The announcement a few days ago that the United Soccer League (USL) would again expand in 2014 with a team in Sacramento gave me both a sense of excitement and skepticism.
A definite positive is the fact that the ownership group is led by Warren Smith, founder of the Sacramento River Cats – the most successful (and best supported) minor league baseball team in the recent decade. His experience in building a sports organization from scratch will be invaluable over the coming months and his knack for attracting investors even more valuable in the years to come.
Another group, led by Fabian Nunez in partnership with Sacramento suburb Elk Grove, has been chasing a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion franchise but that is a very tall order given New York City is a shoe-in for the next team and the other leading contenders (Atlanta and Orlando) both have lower division teams with an established fan base.
Warren Smith, however, is looking to create that fan base in Sacramento by starting with a team in a lower tier (USL Pro currently being the third tier in the US soccer pyramid) and building towards an MLS bid. This seems like a much more sensible idea and is the kind of approach that was successful in Seattle and Portland with the Sounders and Timbers. A Sacramento MLS team would also be a natural rival for the San Jose Earthquakes, something the league is actively encouraging.
The ingredients for a solid fan base are here:
- The area has a vibrant youth soccer culture
- Many adults play in both indoor and outdoor amateur leagues.
- Sacramento is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the USA with large numbers of people of Latino and European decent – who were brought up on the game.
- The Sacramento Knights indoor team drew good crowds to Arco Arena from 1993-2001, averaging over 6,000 per game,
There is even a ready made feeder club opportunity with established amateur team Sacramento Gold FC, who play in the fourth tier National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
My skepticism over the teams prospects lies in their choice of venue, Sacramento City College’s recently renovated Hughes Stadium. The 84-year old facility has hosted a huge variety of events but its layout is simply not good for soccer.
MLS learned very quickly that games need to be played in soccer specific stadiums and pushed their teams to build them. A big element in soccer is the atmosphere inside the ground – the high noise level, the chanting of fans and their closeness to the pitch. That last element is impossible at Hughes Stadium with its athletic track between the playing surface and the stands – plus there is no viewing area behind the south goal and behind the north goal the seats are 100′ away!
Compounding the problem of creating a “soccer atmosphere” is the sheer size of Hughes Stadium which has a seating capacity of over 20,000 (in comparison the new Earthquakes MLS stadium will hold only 18,000). With the highest average 2012 attendance in the USL Pro league was at Orlando City with around 6,600 fans but the Los Angeles Blues could only manage crowds of around 600. Why would Smith choose to play home games in a cavernous stadium that will at best be only 1/3 full – and at worst practically empty?
Sure, the first few exhibition games will be packed – maybe even sell-outs – but for the long haul it seems to be a very strange choice. Hopefully it is just a temporary solution while the team raises funds for a permanent home elsewhere in Sacramento.
Despite my reservations I will be actively following, promoting and commentating on Warren Smith’s endeavor over the coming months as I see it as a great step for soccer in the region.
Start practicing your chants and I hope to see you at a game!