The NorCal Turf War
I wake up feeling like you won't play right
I used to know, but now that shit don't feel right
It made me put away my pride
The lyrics of Childish Gambino's "Redbone" blared out through the speakers when I arrived at East 10th street Saturday evening in Oakland.
Half of the block was fenced off outside of the Laney College football stadium to produce a festive atmosphere on Juneteenth, recently named a federal holiday by president Joe Biden.
Hundreds of people gathered for a celebration of a community. There were some Steph Curry jerseys, but fans mostly sported the iconic black kits with rainbow trim from the Oakland Roots Sports Club. The Warriors may have recently left the community, but the Roots have already taken hold.
The club has made local and national headlines for its progressive thinking, incredible branding, and social proactivity. I couldn't wait to attend my first game and wasn't surprised that the lines on 10th for hotdogs, beer, and merchandise ran 20 deep. A friend who wished to attend the game told me that tickets were sold out.
Sacramento Republic FC, the team I cover, had played the Roots to a thrilling 3-3 draw that I couldn't attend earlier in the USL Championship season. As I walked through the gates and took a seat in the press area, I felt excited to take in an all-NorCal contest between two budding rivals.
Within 20 minutes of setting up, I was among the thousands walking out the gate. What was once supposed to be a momentous occasion for a thriving community quickly turned into a farce of the highest order. The game was canceled and everyone went home.
And it all could have been prevented.
When I arrived, I was unfamiliar with the playing surface the Roots used since first kicking off in 2019, but a quick Google search led to some truly crazy results. It made its way to California during a journey from Oklahoma City then New York.
Rather than a traditional artificial surface, it consisted of dozens of small squares laid down over the normal field. All of the squares were velcro'd together to form one standard size pitch that didn't include American football lines.
The part owner of the former NASL side Rayo OKC once stole half of them in the middle of the night. The New York Cosmos later leased the field before Oakland did the same starting in 2019.
While reading about the turf, I was both incredibly shocked and not at all surprised given everything that happened in the NASL's ill-fated revival.
This is literally how Paste Magazine described the tumultuous Rayo OKC situation all the way back in 2016:
The club's majority owner, who also owns Spanish club Rayo Vallecano, made a series of questionable decisions that precipitated massive turnover in the coaching staff and front office. In the immediate aftermath, allegations of impropriety -- from bounced paychecks to bizarre cost-saving measures -- damaged the club's and the owners' credibility and even led to some fans calling on the league to step in. In other words, things have been pretty weird-in-a-bad-way at Rayo OKC. And they just got worse. Last week the club filed a report with local police after they noticed several pallets of artificial turf were missing from the field. 92 pallets were laid down on the grass at Yukon High School's Miller Field to provide a playing surface for the club while preserving the natural field for the school's football team and marching band. Rayo OKC employees apparently noticed last week that 40 of those 92 pallets went missing in the middle of the night. After contacting police, club officials launched their own internal investigation into the incident.
This brings us to last Saturday night in Oakland. My initial reaction upon viewing the surface was, "well that looks like shit." Apparently I wasn't the only Sacramento-based person to think so either.
USL rules allow for the visiting team to have access to the stadium they're going to play in 24 hours before the game. Sacramento Republic FC players walked the field on Saturday morning and decided it wasn't safe to play on. The USL and the matchday officials agreed and the game was canceled about 25 minutes before scheduled kickoff. The Sacramento players never even came out to warm up.
According to sources I've spoken to about the incident, at least one Republic player sent pictures of the turf to the USL Players Association that morning to offer concerns about the playing conditions. This is their right and what the USLPA is for. Before the USL's recognition of the association in November of 2019, they would have had no power to do anything.
But the Republic, the Roots, and the USL knew of the issue the morning of the game, and still did nothing until the match officials inspected the pitch. They did nothing until the stands were already packed with excited fans from both teams.
I think it's the right of players, especially those in the USL who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, to make this kind of call. Their entire livelihood is at stake. But it's also important to note that this was never the Roots' intention -- the club hoped to replace the Rayo OKC turf by this game.
"A new, state of the art playing surface was ordered and was supposed to be ready for our home season," the Roots said in a release. "Due to a mixture of COVID-19 and weather-related incidents, significant shipping delays occurred. The delay required us to reuse our existing field."
It is, however, incorrect to state that all of the Republic players wanted to play, but the match officials and league decided against going forth with the game.
I've spoken to multiple people involved with both clubs and it seems that no one is satisfied with how the logistics went down. The Roots hoped to have a better playing surface but couldn't for reasons outside of their control. Also, I'm not really sure what they were supposed to do -- there are only two stadiums in Oakland that meet the requirements for USSF's second division and the other one is the Oakland Coliseum.
Credit to the Roots for taking full responsibility for the mishap.
"We are deeply disappointed by our failure to deliver a best-in-class soccer experience for the fans and players alike," the club said in that same release. "We are working diligently to make amends."
Back at the Tower Bridge Battalion tailgate, Republic captain Petteri Pennanen addressed the traveling supporters.
It seemed like certain sections of Roots fans felt the same way.
You only get once chance to make a first impression and sadly, this is how it went down for the Oakland Roots. The club had several special events lined up for Juneteenth and I'm told a certain former Seattle Seahawks running back was in attendance to help with the festivities.
So who is to blame?
It doesn't matter. All that matters is that what could have been an amazing home opener against a local rival on a historic day didn't take place.
Everyone lost here.
"How'd it get so scandalous?"