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Republic Marches On: A Look Back at The Last Four Years

By Erika Bjork, 12/03/16, 4:00PM PST

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Launched Dec. 3, 2012, Republic FC and their fans and city have done more single-handedly than any other club looking to find a path to MLS in the past four years.

December 3 represents a special milestone for Sacramento Republic FC. It was on December 3, 2012, that the club launched their efforts to be Sacramento’s football club in a room of media, city leaders, friends and the soccer community.

“We already have numerous professional soccer players that are from Sacramento, or make their home here,” said President Warren Smith. “It is time for the people of Sacramento to have the opportunity to watch them play on the national stage and to show the rest of the world that the Sacramento area is a great soccer region.”

Sac Pro Soccer Day

Building a club from the ground up

On this founding day, co-founders Warren Smith and Joe Wagoner knew a lot of work lay ahead before the first USL match, let alone efforts to put Sacramento on the map for MLS. The team didn’t have a crest, name, staff or an office. They didn’t even have a coach.

But one thing was certain—they would build the sports team they always wanted to work for with people who shared their same passion about Sacramento. It would be an organization that not just listened to fans, but incorporated their ideas and feedback into the operations; a start-up that embraced transparency and thinking outside of the box. It would be a place to work in which every person wearing Republic FC’s crest was a part of building something special. Above all, it would be an organization that elevated the beautiful game and celebrated the Sacramento region.

It wouldn’t be until months later, and after countless hours of research and talking to thousands of fans, that the club would consider “republic” as one of several possible names. However, because this was no ordinary sports team, they needed the right platform to launch the brand, the crest and introduce their new head coach. What better way to do this, than host a soccer match in front of 14,000 people passionate about soccer and Sacramento?

Republic FC’s crest is unveiled at Sacramento Soccer Day in 2013. Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee.

And so, a new milestone was created – Sacramento Soccer Day. On July 18, 2013, in front of over 14,000 fans at Raley Field, the newest members of USL (at the time called USL Pro) unveiled themselves as Sacramento Republic FC with their supporters group, Tower Bridge Battalion, and their new head coach, Preki, to carry onto the pitch Sacramento’s first, but not last, tifo.

The first Sacramento Soccer Day, which featured a friendly between Dorados de Sinaloa and Norwich City, marked the first of a dozen international football clubs to date that Sacramento Republic FC would host or play against in the California capital.

Sacramento Soccer DAy

On their first anniversary, Republic FC announced the signing of their first player and launched their kit partnership with UC Davis Children’s Hospital. The club’s leadership, which included a head coach, director of football and skeleton front office, returned to Hot Italian Pizza & Panini Bar to introduce Rodrigo “RoRo” Lopez as club’s first player. No one at that press conference could know that ten months later, Lopez would seal the club’s appearance in the 2014 league championship in what Republic FC fans now know as Miracle at Bonney.

Race towards inaugural kickoff

Republic FC now had a name, a coach, a few players and a kit. What they needed next was a home pitch. Initial plans were to play at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium, but Warren Smith learned quickly, as he absorbed more on both the sport and league, that the only football played on turf was the one with the oblong ball and Republic FC needed a full grass pitch.

No full pitch. No problem. Smith set out to build a grass home pitch that would rival any professional soccer team in the U.S. He found the pitch’s home at Cal Expo through a partnership with Spectra that resulted in a 8,000 capacity facility built in approximately just three months.

But until that opening night at Bonney Field in June 2014, Republic FC would play at Hughes Stadium. To say the idea of hosting a match in the 20,231-seat stadium was daunting would be an understatement. The goal of selling it out seemed next to impossible for Republic FC’s tiny front office. Leading up to Opening Night on April 26, 2014, the club launched an aggressive campaign to engage the various groups who shared their vision of elevating the Indomitable City. Photo shoots were hosted with local bike groups, players visited TV stations, youth soccer coaches and fans were invited to the club’s new office, banners were hosted on Broadway and downtown, anything and everything to spread the word. The more daring fans even took up an offer for free tattoos of Republic FC’s crest.

Hughes Stadium

On Opening Night, 20,231 people marched, biked, rode light rail and drove to the sold out match. Fans created lasting memories of Tower Bridge Battalion marching into the stadium and the roar of the crowd as the players walked onto the field for the first time. It was a magical moment for the beautiful game in Sacramento.

The success of that first match (and following three matches) was an unprecedented first in the United States. 20,231 fans packing the stands of an American college football stadium not just once, but three times to support their hometown club. It is because of those first 20,231 fans, and the thousands more that attended the additional three matches at Hughes Stadium, that Sacramento garnered the attention of national media and MLS, capturing the sport’s rapidly rising growth in the United States.

Finding a Cinderella story at Bonney Field

A few months later, Bonney Field opened. Smaller in size than Hughes Stadium, it matched its noise level and was sold out the entire inaugural season. Preki’s fiery coaching from the sidelines and the chants of the crowd fueled the players on the pitch.

The boys in Old Glory Red wore names emblazoned on the back of their kits such as captain Justin Braun who scored the club’s first goal or Gabe Gissie, the club’s youngest signing in club history at just 17. Players discovered through open tryouts, such as local standout Max Alvarez and defender Emrah Klimenta, further bolstered the roster with the help of veterans like Lopez and Braun, Tommy Stewart, Mickey Daley and Nemanja Vuković. Meanwhile, San Jose Earthquakes and Portland Timbers loan players such as Jake Glesson, George Fochive, Adam Jahn and Tommy Thompson became familiar faces on the pitch. Each player brought with them a story and contribution that made them an indomitable, championship-winning squad.

In the midst of success on the pitch as the squad raced towards an inaugural playoff run, success followed Republic FC off the pitch. They broke nearly all records set in USL from attendance to revenue. In September 2014, MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott and an MLS contingent traveled to Sacramento for what would become the first of several visits to the Indomitable City to-date. Hundreds of fans welcomed them at the airport with chants and songs and thousands more attended a playoff block party and rally at 20th and K Street where they also greeted the visitors from MLS. .

The moment and excitement of the MLS visit carried into Bonney Field as the boys in Old Glory Red hosted their rivals LA Galaxy II a day later in the semifinals of the USL playoffs. Down 0-2 at halftime, Republic FC returned back from the locker room needing a miracle and they found one. As Lopez prepared to take a penalty kick, the skies opened and it began to rain. At a time when Sacramento was enduring one of its worst draughts and the team itself was struggling to score, it was as if it was a sign from the soccer gods that tonight would be Sacramento’s night. Lopez scored on the penalty kick and would later go on to a hat trick and the win to advance to the (and host) championship.

Championship Parade

“I still get goose bumps whenever I look at the video,” Klimenta told The Sacramento Bee. “Wow! I can’t believe I was a part of that. I feel so lucky to have been a part of that.”

On September 27, 2014, Republic FC came full circle in their inaugural season, defeating the Harrisburg City Islanders—who they lost to 1-2 in their inaugural home match at Hughes Stadium, to hoist the championship trophy. A week later, thousands of fans gathered for Capitol Mall’s first-ever championship parade and rally to celebrate the new star added above Republic FC’s crest.

A season of transition and expansion

The 2015 season was a year of transition and expansion for Republic FC, both on and off the pitch. Bonney Field grew by 3,500 seats to accommodate fan demand. The team continued to make national headlines, breaking more USL attendance and tickets records, becoming the first USL team to have 9,000 season tickets and winning an Emmy for their championship broadcast. In July, Republic FC once again made headlines, this time internationally, as they announced a coaching change.

In July 2015, Preki announced his decision to pursue opportunities in the UK. He was succeeded by Paul Buckle, an impressive figure who garnered success and placed his name in the FA Cup history books by leading Luton Town in a victory at Wembley Stadium over Norwich City – the first time in 24 years a non-league club defeated a top-flight side.

Buckle’s experience at all levels of the sport was also instrumental as the club launched their U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. In their first season, Republic FC’s Academy would go on to have seven players earn youth national team call-ups, nine seniors sign Letters of Intent to Division I programs and upset the no. 4-ranked Academy in the country, New York Red Bulls, to advance out of group play and to the U-17/18 Development Academy Playoffs Quarterfinals.

Republic FC’s goal of elevating the sport in the region, which not too long ago seemed like a distant dream, was already becoming a reality. The year would cap off with another appearance in the USL Playoffs and the addition of the Nike swoosh across from Republic FC crest’s on their kit.

Finding a sense of purpose in the present and beyond

If there were a theme to the 2016 season, it would be a season of preparation and purpose. Buckle and Director of Football Graham Smith brought in new players and continued to develop the Academy teams, knowing that it was a matter of “when not if” the club would be in MLS.

Republic FC established newfound international respect in the football community when Chelsea FC legend and Montreal Impact player Didier Drogba reached out to train with the club during the preseason while he recovered from a knee injury. Later, one of West Ham United’s leading all-time goal scorers, Carlton Cole, joined Republic FC’s rank.

Adding to the list of the club’s accomplishments, the team set a new clean sheet record and single player scoring record. Led by goalkeepers Evan Newton and Dom Jakubek, Republic FC recorded an impressive 12 shutouts, while local player Cameron Iwasa set a new club record of 12 goals in a season. Republic FC also captured their first regular season title, finishing first in the Western Conference, before advancing to their third consecutive appearance in the USL Playoffs.

Marching onwards

For the front office, both leadership and staff focused on preparation for MLS. Late in 2015, fans packed Sacramento City Council for a unanimous vote by Council Members to a term sheet agreement that would place an MLS Stadium in downtown in the Railyards. In April 2016, those same fans (and a few thousand of their friends) packed the streets for an MLS Block Party, welcoming MLS Commissioner Don Garber to their city. L Street became a giant watch party with soccer fans spilling out of DeVere’s Irish Pub and Firestone Public House to welcome Garber with scarves raised.

“We love the brand they’ve created,” Garber shared with The Sacramento Bee. “They’ve been able to check the boxes that are required. This is a soccer city, and frankly we don’t see that very often. Sacramento is further along than any other market that we’re speaking to.”

Although the club’s co-founders had a vision of what Sacramento Republic FC might become, it was in 2016 that the club’s leadership and staff were able to create and define their purpose for a greater audience. Indeed, Sacramento Republic FC exists to make the Sacramento region into the most inspiring, energetic and rewarding place to live, work and play. The culture and passion that was rooted in the club since day one, now lives through these words. This purpose was evident when the club launched the Glory Glory Sacramento Fund in 2016, which distributed nearly $280,000 in grants to local charities throughout the season. As the club prepares for the future ahead, their purpose will only drive them further to help elevate the Indomitable City.

Sacramento Republic FC is the region’s homegrown club; a Sacramento start-up that has brought the world’s game to Sacramento and elevated Sacramento to the world. Today, as we celebrate our fourth anniversary and look back, we know in a few short years Republic FC and their fans and city have done more single-handedly than any other club looking to find a path to MLS. However, while the club looks forward to that opening day in MLS, Republic FC’s unbridled passion and love for their fans, soccer community and the Sacramento region and success at creating a place for Sacramento’s diverse community to gather is by far its greatest accomplishment as Republic FC marches on toward 2017.