Warren Smith Set the Stage for MLS in Sacramento

Back Commentary Aug 1, 2019 By Tom Couzens

It was July 18, 2013, a typical warm summer evening for the first Sacramento Soccer Day, the brainchild of entrepreneur Warren Smith and veteran sports executive Joe Wagoner to help spur interest in their startup minor-league soccer team. Even if few people remember the outcome of the “friendly” between Norwich City Football Club of the English Premier League and Mexico’s Dorados de Sinaloa, the 14,000 who filled Raley Field will never forget what happened during halftime. 

The group, Sacramento Professional Soccer, announced the name — Sacramento Republic Football Club, aka Republic FC — and colors for the new United Soccer League team that was scheduled to debut the following spring. The response of the fans was beyond enthusiastic.

I ran into Smith during the event and expressed skepticism that professional soccer could be successful in Sacramento — after all, the Knights, Geckos, Scorpions and Senators had all come and gone — but Smith responded with his typical optimism. “This is just the start,” Smith told me (full disclosure: I was sports editor at The Sacramento Bee then). “We’re bringing MLS to Sacramento.”

I wasn’t the only skeptic, especially about Smith’s Major League Soccer vision, but he had a proven track record. He had played a key role — along with owner Art Savage and Bob Hemond, a longtime baseball executive — in bringing professional baseball back to Sacramento and getting Raley Field built in West Sacramento as the home of the River Cats, a Triple-A team that led the country in attendance for many seasons. 

“Feeling good about helping the region grow,” Smith says now. “They were two elements (River Cats and Republic FC) that would add fabric to the community.”

Republic FC debuted in Sacramento on April 26, 2014, at Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College. Several weeks before that match, Smith declared at a public event the match would sell out. “I came back (to the office),” Smith recalls, “and they said, ‘How the hell are we going to do that?’” But they did, with 20,231 filling Hughes, cheering wildly despite a 2-1 loss to the Harrisburg City Islanders.

But Hughes didn’t have space for a full-size pitch, so in June 2014, the team moved to a soccer-specific stadium at Cal Expo, and the team set league attendance records — drawing 158,107 for the regular season, about 45,000 more than the previous best — en route to winning the USL championship. 

Smith’s dream is about to come true — without him. It’s all but certain Republic FC will become an MLS team and play in a new stadium in The Railyards, likely in 2022. “I’m really happy for Sacramento,” Smith says.

The road to MLS wasn’t easy. It became obvious MLS wouldn’t award a franchise to Sacramento without a deep-pocket investor. Kevin Nagle, cofounder of EnvisionRx, a health care and pharmacy benefit management company, bought controlling interest in the team, which eventually led Smith to step down as president in May 2018. He agreed to stay on for another year as a senior adviser while also taking a position as a senior adviser for Oklahoma City Energy FC, another USL team. But even Nagle wasn’t enough for MLS; bringing aboard Ron Burkle, a billionaire businessman, movie producer and owner of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins, as lead investor seems to have finally put Sacramento over the top.

Smith is back in the game. He’s joined with Landon Donovan, the most decorated male player in U.S. soccer history, to bring a USL franchise to San Diego, where he says he plans to move this fall. The team will begin playing at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium in either 2020 or 2021, Smith says.

Smith isn’t just about sports. He says one of the things for which he’s most proud is his role as a board member for the Powerhouse Science Center, the former PG&E facility on the Sacramento River along Interstate 5 that’s being revitalized and incorporated into Robert T. Matsui Waterfront Park. “We deserve world-class facilities,” Smith says.

And that’s what Sacramento will have when the 20,000-plus-seat stadium is built in The Railyards. I slowly warmed up to soccer as Republic FC gained a loyal following — I’ve attended about a dozen games — and I am eager to join what should be a boisterous crowd for opening night. 

Tom Couzens
Executive Editor