Sacramento Wants To Be Major League

Major League Soccer is looking to expand, and the expansion Sacramento Republic FC wants to be a part of it. It'll be a lot of work.
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A man paces back and forth in the middle of the pitch. This is the coach, the leader of a squad built on jogging forms and rhythmic steps. His arms are folded and his hands intertwined, shoulders jutting; picture a king watching the second foundational stone of a great wonder placed upon the first.

He clasps his hands behind his back, now demanding demonstration of will from the players circling in three groups, his voice steadily chasing their tired legs, lap after lap. “Push! Everything you have now! Push the pace!” He yells.

This man is Preki, also known as Predrag Radosavljević, one of the great early legends of American soccer. In July, he became the first coach of the newly founded Sacramento Republic FC. Under Preki’s guidance, the team has been steadfast in its pursuit of a goal that’s simply understood and vexingly difficult to achieve: reach Major League Soccer, the top division of American soccer, and soon.

The club was founded by Sacramento businessman Warren Smith, and after its creation, joined USL Pro. The nascent league is considered to be the third division of American soccer, behind MLS and the North American Soccer League, or NASL. As currently constructed, it never pauses for stasis.

Three clubs have left the league since 2012, and five new clubs (including Sacramento Republic FC) will have joined by 2015. The league’s travails and weird growth spurts are both reminders of how much American professional soccer has surged over the past two decades. For all the various growing pains of leagues like USL Pro, the sport shows few signs of slowing, even as it struggles for sure footing in unsure depths.

“It’s changing. There’s a lot more teams and a lot more fans in the stands,” Preki says.

While USL Pro is not yet fully ensconced, it arcs ever closer to establishment. The league has attempted to strengthen its affiliations with MLS clubs in recent years, and with Sacramento Republic FC now entering a partnership with the nearby San Jose Earthquakes (and the less-close Portland Timbers), that foundation of legitimacy is solidified further. Preki’s players are about to begin a long season that will soon span 28 games and the breadth of opposite coasts, a season built on endless days of travel and performances aimed to excite a few thousand resolute fans.

“I’ve worked with Preki in the past, and I expect nothing less from him,” says Rodrigo Lopez, former Chivas USA midfielder and Sacramento Republic FC’s first signing. “It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a grind every day, but he also makes it fun.”

Lopez smiles as he remembers his early years with Chivas, the Los Angeles-based MLS team that gave Preki his first managing job in 2007. “He was a rookie coach when I had him. I think he’s gotten a lot better. Obviously with the years you learn a lot, and I think I’ve done the same thing,” Lopez continues.

What Preki radiates most, as he drifts from the field’s middle to its end, is a sense of command. This is felt as he organizes assistant coaches, as he speaks in short bursts to passing players, as he watches a live play -- even as he chuckles at a faintly heard joke. It’s felt most as he strides towards you, his back leaning just forward with every hunched step, his brow a potent furrow. Concentration is an ever-tangible presence in Preki-led training, and it is a heavy, bracing thing. There is the sense of unceasing demand that emanates from this legend, and it leads him to transcend his average stature. He still looms.

The groups finish their 15-minute lap, and again he checks his watch. “Keep moving, don’t stop,” Preki tells the pausing players.

They have three minutes until their movement begins anew. The field’s chalk lines beckon, a ready-made path for renewed travel; the squad soon paces once more.

Justin Braun emerges at the front of a group. He stands tall as he glides, glancing at his watch in step with his coach, careful to be sure of the pace, careful to follow in stride. The former Chivas USA and Toronto FC forward is one of the club’s newest signings, and he trusts in the franchise’s rising promise.

“I think they’re running it the right way. Things are done right and they’re taking care of the players,” Braun says.

For a club that wants to join MLS in a matter of short years, running things the right way is the only option. There can be no missteps. This is the era of MLS expansion, as commissioner Don Garber attempts to turn a 19-club league into a 24-club operation by 2020. An opportunity to reach the pinnacle of American soccer competition may never come again for this team or its players, not like this.

Two of those five expansion teams, New York City FC and Orlando City SC, have already been confirmed, with a third -- an unnamed Miami club headed by former star David Beckham -- soon to join.

That leaves two spots for the remaining fray, and competition for the coveted opportunities is heated. A possible Atlanta team, led by Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank, has carved out a strong position in recent months. Garber has mentioned Minneapolis, San Antonio, and San Diego as other possible destinations. Sacramento Republic FC will be competing with its sibling rivals from birth, and not just on the pitch.

But the northern Californian team has something those clubs do not in Preki’s pedigree and in the presiding purpose he brings from the club’s very epoch. This unified feeling holds the power of a firm symbol, the force of a building identity. This is the sort of bluntly stated ambition that sways the hearts and minds of fans and billion-dollar organizations alike. It’s a start, at least.

“We want to make sure that when people talk about Sacramento Republic, they understand this is going to be a club that’s going to compete in every aspect of every game,” says Preki.

As he watches the squad scrimmage, teams of green and red and yellow flying into action, Preki rarely speaks. He stops play only to ensure rules are followed and teams are intermittently changed. The small games end quickly, and the players begin a slow final lap to end practice. The day ends as it began, with the faint sound of cleats beating against ground. The field stays quiet as a cool wind plays across the grass.

“There’s a lot of room for us to grow,” Preki later says. Outside the black metal fence of this temporary home, room for growth anticipates its own existence. That possibility awaits somewhere close, somewhere through the pastures of Highway 80, somewhere in Sacramento. Preki’s job will be to help his team find it.

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