Papa Murphy’s Park had no fans during the first game after returning from the three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photos by Steve Martarano)

Photos: Making Its Goal

During an unsettling season, Sacramento Republic FC heads to the playoffs once again

Back Photo gallery Sep 23, 2020 By Steve Martarano

A sold-out crowd, including an exuberant Tower Bridge Battalion, made Republic FC’s 2020 opener at Papa Murphy’s Park March 7.

Anticipation was high for Sacramento Republic FC’s 2020 home opener March 7, coming less than five months after the announcement that Sacramento would become a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in time for the 2022 season. 

Republic FC players celebrate the team’s first goal of the season, by Drew Skundrich, at sold-out Papa Murphy’s Park March 7.

The match against FC Tulsa ended 1-1, while featuring perfect weather and a post-game fireworks show for the sold-out Papa Murphy’s Park crowd. Everything seemed on track for an exciting seventh season. Coronavirus storm clouds, however, were lurking.

The 2020 season featured the emergence of 18-year-old Turlock native Hayden Sargis (right). The defender made his debut at age 17 on opening night and has started every game.

The pandemic forced California to shelter in place about a week later, and Republic FC didn’t play again until mid-July, emerging during a time of national social unrest in response to the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. 

United Soccer League play resumed without fans at Papa Murphy’s Park on July 13 (the match was California’s first professional sporting event since mid-March), and Republic FC played in the eerie silence of an empty stadium, with the stands only occupied by socially distanced media, team personnel and art boards curated by Boards For Change.

Related: Photos: A Gallery in the Grandstand

Only media and team personnel were allowed in the stands at Papa Murphy’s Park for Republic FC’s game July 13.

The team responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing BLM jerseys for the first match, and Republic FC players continued their support by taking a knee prior to each game. In more recent games, they also took a knee at the 7-minute mark of games to note the number of times Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. They would kneel until the 8:46-minute mark to signify the amount of time the police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck.

Sacramento players kneel before the Sept. 12 game at Papa Murphy’s Park to show support for Black Lives Matter.

After play resumed in July, the abbreviated 16-game season unsteadily moved along, with one game in Sacramento postponed due to a positive COVID-19 detection by a previous opponent. Several other games were played amid heavy smoke lingering from massive, record-breaking fires throughout Northern California. 

Members of the Tower Bridge Battalion take down a Tower Bridge Battalion sign after the scheduled July 29 match was postponed 30 minutes before kickoff because a previous opponent tested positive for COVID-19.

Then, another setback: The announcement came July 17 that Sacramento’s entry into the MLS was being delayed until the 2023 season because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

“Our club has gone through a lot this year, just as our community has,” Ben Gumpert, Republic FC president and chief operating officer, says. “And like the community around us, we have endured, persevered and come together amidst this environment, and are playing some of the best soccer we’ve ever played. Our goal is to compete for a championship and regardless of the type of year, that remains the constant.”

Ben Gumpert, Republic FC president and chief operating officer, talks to staff during halftime of a match Aug. 22 at Papa Murphy’s Park. Normally the concession stand area would be packed with fans.

Republic FC, led by coach Mark Briggs, surged to its seventh consecutive playoff appearance on the strength of a current nine-game unbeaten streak. The league’s 35 clubs were divided into eight groups with a single-elimination playoff to begin in October.

Sacramento native Cameron Iwasa celebrates scoring the game-winning goal against Portland Aug. 22. Just the week before, Iwasa, who has spent his entire career with Republic FC and is the team’s goals leader, scored his 50th lifetime professional goal.

Despite the delay in joining the MLS, plans for a 21,000-seat stadium in the downtown Railyards remained on schedule. The review and approval process is underway, Gumpert says, paving the way for the planned construction of the new stadium to begin later this fall. 

Another tenant could be the National Women’s Soccer League. Sacramento has long been included in reports that it was in the mix as an expansion franchise, and Los Angeles was added as the league’s 11th team in late July. Media reports in August indicated that a Sacramento team, operated by the Republic FC group, would be next.

Construction for Republic FC’s 21,000-seat MLS stadium near Seventh Street and Railyards Boulevard is on schedule to begin later this year.

Meanwhile, one result for the team from fans not being allowed into Papa Murphy’s Park is that Republic FC games broadcast on KQCA My58 and Estrella TV Sacramento and streamed on ESPN+ have attracted an unprecedented number of viewers. 

“We have had record-breaking engagement from our fans and that has shown in ratings across broadcast and on mobile,” Gumpert says, noting that ratings are up more than 400 percent over last year, which was an all-time high.

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