It’s underdog week here at SB Nation, and why not jump into the deep end on this topic in relation to Sacramento Republic?
Republic FC have never been underdogs in the USL Championship. From winning the league title their first season in existence in 2014, to never missing the playoffs to date, to having one of the largest fanbases and regular attendance bases in the league, Sac Republic are the Goliath, not the David. They are the team other teams use as measuring sticks for their own ambitions.
But with Sac Republic set to enter MLS in 2022, the tables may turn. Nearly by default, expansion teams in MLS don’t light the world on fire. Even if they may impress in terms of branding, fanbase and culture, the results on the field tend to lag and that brings down at least some of the enthusiasm. Instead of being a frontrunner, the pecking order changes a bit.
Can Sacramento Republic weather this shift to become possible underdogs when they enter MLS? There’s two main ways they can cope:
Don’t become underdogs
If you’re gonna join ‘em, gotta beat ‘em.
Ok I made that up. But there have been examples of expansion teams that bucked the trend for MLS expansion sides in recent years by starting out with a stellar fanbase and results on the field to back it up.
In 2009, the Seattle Sounders became the first expansion team since the 1998 Chicago Fire (and the Fire can barely be considered an expansion team considering it was MLS’s third season) to make the playoffs. They also became the first team since the Fire to win a trophy, lifting the U.S. Open Cup that year.
In 2017, Atlanta United, playing in a very different MLS than even the one in 2009 that the Sounders entered, became the first expansion team since the Sounders to make the playoffs. In 2018, LAFC matched that feat. Both clubs played in brand-new stadiums for all or part of their debut seasons in MLS.
The difference, of course, between Atlanta, LAFC and Sacramento is that the former two teams were built from scratch, having not previously existed. Sacramento will undergo changes, to be sure, but they have an existing framework.
Among the seven teams that existed prior to entering MLS since 2009 (not counting this year’s entry, Nashville SC, because they’re only two games into their debut campaign), only the Sounders reached the playoffs. And of that group, only two clubs, the Sounders and the Portland Timbers, have gone on to win MLS at some point since then in their MLS histories.
So by building the stadium (supposed to start soon! Check), having an engaged fanbase (absolute check!) and spending a lot of money to be immediately competitive (TBD) Sacramento could sidestep the bad days right off the bat.
LAFC bought Carlos Vela as a marquee player and mined for valuable unknown young talent in South America. Atlanta United paid a ton of money for unknown young South American Miguel Almiron, then bought Josef Martinez, miscast on his Italian team, who has turned out to be perhaps the best pure striker in MLS history. Martinez and Vela have since been MLS MVPs. Almiron was sold for an MLS record to a Premier League club. Atlanta won MLS Cup in their second season, the U.S. Open Cup in their third. LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield in their second season.
Listen, that’s the bar. If you want to avoid bad times, you just need to get an MVP-caliber star and hit paydirt on several more key players, while also having the right manager in charge.
I know that sounds easy and flippant, and it’s certainly not foolproof — there have been tons of teams around the world and in MLS who spend money foolishly — but that is the current blueprint. Be smart and spend a lot, and you’ll avoid the expansion blues and not be an underdog at all.
If Sacramento can’t do that, for whatever reason? There’s one more viable choice:
Be incredibly lucky, and be the smartest team in the league
If you can’t keep up with the top tier of spending teams, and again, Sac Republic probably will not, the alternative is to be smarter than the rest and get lucky, too.
Real Salt Lake had a good five-year window where they did this successfully. Their budget was one of the smallest around MLS. But they were aggressive in spending on their academy, a step that doesn’t pay immediate dividends but can save considerably over time. RSL looked for good deals in the transfer market, often buying players from second-tier South American countries or Central America, and hitting on enough of them to find success. They didn’t treat the MLS Draft like a throwaway, and while the Draft has been further devalued in the meantime, there are still ways to find contributors from it, occasionally even stars.
Most MLS teams have analytics departments these days, but the range of what those departments do and how robust they are vary significantly. If Sac Republic can’t find the money to splash the cash on an MVP-caliber player, they need the analytics department to find a squad that fits together like a glove and finds differential advantages through things like short corner kicks and playing style.
Sac Republic may have to do random things like pay a good scout to focus on Asia and hope that scout finds a couple players who can really make a difference in MLS. They could opt for a style of play that is so radical it would keep opponents off balance, like the San Jose Earthquakes’ man-marking scheme or Sporting Kansas City turning to a 4-3-3 formation years before the rest of the league got out of the standard 4-4-2.
If they went this route, the margins would be razor-thin, and counting on a committee of less-heralded players to share the scoring load, or hoping the Best XI-caliber defender you spent big in a trade to pick up doesn’t get hurt is the risk you take. It could work, it may not. It’s not impossible to transcend the “underdog” status here, but it would take a ton of work and some bounces to go their way to avoid it.
Above all, Sac Republic control their destiny in this regard. There’s more than one way to build a team, including in MLS, and there have been expansion team success stories in recent years. It’s a foregone conclusion Sacramento Republic will get the “underdog” mantle when they enter MLS in 2022, but with a good debut season, they can evade the worst connotations. Otherwise, they will have to get cozy with a whole new experience in their history, having gone from frontrunners in USL to underdogs in MLS.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.