Rooks on a roll
When the San Jose Earthquakes came to town, it showed just how far Chico’s winning semi-pro soccer team has come
Families piled out of their vans and SUVs carrying lawn chairs and looking as if they were getting ready for a day at the park. Children nearly knocked each other down as they raced through the crowded parking lot, waving their game tickets in one hand while cradling soccer balls tightly to their chests.
On June 12, nearly 4,000 fans filled Rooks Nettleton Stadium on the Chico State University campus for one of the biggest events in local soccer history: an exhibition game between the semi-pro Chico Rooks and the San Jose Earthquakes, a major league soccer franchise.
It was a little like the Chico State Wildcats basketball team hosting the Sacramento Kings, but so be it. The locals were determined to put up a fight, and hundreds of Quakes fans were on hand, having made the drive up for the pleasure of watching their team make mincemeat of the Rooks.
The crowd was stoked. The game hadn’t even started yet, and they were stomping their feet and doing the wave.
When the game finally got underway, it really moved. People in the stands were getting whiplashes from trying to keep up with the ball flying back and forth on the field. The crowd oohed and ahhed when both teams’ goalies consistently blocked potential goal shots.
Then, Quakes forward Brian Mullan and Rooks defender Joel Hurd, competing for a head shot, charged into one another like two smoking bulls. The ball deflected off both players, and Mullan charged after the loose ball and drilled it with a powerful kick to the net, putting the Quakes on the board first.
Quakes fans erupted like they had just won the game, but it was a long way from over.
The presence of the Earthquakes in Chico was a sign of how far the Rooks have come since the team’s founding 11 years ago, in 1992.
With a record of 11-1-0, the Rooks are currently the No. 1 team in their newly formed Men’s Premier Soccer League and the going-away favorite to win the league championship in the upcoming playoffs. That was good enough for the Earthquakes.
“This was a wonderful opportunity to expose the Chico community to MLS and Earthquakes soccer,” Earthquakes General Manager Johnny Moore said. “We have been very impressed with the Chico Rooks organization and are looking forward to developing a stronger relationship with them and the North Valley soccer community.”
The head coach and founder of the Rooks, Dave Stahl, was delighted by the game and the turnout. “This was the result of 11 years of hard work,” he said, “something we couldn’t do six or seven years ago.”
Normally, he said, 1,000 to 1,500 fans show up to their home games. But this night, because of the Quakes’ reputation and the fact that about a thousand of their fans made the trip to Chico, the stands were packed.
For Stahl, it was a welcome change from the situation back in 1992, when the Rooks were just starting out and had to host games not in Chico, but on a small, rundown soccer field in Durham. Needless to say, not many fans showed up.
“Today we attract more fans because we have one of the best stadiums in the league,” Stahl said. “Our stadium can hold up to 4,000 people, and our players can run better up and down on the fields without having to worry about being slowed down by any holes or dips.”
And they don’t have to worry about losing the field. The Rooks have inked a 20-year licensing agreement with the University Foundation to use the soccer-only facility.
Dave Stahl grew up in San Francisco and came to Chico State in 1973, where he played four years for the Wildcats. In 1976, when the Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Division II National Semi-Finals, Stahl was named MVP and nominated for NCAA College Player of the Year. After being drafted out of college, Stahl played two years in the North American Soccer League (NASL), then returned to Chico to complete his MBA. Stahl holds a USSF National “A” coaching license and decided back in 1992 to become head coach of the Rooks team.
It’s not easy for a professional sports team to survive in a small town like Chico, as the recent demise, after six seasons, of the much better financed Chico Heat baseball team proved.
Financially, the Rooks are supported by more than 50 sponsors. “What has made a real big difference in recruiting players from all over the world, like Brazil, Chile, Spain, South Africa and Romania, was getting sponsors,” said Stahl. “Businesses like to sponsor us because they appreciate what we do for the community and also that we’re a winning team.” The Rooks have made it to the playoffs 10 years in a row.
One of the keys to the Rooks’ survival has been team members’ deep involvement in the Chico community, something that has been central to the organization since its inception.
“While other soccer teams make soccer their life and their only source of income, our players have [outside] lives. Some go to school, others have jobs and families to take care of, and as a team we like to give back to our community,” Stahl said.
“Our mission has never been to make money, but to be role models for kids in the community,” he added. “Our concession stands are affordable, and a family of four can come to one of our games for less than $20.”
The majority of Rooks fans are small children and teens, mainly because of the soccer training camps the team offers throughout the North Valley area and also because “soccer is the most played sport by children throughout the United States,” as Stahl said. “Boys and girls can play it, and some girls can play better than boys, and it doesn’t matter what size or shape you are.”
Then there’s the Healthy Life Challenge Program, in which Rooks players appear at elementary schools to put on assemblies that teach students about soccer, fitness, education, the importance of living a healthy life and setting and keeping goals.
The kids aren’t the only ones having fun at the camps. “I’ve only been here two summers working at the camps,” said Rooks defender Brandon Kaplan, “but I feel like I’ve known some of these kids five or six years. It’s great to have the same ones come up and tell me how they did on their team over the winter.”
Forward Arturo Barragan, an absolute fan favorite said, “It’s almost like having kids of your own. You get to know that little guy who could hardly kick a ball two years ago, and now he’s firing them into the back of the net.”
The Rooks organization takes care of its players, helping them find jobs and housing, when needed. “Sometimes we can’t accommodate everyone, but we try the best we can,” Stahl said.
To get the best out of his players, Stahl said he doesn’t go in the locker room reciting the same speech over and over again. “To push the right buttons you need to know your players, where they are both physically and mentally,” Stahl said. “Just having the best players doesn’t mean you’ll always have success.”
The game clock was ticking down, and the players’ jerseys were drenched in sweat. The game was almost over, and the Quakes still led, 1-0.
Medina charged from about 30 yards out on the right flank. All of the Rooks fans rose up from their seats. The stadium went silent; all eyes were on Medina as he raced by his defender and kicked a pass to Macedo, who made a spectacular header into the net from 15 feet out. The crowd went wild.
A jubilant Macedo yanked off his jersey and circled the field, with his teammates behind him, cheering him on.
When the game ended, the score was still tied, 1-1. The Rooks had held the major league team to a tie.
In soccer, ties are decided by a penalty-kick shoot-out, though exhibition games usually just end when regulation time is up. But not tonight. Tonight there would be a winner.
Nobody sat for the shoot-out. First on deck was the Rooks’ Pio Paul. He leaned forward with eyes focused on the ball and then sped forward, kicking the ball past Quakes goalie Jon Conway. The crowd was on pins and needles. Next up, the Rooks’ Brandon Kaplan shot the ball past the goalie without breaking a sweat.
But that was it for the home team. When it was the Quakes’ turn, they blasted in four goals. Final shoot-out score: 4-2 Quakes.
“It was an even game that either team could have won,” said Stahl. “We played our game, didn’t back off and scored a tremendous goal.” Stahl went on to add that the Rooks organization was both grateful and honored that the Earthquakes came to play in Chico. “I think they thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere that night,” he said.
Stahl said it had been a long season for the Rooks and they were starting to see the effects in terms of injuries. “Now we need to focus on getting healthy for the National Cup in July and the MPSL Playoffs in August,” he said.
The Chico Rooks have two remaining home games, against the Arizona Saquaros on July 12 and the No. Nevada Aces on July 26. Tickets can be purchased at Off the Wall Soccer, 1090 E. 20th St., Chico. Games start at 7:30 p.m.