Not your father’s football
Can the reborn Sacramento Knights give soccer a foothold in Sacramento, let alone America?
There is virtually no limit to the room that Americans have in their lives for sports. Entire television networks exist to maintain the demand for coverage of sports of all varieties: strong-man competitions, mountain biking, fishing, pool and full- contact poker.
So, why not soccer?
The most beloved game in the world is the most spurned and chastised sport in the United States. Americans like their sports unrefined, obnoxious, brutal and abrasive. Americans are a knockout-punching, body-checking, home-run-trotting, slam-dunking, touchdown-dancing lot, and soccer is none of these things.
That’s something the Sacramento Knights are hoping to change. And with the emergence of the Men’s Premiere Soccer League (MPSL), they might just do it.
At least here in Sacramento.
If the team’s moniker rings a bell, it should. Formerly of the World Indoor Soccer League, the Knights were usurped from their home at Arco Arena by higher-ranking royalty—the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs. Though the Knights had been around longer and were owned by the Maloofs, the team, even with its loyal following, could not draw in quite the same manner as the women’s-basketball phenoms could.
Elsewhere in the soccer world, the U.S. women’s national team was busy winning the World Cup, and the San Jose Earthquakes emerged as a Major League Soccer powerhouse, fueling the thirst for a professional-quality outlet for Valley soccer enthusiasts.
Enter the MPSL. Initially a regional league consisting of teams from the western United States, the MPSL has added six new teams for this season and is poised to go nationwide in the coming years.
One of those expansion franchises was awarded to the Sacramento Knights’ new owner, J.R. Gholar. Involved with local soccer for three decades, Gholar was anxious to create an identity for his new club that the community could grasp quickly. Seeing the dormant Knights name, Gholar approached the Maloofs about adopting the mascot for his new outdoor franchise. Next, he secured Cosumnes River College as a home field.
According to San Jose Earthquakes General Manager Alexi Lalas, the Knights have addressed one major obstacle facing all American soccer teams, which is to find a suitable facility.
“The key is to make it as intimate as possible, so that people can feel like they’re part of the action and really appreciate the skills of the players on the field,” Lalas said.
The Knights have, in effect, “built it.” Now the trick is to ensure “they will come.”
Like a garage band stapling posters to telephone poles around town, Gholar and his partners spread out across the Valley, from El Dorado Hills to Fairfield, hitting youth-soccer events in every crevice, handing out hundreds of thousands of fliers announcing the rebirth of the Knights.
“I wanted to energize our enthusiastic, hard-core fan base first,” said Gholar, “to build a solid foundation. What the hard-core fan will do then is bring their neighbor, or the guy at work, and we build from there.”
Despite the fate of their indoor predecessors, the outdoor Knights (who play their first season game in Sonoma on April 17 and then take on the Arizona Sahuaros here in Sacramento on April 24) are counting on the league structure of the MPSL to help them stay the course.
The MPSL’s own role model is the Women’s Premiere Soccer League (WPSL), which existed long before the men’s league and already has gone through the bumps and hurdles any new league faces.
“[WPSL] was cohesive enough to bring the men’s league into existence,” said Jerry Zanelli, commissioner of both the WPSL and MPSL. In fact, one of two Sacramento-area WPSL teams, the California Storm, is in its second decade of existence. (The Storm play a pre-season doubleheader April 10 at the University of California, Davis.) The WPSL has emerged as the foremost women’s league in the nation and is now home to several World Cup players.
It might be some time before the men’s league can boast a similar claim. For now, the Knights are happy to be back and are satisfied that Sacramento, a feverishly supportive sports town, will get behind the club fully.
“The Knights are in a good situation, having some semblance of the old indoor team, which had a good reputation,” said Zanelli. “They’ll do well in the league.”
In the first eight weeks of their existence, the new Knights had more than 21,000 hits on their Web site (www.sactoknights.com). In fact, Gholar and his staff are having trouble staying on top of the onslaught of e-mails, mail and phone calls.
“To be honest, we’re a little afraid,” said Gholar. “We’re trying to figure out what to do with the people who show up and don’t have seats.”