Untold Republic Stories: The NASL Didn't Return Sac's Calls
Note: With the uncertainty surrounding Sacramento Republic FC's MLS bid and therefore my upcoming book about the club's history, I've decided to release some of the information I've held onto for far too long. I won't divulge anything that will take away from the book's final product, but there are so many interviews, stories, and anecdotes regarding the club that are not for me to keep locked up. They belong to the fans of soccer in Sacramento, not me. Regardless of where the Republic end up, these items all deserve to be shared with those who care. For the first part in the series, I released an interview with Ray Hudson from 2016. I'll post something roughly every month for the foreseeable future.
"We finally got a (business) plan that I liked, so we took it to USL and the NASL. (The) NASL never returned our call."
Those are the words of Republic co-founder and former president Warren Smith. He told me this during a 2015 interview featuring him, fellow co-founder Joe Wagoner, and former club VP of communications Erika Bjork.
We were all drinking beers that night at New Helvetia Brewing Co. and I'm pretty sure I almost spat mine out when Smith told me that. In 2015 I couldn't believe it. In 2021, with the NASL entering its fourth year of hiatus, it seems like an obvious oversight from a league that wanted to be the best while failing at so turns. But it's important to understand where the state of lower division soccer in the United States and Canada stood back in 2012 when Wagoner and Smith made that call.
That year, the NASL and the USL were both just one year into play as separate leagues -- both had just split up after years of coexisting. In 2009, ambitious owners from some of the country's second division clubs announced their attempt to form a less restrictive league starting in the 2010 calendar year.
However, some legal challenges from those who didn't wish to change the status quo led US Soccer to sanction neither the NASL, or what would become the current day USL Championship, as the US's second division league. Instead, it ran its own competition including clubs from both leagues for the 2010 season.
Between the end of that year and the proposed 2011 NASL start date, two of its prospective ownership groups collapsed, while questions surrounded several others. Still, US Soccer granted the NASL second division status while the then-USL Pro was relegated to the third tier.
The NASL's first season consisted of eight teams mostly located in the southeast portion of the country. Squads went as far east as Puerto Rico, while the westernmost American team was San Antonio. At just 1,400 miles, FC Edmonton bested the Texans by nearly 300 miles to be the closest club to Sacramento.
That same year, most of the 12 USL Pro teams played even farther east, with the Los Angeles Blues (now Orange County SC) the only team west of Dayton, Ohio.
For 2012, when Wagoner and Smith readied their bid, the NASL lineup remained unchanged, while one USL squad decided to withdraw from the competition after the league released its schedule.
The USL did feature arguably the envy of lower division soccer between either league, though, Orlando City SC. The Florida club set attendance records in each of their first two years and would parlay that success into MLS in 2015.
Still, it's safe to say that neither league had much in the way of stability in the country -- both needed more investment, new markets, and fervent fanbases.
I'm not sure if Wagoner and Smith preferred either league from the beginning, but regardless, it seemed prudent for them to weigh all their options.
"We're getting started in February (of 2012), I still have the emails," Wagoner said. "Warren said, 'what league are you going to be in?' I said, 'there's two, let's call them both.' So I called them both, within 24 hours the USL called back...I called the NASL probably 10 times and couldn't get a call back at all."
This seemed like a horrible mistake from the NASL, which knew it needed to expand into more time zones in order to keep its second division status. It's impossible to say what would have happened if they did answer Wagoner's call, but it's worth it to explore where the two leagues went from there.
In 2013, the NASL switched a split season format that's more common in Latin America. The Puerto Rico Islanders took the year off as part of a planned restructure. Seven teams in the spring became eight in the fall with the re-introduction of the famed New York Cosmos. Meanwhile, the USL added the entity that would eventually become Phoenix Rising FC and a club that would dissolve at the end of the year called VSI Tampa Bay.
When Sacramento Republic FC finally played their first game, the USL had 14 clubs, with five now west of Dayton. This included 2014 expansion side LA Galaxy II, the MLS club's reserve team, the first in a long line of development partnerships with MLS.
Meanwhile, the NASL now included 10 teams, though it still failed to reach any markets west of the Central Time Zone in the United States. One of these two leagues continues on today.
Sacramento broke all of Orlando's attendance records and added a level of professionalism to the league while capturing the 2014 title. The NASL continued to market itself as a challenger to MLS's first division status.
At the beginning of 2017, US Soccer granted the USL provisional second division status in the country, putting it on the same level as the NASL. The expansion San Francisco Deltas won the NASL that year, immediately folded, and then the rest of the league went on an indefinite hiatus. The image above shows the clubs who played the league that year. Here's how they fare today, in order of their 2014 finishes.
Minnesota United -- The league's first champions joined MLS as an expansion franchise in 2017.
New York Cosmos -- Like the NASL, went on hiatus after the 2017 season. In 2020, they began play in the third division National Independent Soccer Association. As of publishing, the three-time modern-era NASL Soccer Bowl champions are again on hiatus.
San Antonio Scorpions -- One of the first clubs in the NASL to build its own soccer-specific stadium sold it to the city of San Antonio in 2015 and withdrew from the league one year after winning the Soccer Bowl. The NBA's Spurs bought the facility and launched San Antonio FC as a USL expansion franchise in 2016.
Carolina Railhawks -- The Railhawks rebranded as North Carolina FC in 2016 as part of an unsuccessful MLS bid. After the NASL went on hiatus, they joined the USL, where they played for three seasons. At the end of the 2020 season, the club announced that it would drop to the (third division) USL League One starting in 2021. In December 2019, MLS awarded Charlotte an expansion team not affiliated with North Carolina FC. They'll begin play in the league in 2022.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers -- Despite Brazilian legend Ronaldo joining the club's ownership group in December of 2014, the former striker grew frustrated with the closed American soccer pyramid and withdrew his support. The Strikers dissolved after the 2016 season.
Ottawa Fury -- The club moved to the USL after the 2016 season and played in the league for three seasons before USSF and Concacaf refused to sanction the club for 2020. Though Canada agreed to sanction Ottawa's status in the USL in spite of the new Canadian Premier League, the Fury sold their USL franchise rights to Miami and then dissolved. Atletico Ottawa joined the CPL in 2020 and play in the same stadium as the former Fury.
Tampa Bay Rowdies -- The 2012 Soccer Bowl champions joined the USL alongside Ottawa after the 2016 season where they've played ever since. In 2020, they qualified for the league's title game that ultimately was cancelled because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Atlanta Silverbacks -- The NASL took ownership of the Silverbacks in December of 2014 but couldn't find a new buyer for the club. They ceased operations in early 2016. Atlanta United, a completely different entity, joined MLS in 2017.
FC Edmonton -- The Canadian club joined the NASL in hiatus after the 2017 season, but came back in 2019 as a Canadian Premier League squad to form the original lineup for Canada's second division. They still play in the CPL.
Indy Eleven -- The Midwestern squad joined the NASL in 2014 and finished second to Sacramento Republic FC in average attendance in lower division soccer that year despite collecting just 27 points from 27 games. They jumped ship to the USL in 2018 after the NASL's hiatus and still play in the league.
In less than a month, the USL will begin its 11th season in its current form. Thirty-one clubs will take part in the competition. Of the 14 clubs that began the USL Pro season in 2014, six still play in the league. Among the other eight, Orlando went to MLS, three play in lower division with in the USL system (Charlotte, Dayton, Richmond), two are on indefinite hiatus (Harrisburg, Rochester), and one dissolved (Wilmington).
The NASL played seven full seasons. The most clubs to ever compete in the league came during the 12-strong 2016 campaign. Minnesota United and the Tampa Bay Rowdies are the only former Soccer Bowl champion who are scheduled to play soccer in 2021.
Would anything be different had the NASL taken Wagoner's call in 2012? It's impossible to say. But the league should have picked up the phone to at least listen.