Welcome to Sunday Spotlight! For those new here, Sunday Spotlight is a series where we feature the players and people behind Sacramento Republic FC in a three-four question format. As a forewarning, this interview went longer than usual — and for good reason.
I had a chance to sit down with Republic FC General Manager Todd Dunivant. We spoke about his journey into soccer, his top highlights as a professional footballer, the San Francisco Deltas, how he landed the Republic gig, the state of the team, MLS to Sacramento (a must read) and so much more.
Again, long interview ahead, so grab your favorite beverage and let’s jump in.
Talk about your path from youth soccer to playing professional. Was it a thing where you knew at a young age you had a special gift to play the game and it was something you were going to pursue, or did it come about another way?
Yeah, good question. So I grew up in Colorado and played for the Colorado Rush my whole upbringing and loved played sports. Not just soccer, I loved playing basketball, tennis for several years and just loved being outside doing stuff.
I had a way about me that wasn’t flashy. I always flew under the radar, which was just part of my personality I guess. I had an older brother who was six years older than me, an older sister who was five years older than me, and I was sort of the runt of the family. So all I wanted to do is beat them and try to win in everything I could.
But it ultimately pushed me and made me better. I didn’t know that I had the ability to be a professional athlete...it was sort of a foreign concept for me. As I tell our academy kids now, you have so much access to the professional teams and game. I never had that access growing up. It wasn’t on television all that often.
It was my dream to be a professional athlete, but the realities to do were not. I never knew. So that’s why I always tried to do well in school and chart two paths if you will so that if it didn’t work out, I had an education.
As someone who has played at the highest level, what did you love most about playing? Do you have a favorite moment?
My favorite thing about playing was being part of a team. It took me awhile to figure that out, but ultimately that’s what I loved was being part of a group that had aspirations for greatness, for championships and a common goal. At the end of the day, winning is kind of what it’s about, so I am proud of the fact that I was part of a lot of championship teams, had a lot of great teammates and hopefully was able to impact my team in a positive way.
In terms of favorite moments...I mean, there are so many. Honestly, any of the MLS Cup Championships. For me, my best season was 2011 where I think I played every minute of every game, ended up on the best XI team at the end of the year, we won the championship, we won the supporters shield, we advanced through a very difficult Concacaf group stage and just sort of had this storybook year.
It’s the same year I met wife, so it was a good year for me. That’s a hard one to beat.
[As far as] individual moments, I would probably say my first ever career game. I happened to play in front of my home fans in the season opener in 2003 against Colorado Rapids. An injury to Eddie Robinson kind of opened the door for me to be able to get in and start the game, and I ended up scoring the game-winning goal in front of all my friends and family, so that was pretty sweet.
The two national team appearances that I made leading up to the 2006 World Cup before I tore my quadricep were pretty special, and perhaps the best I played in my career.
You quickly transitioned to the business/operations side of the game following your retirement. How did the San Francisco Deltas opportunity come about, and later your current role as General Manager of the Republic?
It’s funny how it all kind of worked out, but I got a message in December as I was retiring from an old college buddy, and he said hey, I am not sure if you have figured out your plans yet, but I am part investor in this new professional soccer team in San Francisco and [would] you be interested in talking to our CEO. It was kind of as simple as that.
Initially, I was against the idea. I only knew the MLS wove and that’s all that I had my eyes set on, but the more I thought about it, the more I investigated, the more I talked about the opportunity, it became pretty clear that it was a great one to be able to come in at high level, be able to wear a lot of hats and learn the business. I learned more in those two years than I probably will learn the rest of my career combined. And it was an absolute great experience and [opportunity] to learn the trade. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you are on a division four team or division one team, the skill of the jobs are still the same. For me it was very important to dive in and be able to learn that straightaway.
The opportunity with the Republic sort of presented itself. The more I met with people here like Ben Gumpert, Kevin Nagle...I saw their vision for Sacramento and this club, and it was a match made in heaven as far as I was concerned, and my mind hasn’t changed on that.
What is your assessment of how the season has gone so far?
I think by any measure, we are not happy with where we are. I don’t think the players are happy, I don’t think the staff is happy, I know there is more in this team and they know there’s more too.
The upside for me is that we have gone through a lot in short timeframe, we’ve had to look at who we are, we’ve had to look in the mirror, and nothing has been swept under the rug, so come crunch time, we’re battle tested. We are going to know what we are about, so that’s a positive.
If you look at the standings...for as inconsistent as we have been, we are in striking distance of the top four, so we are fully focused and have a made a few tweaks to the roster that we think are very positive. At this point, our biggest focus is scoring goals. We need to score goals, put balls in the back of the net that change games and we haven’t done enough of that this year.
Had you been eyeing Thomas Enevoldsen? Walk me through a how a deal like that with a player of his caliber comes together so late in the season?
It worked out really well. Like you said, he’s a top, top player. He’s played in the World Cup, he’s played in Champions League, he scored 20 goals in our conference last year, so we are very familiar with Thomas.
When we heard from Indy Eleven that there might be an opportunity at him, our eyes lit up. The challenging thing for us is you never know what the player’s motivation are, but upon speaking to Thomas, you hear how exciting he is to come back to California and back to Sacramento. He loved the environment here, loves California and his girlfriend came with him, so all those things sort of matter off the field. He’s very motivated to find that form that he had last year, and I think he sees too the potential in our team and the fact that we’re near the top of the league in chances created, [but] need someone to put it in the back of the net. That’s certainly something we think he can do.
I know your focus is squarely on the field, but I know you are also tracking like all of us MLS to Sacramento. Are you still optimistic? And if it does happen, do you ever think about the opportunity to do what you’re doing in MLS?
I am absolutely confident that we are going to get an MLS award in very short order. It has been worked on diligently behind the scenes for months and years. To be able to be behind the scenes and watch that...maybe that’s part of the confidence, but I have no doubts that we will be bringing MLS to Sacramento and it’s going to be a huge thing for this city and huge thing for this club.
It is certainly a big reason why I came to the club, and a big reason why our players do and is a big reason why our academy players are here. That’s not to say the the USL team doesn’t matter, because it does. We know the roots of the this club and know the importance of the grassroots of this community, so we see a bright future ahead.
I am all in with the Republic and all in with MLS. I’m very optimistic we’re going to get good news soon.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about what is right and wrong about youth soccer in the U.S. From your perspective, what do you think is missing in youth soccer today? Or, are you encouraged by what you are seeing?
There is always room for improvement. Ask any country in the world...they are always adjusting, tweaking and analyzing. Is it too much structure, is it too much street, is there too much free play? This is a constant thing that is talked about not just here, but around the world.
I’m absolutely encouraged though by what I see. I’m absolutely encouraged by what I see in Sacramento. The talent level that we have here in this region is going to be a huge benefit to our club...it already has been, and that is going to be a big part of our strategy moving forward is utilizing our youth players and bringing them up through our academy and up to the first team and onto the field.
It’s a big question. For me, the fact that our academy players have touching access to just be around first team players, and in some cases being coached by those guys on the field, it’s huge. It’s absolutely huge for their development and for the sport in this county. It’s going to take a lot of work and we need a lot of good coaches to produce good players.
This sport in general here in America is still very young. I think that’s one thing people miss. Just MLS alone is 24 years old. You’re just now getting a second generation that is coming through. My generation is now having kids that are growing up and knowing their MLS club. You need a couple of generations to come through to really embed and plant yourself in the community.
So it’s just young. It’s hard to be patient. Everyone wants to snap their fingers, whether it’s a new CBA or World Cup cycle. There’s a patience factor that we [need] to have...and a realistic factor. Something like missing the World Cup...we have to use that our advantage to take a good look at ourselves to get better. We are not the only country that misses World Cups. Talk to England, France, Holland, or Italy...this happens all around the world and you have to use it get better.
When you are not working to improve the club, how do you get away?
I’m lucky. I have two young kids...about to have a third in October. They keep me pretty grounded. They don’t care if you win or lose or what happened during the day. Their world is much different than that. And I love it.
One of things I love about Sacramento is that it’s very community-based. I have never lived in a community like this where we have felt so welcomed. We interact with our neighbors on a daily basis in the street. I don’t think that’s normal in most places, but it’s special here in Sacramento and something myself and my wife and whole family absolutely love about this place.
On behalf of Indomitable City Soccer, I would like to thank Todd for taking time out of his business schedule to chat with me. Be on the lookout for additional features of the players and people behind the Republic all season long.