I recently had a chance to catch up with Sacramento Republic FC President and Chief Operating Officer Ben Gumpert. We talked about how he landed with Republic FC, the state of the club, growth of the United Soccer League, MLS expansion, World Cup 2026, and what he does to get away from the demands of his job (spoiler alert — it may involve more soccer).
In total, Gumpert and I spent over 30 minutes talking. Even though I’ve known him for a couple of years now, I found him to be incredibly open and transparent with his answers, particularly as it relates to the Republic’s MLS bid. But read on, try to connect the dots, and draw your own conclusions.
Without further delay, below is our conversation.
Can you give me a little insight into your background and how you arrived at Sacramento Republic FC?
Well, first and foremost, I am a born and bred Sacramento kid. I’ve always had a love and passion for my home. My mom moved here when she was less than five years-old, so it’s just been a place that’s been incredibly special to me.
I grew up playing soccer. I was never really any good, but was good enough to make a couple of teams and made our high school team. I played as a senior and at keeper for the Rio Americano Raiders. It was awesome. Some of those friendships I had then have lasted to today.
I left for sixteen or seventeen years [and was in] Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and was fortunate to find myself some great jobs in the NBA. But then there is nothing more perfect than coming back to Sacramento to work for the Kings. It was always something I thought about....is there a way to move back to Sacramento and be part of the growth of this city?
With a new ownership group [in place] for the Kings, the opportunity came to be part of not just the Kings themselves, but more around building the arena, building downtown and the brand for the Kings. It was also an opportunity to make sure Sacramento continued to be a thriving community.
And through that, I met Kevin Nagle. I reconnected with Mark Friedman. I met Phil Oates. And the list goes on and on. [These] are great investors who were part of saving the Kings and also [pivotal] to working on the Republic.
As that was happening and I was leaving the Kings, there was an opportunity to come to the Republic. It was far too good to pass up being part of this start up team that Warren (Smith), Joe (Wagoner), Tim Stallings and others had founded just a few years back. It was exciting.
Are you pleased with how the season is progressing so far, both in terms of performance on and off the field?
I am pleased, but never fully satisfied. I think when we came into the season, there was a lot of changes. It was certainly a transitional period in many ways. Whether it was Graham Smith departing last year, and then Paul Buckle and some of his staff leaving... there was a lot to do in a short amount of time.
I’m thrilled that we have guys like Todd Dunivant at the helm from the general manager side and Simon Elliott. [Elliott] was always one that we wanted to grow within this organization and it certainly worked out with him. Benjamin Ziemer too. These guys are not just fantastic soccer minds, but also just great culture guys. [They] have a commitment to excellence and putting in the work every day.
Given all that change, we’ve jelled better than I thought. Our locker room is strong...it’s a great group of guys that understand the mission. They are team first and put in the work. There’s a lot of things we need to continue to work on, but every year, our goal is to make the playoffs in an increasingly competitive league.
Off the pitch, I would similarly say that it’s been a year of transition. We continue to find ways to invest in the experience. We’ve done well, but we continue to need to do better. We need to continue to show greater accessibility for our fans and value. We’ve certainly done more whether it’s simple things like firework shows, having people down on the field almost every game to take pictures or shoot on goal.
There are things that we really need to offer back to our fans, because they’re the ones who truly made the Republic such an incredible phenomenon that nobody expected and blew everyone out of the water. But that happened because there’s true fan ownership and that needs to continue in every aspect.
Is this the strongest the USL has been as a league? Anything from your view that needs to be improved to continue to move the league forward?
The USL has gotten much better. It’s much more capitalized and has gone into some good markets, but needs to continue to have the attitude that we haven’t made it anywhere yet...we need to continue to grow and invest.
We're starting to see the right facilities around the country, [in terms of] the right pitch, locker rooms, and teams investing in fanbases. I feel incredibly fortunate in Sacramento to have such an unbelievable fanbase that's knowledgable, that’s saavy, and that supports their team like no other. It’s great to see that in some other markets, but that’s still not universal across the league, and it needs to be.
It’s [important] that this continues to happen and ownership groups come in and put in the right capital and resources and not just dollars. [It can’t be] just about soccer, but about building a platform for their community to do good.
I think fans are fairly grounded on where we stand with our MLS bid, but I know you’ve recently been in Atlanta for the MLS Star Game, and have been traveling to other cities for what I’m guessing is related to the bid….are you more hopeful today then you were, say six months ago about Sacramento landing an MLS expansion franchise?
I am more hopeful and more confident. And I would say that’s already from a high-level of confidence. But it’s certainly grown and especially recently. You mentioned Atlanta.
It was certainly great to connect with MLS owners, Commissioner Garber and Deputy Commission Abbott [there]. We got a lot additional positive feedback, especially from MLS owners around what we continue to build in Sacramento.
As we’ve talked about since December, it was clear at that point the path to MLS was through a new lead investor. And of course, it also includes the fanbase, but we’ve checked that box so emphatically. Certainly on the stadium plan to be right in the heart of downtown in the rail yards in an area that is the front porch of Sacramento will be key to the development of the city. That box is checked emphatically as well.
[A] lead investor though is our path to MLS. We’ve had a number of conversations...Kevin Nagle has spent an incredible amount of his time traveling across the country as well. We’ve been lockstep with MLS on that front so there are no surprises.
As they’ve said multiple times, they want to see a team in Sacramento given everything we talked about, and those conversations have progressed incredibly well. There is a lot that needs to happen, there’s a lot of sign offs that need to happen in getting this MLS franchise that this city and fanbase deserve, but I would say we are very close.
We are taking the right steps to bring it to a close, and hope to have great news to roll out publicly in the next few months.
Are you concerned that if Sacramento doesn’t get the bid, the casual fan that has been investing on the hope of getting an MLS team, may walk away? Not necessarily anything deliberate, but just over time the fad and excitement over the club wears off a bit?
I don’t think that I would look at it so much as a concern, but more of a challenge. First and foremost, I feel incredibly confident that this will be an MLS team. But to address your question specifically, it’s our job to make sure that we are building the game of soccer here in Sacramento. Period.
That’s true that for USL, that’s true for MLS, that’s true for whatever happens. I would say similarly, it’s our job to make [Sacramento] a better place to live, work and play.
As a USL team right now, there are no excuses. We need to build a fantastic environment that has good play on the field and that shows accessibility for our fans that provides a valuable experience. We have to create a cool experience during the match, but really year around.
I love the events we’ve done in Oak Park. We need to continue to build our academy. We need to be partnering with recreational clubs like the great Sierra Oaks Soccer Club for one (laughs...). You know, [we need] to build coaches education and having clinics for six year olds. That has to happen.
If we’re doing that and doing it well, and continuing to grow and not being satisfied with what we’ve done and continue to push higher, I am fully confident that we can get there and build a great brand of Sacramento Republic Football Club for years to come. It’s not easy as you said, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.
How realistic would it be for Sacramento to become a host-city for the 2026 World Cup in North America? Has there been any preliminary discussions?
There absolutely have been preliminary discussions that are likely tied to Levi Stadium as a host site. Obviously, there is eight years to go before that event happens, but the planning starts now. There’s no reason that Sacramento, with an MLS stadium and facilities would not be in strong consideration to be a host city.
We won’t have U.S. qualifying games for 2026 because we would expect an automatic qualification (as a host country), but there could certainly be friendlies in the run up to that. But even before that, if we have an MLS stadium before 2021, that could be part of the qualify run for World Cup 2022.
Could we also host qualifying matches or friendlies from the U.S. Women’s National Team? Absolutely, and we’re building the facility to FIFA standards that would enable all of those matches to take place.
Flipping back to the World Cup in 2026, to have a tournament of that magnitude possibly come to our doorstep...it’s something to appreciate. It would be an opportunity for Sacramento to showcase itself to the world.
When you’re not running the day-to-day operations of the club, what do you do to unwind and get away from it?
[Laughs] One thing that doesn’t get me away from the game, but is something that I love, is that I coach my two daughters. I’ve held that time incredibly sacred. To be able to make soccer practices, and spend time with my daughters and their friends in a team environment at the most fundamental level.
There’s few things that give me more joy then watching my Fighting Unicorns or the Cheetahs out there and seeing the growth of those teams over the last few years. I did it because I love to spend time with my daughters, but I’ve re-upped because I feel like I’ve taken more for myself than they get. It’s just cool. There’s nothing more fun then getting dog-piled on by the Fighting Unicorns after a nice victory.
The other thing I have started to do to unwind is seeing Sacramento and the area. We’ve been camping, gone on day and weekend trips with my family. My wife is from New York and is just blown away by with what we have here. It’s easy to take for granted growing up here, but certainly seeing it through my kids eyes has given me a new perspective.
So we do our best to get out, explore and see all that there is to offer here. It’s truly a special place and I feel like Sacramento has more assets than any other place in the world. I’m excited to see how we continue to make a brand for our city and what we can do moving forward.
On behalf of Indomitable City Soccer, I would like to thank Ben for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with me.