular but ill-fated Sacramento Knights in 1997. He finished last season with the San Diego Sockers. In between, he played for teams in Dallas; Monterrey, Mexico; Cleveland; Philadelphia and Stockton.

“When I turned 40, my body told me to shut it down,” Sutton said. “I was fortunate that in my final few years in San Diego we won a couple of more championships. It was a good way to finish my playing career.”

Having spent most of his adult life in the Sacramento area, the North Carolina native was pleased when Republic FC was created.

He’s proud to a part of a new franchise that has caught fire with the public, has sold out almost all of its matches at Bonney Field and Hughes Stadium and is headed for the USL Pro playoffs in its inaugural season.

“The community has been starving for something like this,” Sutton said. “It’s been a long time coming, but I think the timing was perfect.”

Sutton and fellow assistant Chris Malenab help head coach Preki and lead assistant Rod Underwood set up and keep practice sessions moving quickly and smoothly. Sutton sometimes trains players who don’t travel with the team and, occasionally, he’ll jump into a practice session when the team is shorthanded.

“He helps on the field when asked to do it, and he’s involved in all the conversations about our team and about the opposition,” Preki said. “He has a really good soccer brain. He’s settled in pretty good. He’s been a good help here.”

A North Carolina State graduate, Sutton came to Sacramento in the mid-1990s to play with the Sacramento Scorpions, a United Soccer Leagues outdoor team that lasted just two seasons.

But watching future Major League Soccer star Preki play for the San Jose Grizzlies at that time piqued Sutton’s interest in the indoor game.

“A lot of international players were coming to the United States to play indoors,” Sutton said. “Preki was one of the best. He had good foot skills, and he could finish.”

Professional outdoor soccer had struggled after the North American Soccer League went belly-up a decade earlier, and the MLS was just getting off the ground.

“There was a little more (financial) stability in indoors,” Sutton said. “And I loved it. It was very pleasing for me because there was a lot of action. It allowed me to find my way in the soccer world.”

The Knights, who started in 1993 and played at Sleep Train Arena, were arguably Sacramento’s most successful pro soccer franchise until the arrival of Republic FC.

Sutton joined the Sacramento Kings-owned team in 1997 and helped it win the World Indoor Soccer League championship in 1999. He played in the Knights’ last match, an overtime semifinal loss to the Dallas Sidekicks in 2001.

Shortly after that match, the Maloof family, then owners of the Kings, decided to disband the team and players either were disbursed to other teams or retired. Sutton spent four years living in Dallas before returning to Sacramento in 2005, in part to be closer to his son, Isaac.

During their nine-year existence, the Knights’ matches averaged between 5,000 and 7,000 fans a season.

“We had a good thing going with the Knights as far as the crowds,” Sutton said. “But the best thing about that experience is that I run into people all the time who remember the Knights.”

Republic FC didn’t forget, either. The club honored the Knights in a halftime ceremony at last Wednesday’s 2-0 USL Pro win over the Wilmington Hammerheads. Seventeen former Knights joined Sutton on the field.

“It was great seeing the guys,” Sutton said. “Some I have stayed in contact with because they coach club, too.”

Although Sutton has plenty of coaching experience – he was a player-coach for the Stockton-based California Cougars – he’s learning a lot working with Preki and Underwood.

“It’s been great for me, coaching-wise,” Sutton said. “As far as the organization and pace of practice and how Preki relates to the players – he’s fair but stern – it makes for a very good environment. It’s been a blessing to be part of the club.”