As I was walking the sidelines during halftime of the Sacramento Republic vs. San Jose Earthquakes friendly on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment to take in the atmosphere of a raucous and record crowd at Bonney Field and wonder to myself whether 2016 was going to be the watershed moment for this franchise in their three-year quest to become a Major League Soccer (MLS) club.
Since their founding, I’ve followed and written about the Republic’s journey, how Sacramento and the Region has embraced the game and team, and how the team has united a community. On the field, the Republic have excelled making the playoffs in their inaugural year and winning the United Soccer League (USL) Championship, and followed it up last year with another playoff berth despite a first round exit. They developed a youth academy last year, which was a bold move for a team in their second year, and have played an aggressive, up-tempo style that is has been infectious to watch. Their surprising success and popularity has not only vaulted the franchise into a prominent place in Sacramento culture, but perhaps more importantly provide another example of why the city should be considered a legitimate home for professional sports.
Despite a pre-season 1-2 loss to the visiting MLS Quakes on Saturday, the Republic continues to build off their success from the previous seasons. Working with a starting lineup that is largely composed of new faces, second-year manager Paul Buckle believes the team is making progress.
“I’m very happy,” said Buckle. “I think it was a big step up from the [Colorado] Rapids game. I thought our speed of play was better…we played on the counter-attack in the first half, and I thought we caused them a lot of problems.”
There is still a month until the start of the regular season, so there is plenty of time to work out the kinks, but the sense I got Saturday was a genuine confidence among Buckle, the players and team officials about this group of players and the direction they are going. All positives for a team that is looking to make the climb to MLS.
And you feel that confidence and pride from the fans too….all 11,499 of them. This is their team, they’re educated about the game and know what’s at stake in the goal to join MLS. The energy that exudes from the stands impacts the game and players.
“We never take the crowd for granted at this club…it’s incredible”, said Buckle. “We all know the club is nothing without the fans. I know that, the players know that, and again tonight, they [the fans] were superb. It was good noise levels and they were fantastic.”
Off the field, there has been an increase of chatter over the last month about the prospects of the Republic joining MLS. During the El Dorado Hills Chamber of Commerce Annual Installation dinner, Republic lead investor Kevin Nagle was the keynote speaker and he provided some interesting insights into to the Republic’s bid to join MLS.
When asked by the moderator whether his involvement and investment with the Republic had to do more with creating a better sense of community in the Region or the potential for job creation and economic development, Nagle discussed in length the rise in popularity of soccer, how the Region has warmly embraced the game and that the proposed stadium in the Railyard District in Downtown Sacramento “will create $1.7 billion in economic development to the local economy.”
Perhaps more interesting to Republic fans and anyone who has been following the Sacramento to MLS situation since the Republic burst onto the soccer scene in 2014, Nagle added, “there is no question, we are going to have an MLS club in Sacramento.”
Later in the question and answer session, Nagle was asked from a guest in the audience about his thoughts on St. Louis’ recent emergence as a possible MLS city. “They’ve had to move quickly (in light of the recent loss of the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles). I am meeting with representatives from St. Louis next week.”
Similar to Sacramento, St. Louis has quickly gone from a city that wasn’t really on the MLS radar two years ago (I know, MLS is on record saying they’d like to broaden their footprint in the Midwest) to news last week from Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus that Sacramento and St. Louis are now considered as two of the early favorites to join MLS after Miami. For those that don’t know, Miami is the final piece in the MLS expansion goal set back in 2013 by the league to expand to 24 teams by 2020.
So, all this begs the question…could Sacramento already have the green light on expansion? Is the Sacramento investment team led by Kevin Nagle heading to St. Louis at the request of MLS to basically share the Republic playbook on the path to MLS? Remember, the word from Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and the Republic as part of Operation Turnkey, is that the city and club have done everything MLS has asked of them to position themselves for a potential jump to MLS.
Between Mayor Johnson predicting that Sacramento would earn an MLS bid in 2016 at his recent State of the City address, plus all the chatter we’re hearing locally and nationally (to now include Chamber dinners), Sacramento seems positioned to finally make the jump into the MLS .
Earning legitimacy and the respect of the professional sporting world has been an ongoing battle for Sacramento ever since the arrival of the Kings in the 1985. The Republic’s 2016 season is another chapter in this captivating story and we will be sharing the team’s story over the coming weeks and months with insights about the people and players that are behind the Republic and this soccer phenomenon in Sacramento. In the interim, supporters will continue to pack Bonney Field and cheer on the Republic awaiting that invite from MLS…an invite you sense is coming soon.
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