Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Preki gives upstart Republic FC star power

His office is a little light on the furniture, so let’s just call it modern functional. There are no plants to water, no fine art hanging on the walls, no bookcases or video collections to dust. But a burger joint, a coffee bar, a restaurant, a book store and the team’s headquarters are all within a 20- to 30-second jog of Broadway.

No, not that Broadway, not yet anyway. Sacramento’s latest pitch for a Major League Soccer franchise has far more modest beginnings – a team called Republic FC in the third-tier USL Pro league – but a superstar/celebrity coach.

His Serbian parents named him Predrag Radosavljevic, but the world knows him as “Preki,” a feisty 5-foot-9 midfielder who played for a handful of indoor soccer teams, became an American citizen and was named to U.S. World Cup teams, and won a Major League Soccer title and two MVP awards, the latter of which he nabbed at age 40. He also has coached MLS franchises in Los Angeles and Toronto, and fortunately for Republic FC investor Warren Smith he was out of work for a few seasons and awaiting another challenge when the phone rang.

Preki’s duties with Republic FC – his challenges, actually – consist of assembling a roster, producing an entertaining product that will attract at least 6,500 to a temporary facility at Cal Expo and schmoozing with the MLS game-changers who will decide which cities are worthy of MLS expansion in the next few years. According to Smith, the co-founder of the River Cats and the driving force behind Sacramento’s latest soccer undertaking, the criteria includes fan support, the quality of the facilities, location and demographics of petitioning cities, with 18-34 the target audience. The competing cities include Minneapolis, Atlanta and San Antonio, with San Antonio and Sacramento having unique appeal because neither is overcrowded with professional franchises.

Of course, there is that little matter of constructing a new facility. It’s only taken Sacramento, what, a few decades to solve the arena conundrum? Maybe because he was part of the late Art Savage’s group that lured the River Cats from Vancouver and built Raley Field, Smith appears undaunted by the process and encouraged by the downtown real estate options.

“The MLS wants to be in urban settings, so we’re looking at the usual suspects,” Smith said, mentioning West Sacramento among the possible areas for a permanent structure.

Meantime, the more immediate heavy lifting falls to Preki, the resident soccer celebrity who was living in Chicago with wife Trisha, an executive with Chico’s clothing stores, and their two children when he flew west for the interview. Smith and Graham Smith, the Republic’s technical director, who coincidentally represented Preki during his playing career, found Sacramento an easy sell.

Preki offered to do whatever was necessary to facilitate the transition from third-tier franchise to major-league player; he didn’t take the job to remain in the minor leagues. Since moving into a downtown apartment with his son, Nick, who attends American River College and is transferring to Chico State, Preki has met with sponsors, attended meet-and-greets with fans, schmoozed potential season-ticket buyers, contacted associates at all levels inquiring about talent. He hasn’t been asked to clean countertops, butter the popcorn or drive the bus yet, but who knows? We’re not talking charter flights.

For Saturday’s opener against the LA Galaxy II at the StubHub Center in Carson, the Belgrade native gets his choice of seats … on the bus.

“That’s not a problem,” he said, smiling. “If we were flying, you’d still have to get to the airport two hours early, then go through security. It would take just as long.”

What other secrets is Preki willing to share with his adopted community? How about this? Basketball is his first love. While growing up in the former Yugoslavia, he played point guard in the winter and midfielder in the spring and summer.

Forced to make a choice when his growth spurt ended at 5-9, Preki committed to soccer but never relinquished his passion for the game played by his friend and fellow Serb, Vlade Divac. Though Preki moved to the United States in 1985, four years before Divac arrived in Los Angeles and before the bloodshed began in the Balkans, they are friends and get together when in the same city; they were seen chatting during Divac’s visit to Sleep Train Arena last Friday.

“The world is so small,” Divac said later. “I remember watching Preki play soccer when I was a kid. He is a legend. I was so excited when I heard he was coming to Sacramento, because he’ll do great things. And I told him he was going to love it here.”

Trim and athletic, and practically oozing energy, Preki appears younger than his 50 years. Dressed in sweat pants and neon running shoes, he looked more than capable of jogging the few miles home to catch the evening’s NBA games.

“Tonight, there’s a doubleheader on TNT,” he says, grinning, looking at his watch. “I just love watching basketball.”

But soccer is his game, and he’s sticking with it. Besides the diversity of the area, another reason he found Sacramento so appealing, he said, is the steady growth of soccer within the United States.

“When I first came here, there was no chance of finding a football (soccer) game on television,” he added. “But the truth is, the game is evolving incredibly fast in this country right now. It’s only going to get better. We’ll get another World Cup here. Globally, there is nothing like it. Today, I can go and watch games live on ESPN and NBC Sports. I don’t see any reason soccer can’t take off in this place, and I want to be a part of that.”