Fever Pitch

Are you ready for some major league fútbol? MLS has finally tapped Sacramento to join its very exclusive club. Here’s an in-depth look at the new stadium and how it will raise the game for both soccer fans and our city.

Illustration by Neil Jameson; Stadium rendering by HNTB

The Tower Bridge Battalion contingent that crowded onto the mezzanine at The Bank on Oct. 21 was small, but its roar was mighty, and made the building shake. Along with a couple hundred city and state officials, sports VIPs and members of the press, the Battalion was there to bear witness as its hometown team, the Sacramento Republic Football Club, was officially welcomed into Major League Soccer by MLS commissioner Don Garber. The five-year bidding process may have had more drag-backs than goals, but the club’s trademark indomitable spirit was never snuffed, through ownership changes, financial setbacks and year after year of the big brush-off—as Gov. Gavin Newsom pointed out in his brief address to the crowd, delays aren’t denials. Thundering chants of Glory, Glory, Sacramento and Republic ’til I die! Republic ’til I die! filled the massive room as a beaming Mayor Darrell Steinberg stood at the podium and proclaimed, “The wouldn’t-it-be-great-if era is over.” Subtext: It’s go time, folks.

With 2022 marked as Republic FC’s debut MLS season, groundbreaking for its new 20,000-seat stadium is expected to happen as early as this spring. Poised to be the crown jewel of the railyards (more literally than you might imagine, given that the blueprints call for a perimeter mounted with faceted crimson “gems,” a graphic pulled from the team’s beveled-star insignia), the privately financed $300 million arena is gloriously “soccer-specific.” Believe it or not, this modern concept has only developed over the last decade in the U.S., where soccer, universally considered “The World’s Game,” is still not nearly as popular as pro football (though it is the fastest-growing sport in the country—a recent Gallup poll found a three-point uptick in soccer’s popularity among Americans, while football experienced a small, but significant, two-point falloff). And it’s a welcome trend, because while MLS teams have long played on turf made for gridiron gangs (the two sports have similar field dimensions), soccer’s smaller fan base and intimate atmosphere are best served in cozier spaces. “We’ll put the fans as close to the field as we can without jeopardizing their safety or the players’ safety,” says project architect Gerardo Prado. “[Fans] want to feel like they’re part of the action and we want them to feel that way too.”

From left, Republic FC lead investor Ron Burkle, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg celebrate as the Republic is announced as MLS’s newest team on Oct. 21. (Photo courtesy of Downtown Sacramento Partnership)

The steady ascent of soccer in America can be linked to the rise of soccer-specific stadiums in the urban core, a foundational piece of any modern-day MLS bid, along with established (and growing) community support and the billionaire-level finances of the ownership group—in January 2019, Republic chairman and CEO Kevin Nagle was joined by new backers Matt Alvarez, an entertainment executive, and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, who shores up the team’s portfolio with his $1.6 billion net worth. (As owner of the National Hockey League’s five-time Stanley Cup champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Burkle also brings a winning sports heritage to the Republic.)

 “The idea is that if you have a soccer stadium in the heart of the city, it will energize the surrounding communities and bring in more development,” says Republic FC president Ben Gumpert. “So, in addition to being a real showpiece for a city, it also acts as a unifying force.”

He would know. The stadium isn’t the first major sports venue the Sacramento native has worked on. As the former chief marketing officer for the Sacramento Kings, Gumpert helped guide the Golden 1 Center into existence. Now the arena regularly sells out concerts and basketball games, and its DoCo microhood has significantly buoyed and animated the previously underachieving area. That is bound to happen around the Republic FC stadium too—designs for an entertainment district are in the works for the venue’s 14-acre parcel inside the 244-acre railyards development, which is the largest infill project in the nation and will double the size of downtown Sacramento. A grassy field or two could host pickup games and tailgating. “We want game days to be a full experience where people come early to celebrate and stay late to celebrate,” says Gumpert. And like at DoCo, restaurants and retail could really thrive here, especially given that the stadium, like G1C, will have plenty of opportunities to host concerts and other events, with each MLS team playing fewer than 20 home games during the regular season. Ever since the Cal Expo Amphitheatre—which hosted headliners like David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Metallica and the Grateful Dead—closed in 1998 partly due to noise concerns from neighbors, the city’s outdoor concert scene has never been the same. The 11,500-capacity Papa Murphy’s Park, the Republic’s current home turf, was built at Cal Expo in 2014 (with noise reduction features) and moonlights as a venue for midsize concerts, but locals still have to make the 45-minute drive to the 18,500-seat Toyota Amphitheatre in Wheatland to hear the musical stylings of Brad Paisley or Snoop Dogg under the region’s gloriously cloudless summer skies. The new, larger Republic stadium is expected to pick up where the Cal Expo Amphitheatre left off, bringing big outdoor stadium concerts back to Sacramento, and theoretically doubling the region’s draw for A-list acts who want to play open-air venues.

The new stadium will be designed to create a “wall of fans,” with features like a steep rake, a “safe standing” section and a 360-degree roof canopy. (Rendering by HNTB)

Only a mile or so will separate the Golden 1 Center and the Republic Stadium, so for better or worse, you might not be able to avoid the bustling, festive atmosphere on joint event days. In fact, hearing the roar of the crowd at the Republic stadium from your coordinates anywhere on the grid wouldn’t be totally beyond the realm of possibility. Prado, who serves as sports practice leader of Kansas City-based architecture firm HNTB (also the designers of Raley Field, now Sutter Health Park), says he took cues from the deafening hinchada fan tradition of his native Argentina to make the Republic stadium “as noisy and intimidating as a sports venue can be.” This unsettling degree of enthusiasm will be accomplished in a couple of ways: First, a 360-degree roof canopy is a literal sounding board off which the crowd’s booming cacophony is bounced and intensified. (The metal structure offers some protection from the elements, but home games typically start at 7:30 p.m., when the summer sun is low enough to keep fans comfortable.) Second, the rake of the seating bowl is steep; as close to vertical as physics will safely allow when there are 20,000 cheering people on their feet—standing, yes, but also jumping, dancing, and any number of other victorious maneuvers—for most of the game.

With no separate upper and lower seating bowls, the throngs will appear to visiting teams as a frighteningly impenetrable “wall of fans.” The north seating section will be dedicated to the Tower Bridge Battalion and other Republic supporters’ groups like the Levee Patrol, and will be completely bereft of seats, useless as they are at this level of fandom. Instead, “safe standing” will be accomplished with hip-high rails accessorized with cupholders. Other amenities include podiums for capos (designated supporters’ group directors who lead chants) and places to store drums and tifos, large banners emblazoned with antagonizing messages for the opposing team painted onto sewn-together bedsheets. For example, in a game a couple of years ago against the Portland Timbers, the Battalion unfurled a taunting tifo that read, “Save a Forest, Eat a Hipster.” A lively standing-room-only experience on a two-tiered “party deck” above the supporters’ group section will provide another perspective for Republic fans—more panoramic, but no less festive.

The soccer arena will boast an indoor-outdoor concourse that will provide visitors with both views of the field and the downtown skyline. (Rendering by HNTB)

To help envision what a wall of fans might look like, Gumpert points to the Borussia Dortmund sports club, part of Germany’s MLS equivalent, the Bundesliga. The team’s supporters’ group, known as the Yellow Wall, has its own dedicated terrace, the Südtribüne, inside the home stadium. With a capacity of nearly 25,000, Südtribüne takes up approximately one-third of the arena, making it the largest fan section in Europe—you can imagine the magical, mind-boggling effect this many people wearing yellow jerseys, waving yellow flags, holding yellow signboards and throwing yellow confetti might have on a venue, especially when their hive mentality syncs up to reveal the most complex and stunning tifos in all of professional soccer.

Turns out that the local fan phenomenon is not all that different from the international experience—from canopies to capo stands, these features have been standard at soccer stadiums around the world. But to make sure no detail was glossed over, the Republic front office organized focus groups for fans held over beers at local breweries, and for the kiddie set, at Fairytale Town, which produced ideas both delightful (ice cream cones for everyone!) and pragmatic (step stools to reach the bathroom basins).

The new ownership group also installed a few significant changes to the stadium design: Premium seating and VIP club experiences on the “Canopy” level will be added, providing a cushier view above the fray. And like the Golden 1 Center’s garage-door-style portals that allow the Delta breeze to flow through and cheers to drift into downtown, a 360-degree indoor-outdoor concourse at the Republic stadium will allow visitors and fresh air to circulate around the whole arena, theoretically creating a more fluid—and cooling—game-day atmosphere. What’s more, four “corners” of the seating bowl will open to reveal sections of the concourse, giving people on the passageway a view of the field and vistas of the Tower Bridge and downtown skyline.

The crimson “gems” surrounding the stadium façade are a nod to the red star on the team’s crest, whose own color matches that of the star on the California state flag. (Rendering by HNTB)

Most importantly, these views evoke a certain pride of place, and are the purest connection between the stadium and its hometown. “I’ve been noticing that a lot of MLS stadiums are starting to look alike. You can’t tell where they belong,” says Prado. “They’re not regionally inspired or reflective of the team brand or the local culture. So that is something that will be very unique for the Republic stadium.”

Following Sacramento’s lead on sustainability (one of the pillars of its plan to be the “most livable city in America”) and with the Golden 1 Center throwing down its historic LEED Platinum gauntlet, the stadium will move in the direction of a zero-waste facility, honor the local agriculture in its regionally sourced food offerings and even have its own carbon-footprint-slashing light rail station. Other placemaking examples include the brick architecture at the base of the venue, which will nostalgically reference the 19th-century brick buildings in the historic railyards district, and the exterior’s steel articulations, which will be emblematic of branches and allude to the City of Trees. When home games are broadcast on ESPN, Fox Sports or Univision, the arena, with its signature beveled crimson stars, will be instantly recognized as an icon of Sacramento, simply because its design has thoughtfully incorporated so much of the city’s quintessential character.

“Sports stadiums have a unique way of bringing people of different backgrounds and cultures together, and Sacramento’s new soccer stadium is no different,” says Prado. “For a brief moment in time, you’re all there for a single purpose, united in good spirits to cheer on your team. What if the world worked like that?” S