Sacramento: From The Outside Looking In

SACRAMENTO – The Pacific division of the United Soccer League’s Championship tier is both competitive and complicated. Currently led by Phoenix Rising, and with Orange County, Tacoma, and San Diego all in a distant 2-3-4 clump that could separate after the next match for any of them, the next club down is Sacramento Republic FC. Sitting in fifth place with 22 points, the boys in old glory red are five points behind fourth place, seven points behind second place, and a very distant sixteen points behind Phoenix.

USL announced the 2021 playoff structure on April 20 of this year. The top four clubs from each division will get in and play single-elimination style with the top two clubs in each division earning hosting rights. Sacramento is currently on the outside looking in. One place back below the line, but also five points back. Getting into the top four will not be easy.

Sacramento hosts division rival San Diego on Saturday, August 28, in what can only be described as a must-win match. The homecoming for former Republic FC owner Warren Smith is certainly exciting; but make no mistake, there will be generosity on the pitch. A win by the Loyal could propel them into second place, thus opening the door to the opportunity to host. They want that.

A Republic FC loss would indeed make things much more difficult for Sacramento. A widening gap to rise above the line is not what you want to see entering a brutal September stretch that includes matches at Tacoma, home-and-home versus LA Galaxy II, at Las Vegas, on the road at Mountain division leader El Paso, and at home hosting a San Antonio squad that, while hovering just off the bottom of the Mountain division, has nearly the same total points as Republic FC does.

Remember when SRFC was “Built 4 MLS” – it was once a trending social media hashtag. Those days appear long gone. The celebration of approval to join MLS was thwarted when billionaire NHL Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle pulled out. The coronavirus pandemic played a role. The sharply escalating cost of to build the new stadium in the railyards was a factor. That went from an estimated $300 million up to $400 million. Infrastructure costs nearly doubled from $27 million to $47 million. The limited partners failed to raise and deliver roughly $60 million needed to continue. Don’t forget the MLS franchise fee. What was once reportedly $50 million went up to $200 million, and that was not paid. However, things didn’t end there. To proceed, Burkle and his partner Matt Alvarez needed acquire the majority stake from SRFC’s majority owner, Kevin Nagle. That too was never completed.

Naturally, to the casual fan, the answer seemed simple enough: just find another deep-pocketed billionaire looking to become a pro sports franchise owner. If only it was that simple. Unfortunately, following the ownership and investment breakdowns in Sacramento, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league had moved forward with vetting several alternatives: Phoenix, Las Vegas and – you guessed it – San Diego! Right about now, if you’re thinking Warren Smith is a genius, you would be correct.

However, just one week ago, Garber said MLS is “really intrigued” by Las Vegas as a potential market. What’s not to be intrigued by? Las Vegas has proven to be a sustainable home for both the NFL and the NHL. It certainly has long-standing NCAA presence. The NBA has run its summer league there for some time and may very well by eyeing both NBA and WNBA franchise placement there. MLB may be eyeing similarly, and they already have a MiLB AAA franchise there. USL-C has the Las Vegas Lights there. With USA Rugby and World Rugby hosting matches there, it may only be a matter of time before an MLR franchise lands there. Let’s also not forget the recent success of the Gold Cup final. CONCACAF proved it can host a major soccer championship match for a sell out crowd in an NFL stadium, never mind a soccer-specific one at roughly one third the total capacity. The truth is, Las Vegas is the sports capital of the world, and that has nothing to do with gambling. Why wouldn’t MLS want to have a franchise there?

It’s clear that the stakes are rising. In July, it was reported that the billionaire Wilf family, owners of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, bought MLS’s Orlando City SC for $400-450 million. They sold a limited partner minority stake to the billionaire DeVoss family, owners of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

Meanwhile, NYCFC is majority owned by City Football Group, owners of iconic English Premier League side Manchester City. Their minority owner is Yankee Global Enterprises – think MLB’s New York Yankees and the Steinbrenner family. All billionaires.

Who’s next? Could the billionaire Glazer family, owners of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and EPL side Manchester United, buy into MLS? It wouldn’t be difficult for them to eye the USL Championship side’s Atlantic division co-leader (alongside the Pittsburgh Riverhounds), the Tampa Bay Rowdies. They could just as easily see a fantastic opportunity in Las Vegas.

San Diego doesn’t have its ownership whale yet though. Warren Smith and Landon Donovan have Andrew Vassiliadis on board, but they need more. Rumors have swirled for some time that Taiwanese Canadian billionaire Joe Tsai might be interested. As an Alibaba Group co-founder, he certainly has the finances. He also owns the National Lacrosse League’s San Diego Seals, and he has a 49% stake in the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. In case owning a professional box lacrosse franchise seems weird, make a note, Joe Tsai played lacrosse at Yale University. Furthermore, in case you don’t know what box lacrosse is, and you wonder what NLL is relative to the Professional Lacrosse League (PLL), the difference is simple: PLL is full field, typically outdoors. NLL is played in arena, typically indoors. If you’re thinking NFL versus AFL, you’ve got it! Box lacrosse is like arena football, but it’s lacrosse, and it’s very entertaining.

Obviously, Tsai seems like an instant leading potential to majority own the Loyal and get them to MLS. Of course, don’t count out the Glazers, not that they’ve shown any interest in MLS, Las Vegas, or San Diego at all. Nevertheless, in case that didn’t open the door enough, a wise guidance would be not to count out any billionaire. The operative qualifier, however, remains the same. It is increasingly apparent that MLS ownership is perhaps best suited for billionaires, if not restricted to that class altogether.

That brings things back to Sacramento, on the outside looking in, below the line and looking up, and straining to remain relevant in an environment that appears less friendly to their interests. On the pitch, the boys in old glory red need to win. They need to beat San Diego tomorrow, and they need to win in September. In the front office, Sacramento needs to find a new lead investor. With former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez joining the effort to find a new backer, it’s clear that Sacramento hasn’t given up hope.

There’s an old saying, leadership trickles down from the top. It will take a series of exceptional performances and tremendous focus and discipline for the unit on the pitch to overcome the uncertainty of the unit in the clubhouse. For the fans, there’s only one thing to do: just keep showing up and cheering. On a seven-match streak without a loss, there’s plenty to be excited for and cheer on. The cub has certainly put office issues aside and played well for some time. If that continues, perhaps people the likes of the Glazers, the DeVoss family or others may be open to having a look. Sacramento hosts the San Diego Loyal at Heart Health Park on Saturday, August 28 at 7:00 PM. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN+.

Ahsan Awan has been covering sports for over a decade, and has been covering professional soccer, including USL and Sacramento Republic FC, since their debut in 2014. All images taken by Ahsan Awan for American Presswire and ©2021 Ahsan Awan for American Presswire subject to unlimited use under license unless otherwise noted. He can be found on Twitter as @quackarazzi and on Instagram as @quackarazzi.


SRFC Quails Salty After Seemingly Self-Inflicted Loss

SACRAMENTO – Wearing their new all-white California Quail kits, Republic FC, embracing their unofficial nickname, the Quails, under the leadership of Head Coach Mark Briggs, took to the pitch last night versus division leader Phoenix Rising FC. New jersey, newly branded stadium, a revenge match after last season's playoff-ending goal by Solomon Asante that was clearly a hand ball; but most of all, defense of history -- Phoenix had never beaten Sacramento on the road. Moreover, Phoenix Rising had never scored a goal in Sacramento. Their last one was during Sacramento's inaugural USL season in 2014. Then Arizona United SC, Phoenix Rising FC simply didn't exist. Of course, Sacramento would go on to win the championship that year, and they would begin their quest for elevation to MLS with a star added to the kit.

Perhaps this season was a star-worthy season. Perhaps it still is. At 2-2 with 6 points in 4 matches, Sacramento isn't out by any means. Sitting fourth in the standings with upcoming matches versus the two teams below them on the board, the boys usually dressed in old glory red have the potential to create real separation between the top and bottom four within the division by the end of the week. Albeit a bit early to be separating with any safety, a pair of wins would certainly ensure Republic doesn't fall too far behind the leaders, if not land them right up there with them.

Heading into Saturday evening though, Republic was 2-1. Six points could've become nine. That was the plan. Unfortunately, that plan never had a chance. Sacramento never got anything going. Phoenix looked every bit in command from the opening kick. Short of calling the match a disaster, it certainly felt like a waste of time. The lineup was off. The energy was off. Despite the physicality (31 total fouls), the intensity was non-existent; that is, it was non-existent on the pitch. Mark Briggs was perturbed, to say the least. He seemed salty and annoyed. He said the night was disappointing, but to be a fly on the wall in the post-match locker room would surely have been a popcorn the crunch of which couldn't mask what must have been a colorful conversation.

The worst part about the loss isn't that Republic lost. It's not even that Phoenix won. The worst part is the sense that Sacramento didn't fight. The match never got aggressive. The disciplinary summary reflects that. Three yellow cards on Phoenix, ZERO on Sacramento. The home team did not fight. While Sacramento notched 16 fouls, Phoenix tallied 15. The physicality of play was essentially even. Sacramento just never pushed the limits. Sacramento also logged half as many shots, and not a one was on target. Despite dominating the corner seven to one, everything else was even.

According to Phoenix Manager Rick Schantz, the key to the match was tempo control. Phoenix demonstrated strength and maturity  by balancing tempo on the road. They didn't dominate, they didn't log lopsided minutes in either direction. They maintained possession 48% of the match versus Sacramento's 52%, but their passes were accurate 75% of the time versus Sacramento's 71%. That led to twice as many shots (13), 4 on target (versus Sacramento's 0). Phoenix had a balanced attack, a solid match plan, and they executed like a team on a mission to contend for a championship.

So what went wrong for Sacramento? Phoenix's lone goal cam in the sixty-second minute. They got their third yellow card just five minutes later. Then came the substitutions. Sacramento sent midfielder Tucker Bone in for striker Dariusz Formella. They took out defender Shannon Gomez and replaced him with Jordan McCrary. They also replaced midfielder Fatai Alashe with striker Cameron Iwasa. All of that happened by the 70th minute. In the 87th minute, Republic replaced striker Kharlton Belmar with striker Julian Chavez.

Perhaps the issue is the lineup. Perhaps some of those coming off the bench should be starting on the pitch. Perhaps some of those who are underperforming should be dealt with differently. Many an armchair manager has a theory about what would work better, who would work better, but none of them are on the pitch working with the club day after day. Mark Briggs is a solid leader. His plan is equally worthy of trust. The starting IX simply need to fight harder, draw contact, draw cards, get shots on goal, get shots on target; and of course, they need to find the back of the net.

That last point is perhaps the most important. Republic FC needs to find the back of the net, and they need to do it more than their opponents. They'll get their chance twice this week. Sacramento begins a two match home stand at Heart Health Park welcoming USL's newest championship level club, Oakland Roots SC, on Wednesday, Just 2 at 8:00 PM, and then Orange County SC just three days later on Saturday, June 5 at 8:00 PM. Both matches will be broadcast live on ESPN+, KQCA My58, and Estrella TV. The June 5 match versus OCSC will also be broadcast live on SiriusXM satellite radio.

Ahsan Awan has been covering sports for over a decade, and has been covering professional soccer, and Sacramento Republic FC, since their debut in 2014. All images taken by Ahsan Awan for American Presswire and ©2021 American Presswire. He can be found on Twitter as @quackarazzi and on Instagram as @quackarazzi.