Not so long ago, lower-division clubs moving up to MLS such as Portland, Vancouver and Orlando appeared to enjoy a distinct advantage compared to new counterparts being launched from scratch. Lately the conventional wisdom has evolved dramatically, thanks to the exploits of Atlanta United and LAFC, plus the early struggles of Minnesota United and FC Cincinnati.
So what does this mean for Sacramento Republic, the only so-called “promoted” club among the four expansion outfits currently preparing to join the league over the next two years?
“I guess that's one of the benefits of being later to the game, in a way,” general manager Todd Dunivant told MLSsoccer.com during a recent phone interview. “We've been able to see what other clubs have done, good and bad, and you can learn.
“We've got a two-year runway from when we found out we're going to join the league, and so we want to use that time to build out in the right way. We've got more time than other clubs have had and we want to use that to our advantage.”
Sacramento have eyed the first division since launching in 2014, and they laid down a statement of intent by winning the USL Cup in their inaugural season. With a downtown MLS stadium project at the Sacramento Railyards approved by their City Council way back in 2015, they were long considered a “shovel-ready” expansion contender before they finally got the nod last year.
The challenge now facing Dunivant and his colleagues is as such: Departing the USL Championship in style and carrying the best of what they’ve built into MLS come 2022, all without getting a rude awakening like the one that greeted FC Cincy a year ago.
“It's absolutely critical that we do well in USL,” said the former left back, who made more than 300 MLS appearances and won five MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields over his playing career. “We built our team, our players, our staff around the idea that we want as many players, as many staff, that have the potential to make that jump to MLS with the club.
“So that's that's how we built our roster and a big part of that is winning. We want winners, we want guys who are hungry, who are ambitious and all those things – are good teammates and represent our city and our values and everything that we are as a club.”
Dunivant speaks of a “balanced approach” to competing in MLS, though it seems as though a productive youth academy will be a key cornerstone.
“You need to do well in a lot of categories. You can't just have [Designated Players], you can't just have Homegrowns, you can't just have foreigners or domestic players. You need to be able to blend all of that. And that's the fun, that's the challenge when putting the roster together,” he said. “We certainly know that the Homegrown piece is going to be a big part for us. We're fortunate to be in a great area in terms of talent. We've had an academy now for five-plus years that's been churning out players, and we signed a couple this past offseason that we're really excited about.”
Even with the San Jose Earthquakes pursuing their own youth movement just 120 miles or so down the road, Sacramento see ample quality in their region and plan to harvest it.
“We’ve coexisted with the Earthquakes for over five years now,” Dunivant said. “Geographically it's actually a really big area, so certainly our territories overlap, but we're sorting through those details and the good news is that Northern California has a lot of good players. So we're going to benefit from that. And we really like our region, the players that we have, and that we can keep drawing on for years to come.”
Given how long Republic and their fans have been waiting for this opportunity, walking the tightrope from the USL Championship to MLS may look a bit less daunting to the “Indomitable” club than some of their peers. It’s a sizable jump in quality, but they believe that momentum and identity matter a great deal in negotiating that path.
“We have a fan base that comes out 10,000 strong every single week,” Dunivant began. “We're not going to roll out a substandard team. And since day one of this club, it's been successful. We won the championship in the first year, we made the playoffs every single season. It's something that the fans have come to expect and quite frankly, it's something that we as a club put a lot of value on.
“We can't guarantee how many people we bring to MLS, or how many players, but we can definitely bring culture, we can bring our identity and who we are as a club. And that that's certainly our fans, that's certainly what we do on the community side. As a club, all the things we represent, we can do that now, which will translate into what we do in MLS."