Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: It’s easy to see an MLS team in Sacramento

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Republic FC plays in the minor leagues, in temporary digs just a few kicks away from the neighboring River Cats. But that can change. The earth can move. The demolition crew can start digging (see Downtown Plaza). The big-time action can be just around the corner.

If the fledgling pro soccer franchise maintains the level of support it has enjoyed these past months, weeks and hours, including Saturday’s inaugural opener at Hughes Stadium, someone with deep pockets and an enormous appetite for soccer probably makes an appearance – and opens his or her wallet.

This is a test, an ongoing test. There is something to be said for taking baby steps and not becoming greedy. But it’s out there. The possibility, the potential, the MLS.

“I have long since been amazed at what our teams do,” USL Pro president Tim Holt said before Republic FC’s match against the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders. “From a franchise perspective, though, this is a pretty extraordinary event. They (Republic FC) not only broke our regular season record, they blew it away.”

The opener was quite the spectacle. No question. With a bed of blue and white clouds hovering in the background, 20,231 soccer enthusiasts squeezed into a facility that normally enjoys this amount of activity only on the holiest of nights. This was the annual Jesuit-Christian Brothers football clash with an international flavor.

Automobile and foot traffic backed up along Sutterville Road . an hour before kickoff. The fan zone beyond the south goal was transformed into a standing-room-only tailgate party. The drumbeat to lure an MLS franchise to Sacramento featured chanting, singing, horn honking, booing and cheering, along with the usual assortment of color and colorful language one comes to expect.

This was a neighborhood barbecue with an entire village pitching in. Local businesses welcomed Republic FC with lawn signs and advertising boards. Mo Brazelton, the Kings longtime director of game operations, offered to oversee the in-match entertainment. Warren Smith, co-founder of the Triple-A River Cats and now the president and founder of Republic FC, leaned on local officials to ease the liquor ban for the three matches his club scheduled on the Sacramento City College campus before the temporary digs are erected at Cal Expo.

“This is what it’s all about,” Smith told the crowd. “Look around you.”

But enough of the small stuff. Smith has much grander plans. He didn’t lure the legendary Preki to town by whispering sweet somethings about third-tier soccer in the coach’s ear.

What began as a whisper has become a roar. The noise persists, as will the questions. Does the 21st-largest media market have the business chops to support a second major-league franchise, albeit, one that would play only 17 home games? If the answer is yes, the ensuing questions are more complicated: Can Smith find an owner with pockets deep enough to pay the $70 million expansion fee and provide the majority of the funding for a (preferable) downtown stadium? And, if not, does sentiment cool on the minor leagues?

Holt provided a hint, sounding almost resigned to Republic FC’s departure from his league. Because USL Pro maintains a strong affiliation with MLS, he suggested, there is a greater likelihood of the USL retaining organizations in smaller markets such as Richmond, Va., and Charleston, S.C.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson no longer needs any convincing, either. “There have been studies, data, and certainly what we did with basketball has taken the lid off,” Johnson said after meeting with Kings owner Vivek Ranadive last week. “Our market absolutely can support two major-league franchises. With the effort with basketball, and what we’re doing with Triple-A, we’re on the radar.”

Step one is to fill the seats. Step two is to find an owner. Step three is to build a building. But back to step one. The foot-stomping presence of those 20,231 Saturday night was quite the demonstration.

“Soccer fans are increasingly discerning,” added Holt. “Intimacy, fan experience and having a (soccer) venue is very important. Is this team going to be around? Is this league going to be around? When you have a home, it gives a sense of permanence in terms of perception.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee