Arts & Culture » The Oakland Zone

Oakland Roots Draw Big Crowds, Show Town Pride

The Town’s new soccer franchise has drawn sell-out crowds to entertaining matches, crafting a new template for building a successful local franchise by embracing all things Oakland.

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It all was as Oakland as it gets. And I can offer no higher praise.

I’m talking about the Oakland Roots Sports Club, the fledgling soccer franchise that recently hosted two wildly entertaining soccer games, drawing loud sell-out crowds that couldn’t wait to shower its newfound heroes with love and affection.

How could they resist?

In the months leading up to the matches played on Aug. 31 and Sept. 8, the Roots front office had put on a master class in grassroots marketing. They’d partnered with Oaklandish on jerseys and merchandise, started their own Roots station on Oakland-based Pandora.com, signed a diverse roster of Bay Area-bred players, released promo videos that were both glossy and edgy, reached out to local soccer groups, and pledged to use the new franchise as a vehicle for social justice and helping Oakland youth.

The team has repeatedly held its hand out in friendship to an Oakland community that’s grown weary of being underrated and unappreciated. But judging by the standing-room only crowds of well more than 4,000 people at each match, The Town looked at the Roots’ months-long offer to shake hands and responded instead with a big hug.

We could talk all day about the soccer, which has been athletic and lively. The Roots tied Cal United Strikers FC by a score of 3-3 in the first match, in which Oakland forward Jack McInerney scored all three team goals in the first half. The next game, a 4-2 loss to FC Juarez, saw talented midfielders Benji Joya and Ryan Masch thrill Roots fans with a goal apiece. There were plenty of big plays to thrill soccer purists.

But these two games were about something more than athletic feats or competitive drama. They were about bringing together a great but complicated city in celebration of itself. And, to the credit of Roots officials, that was by design.

After watching both games at Laney College Football Stadium, one thing was abundantly clear: Roots leaders aim to zig as the rest of North American sports zags. The team, also known as Oakland Roots SC, is going to do its own thing, much like its home city. In short, they’re trying to create a unique template for how a 21st-century franchise succeeds in Oakland: By embracing The Town and its values without using the city treasury as an ATM machine. (The Oakland A’s are doing this, too, in my opinion. But that’s another column for another time.)

The Roots’ slogan is “Oakland First Always” and team leaders spent both games backing up that mantra with action.

The first match featured a pregame street party, where thousands of fans enjoyed musical performances and food-and-beer trucks on E. 10th Street and Second Avenue, next to the Roots’ home field.

The street party was electric, and it brought Oaklanders of all backgrounds together in a joyous festival that celebrated civic pride.

None of this, of course, should be surprising to the average Oaklander. Oakland is one of the nation’s few cities that actually looks like the American melting pot I heard so much about as a kid. The street party reflected that. It was a true Oakland gathering.

And it was beautiful.

Bay Area residents who avoid The Town don’t seem to understand how much Oaklanders love their city. Even more, many fail to see just how much of Oakland there is to love.

The unabashed delight at the street party felt like The Town's pointed declaration of independence from the greed and disrespect the Raiders and Warriors owners have foisted on Oakland over the years.

For a city wounded by the impending departures of those disloyal teams, the Roots squad is a near-perfect balm. Hours before the first match, I wondered if I was the only person thinking about that. I didn’t have to wonder very long.

Singer Jennifer Johns took the stage on the south end of E. 10th Street and started with a blistering, heartfelt a cappella performance, repeatedly belting out the word, “Rejoice!”

“Oakland! I’m so juiced for us right now,” she said in mid-song. “We lost a basketball team. We lost a football team. But we got soccer and it represents the international vibration that we got in Oakland, ya’ feel me?”

Amid performances from other local musicians — including Kev Choice, Collectivity, and Lyrics Born — fans roared as Mayor Libby Schaaf introduced the Roots team onstage. The players and fans flashed each other the “O for Oakland” hand signal that has become standard at some local games.

The team’s in-match songs featured Oakland musical artists such as Too Short and Vell.

They also played songs specifically about The Town, such as “Telegraph Ave.” by Childish Gambino, which includes the line: “Everything you do is so Oakland, so Oakland.”

That line echoed in my head as I observed the Roots’ many small but important touches intended to build a sense of inclusion and community around the franchise.

Moments before the first match, fans were welcomed by Corrina Gould, a member of the Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone, one of the indigenous peoples of Northern California. Gould, born and raised in Oakland, noted that the Ohlone people called this area “Huichin,” the original name for Oakland and five other East Bay cities.

Gould thanked the Roots for “inviting the confederated villages of Huichin out here today to welcome this great organization that’s coming to do this great work in our territory.”

A week later, singer Diana Gameros did something I’ve never seen before at any sporting event. Moments before she sang the Mexican national anthem — in honor of the visiting FC Juarez squad — she struck an emotional chord and spoke briefly to Roots fans about her love for “the two very beautiful cultures” of both Ciudad Juarez, her original home, and of Oakland and the East Bay, her current home.

“It is a pleasure and an honor for me to be celebrating both cultures and also to be a testament of what unity can do,” she said.

Fans are responding positively to the team’s embrace of the confluence of local soccer groups, grassroots activism, and The Town’s unusually strong emphasis on culture and social justice.

In a concrete corner tucked between the Oakland Museum of California and the shuttered Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Dania Cabello and Arjuna Sayyed were playing a streetball version of soccer before the Roots’ first game. Cabello and Sayyed are members of a soccer club called Oakland Street Stylers, which is best described by its slogan: “Oakland streetball, culture, and community.”

To the North Oakland couple, soccer can be an outlet for creativity and cultivating a sense of community, and they like to play their style of the game anywhere while on the go. That could be on a BART parking lot, a city street, or — as on this day — a sidewalk before a Roots game.

“All you need is a ball,” Sayyed said. “And you can work on a move or a creative idea.”

Cabello was going to the Roots game, she said, to freestyle with Sayyed and to support the game of soccer while sharing the day “with folks from The Town.”

“We’re here because we like to activate public space and there’ll be public space activated here by the Roots,” Cabello said. “It’s a beautiful reason to get together.”

Steven Aldrich, a tech executive and Roots lead investor, was all smiles after the first game. He marveled that the 250 tickets the team set aside for walk-up sales had been snapped up within minutes.

“You had soccer fans but also fans of Oakland saying, ‘This was amazing,’ and that’s what we want,” Aldrich said. “You have to organically trust that if you invest in the community, they will give back. And that’s what’s happening.”

Roots fans represented themselves well during the home stand, proving to be a knowledgeable and passionate audience. When FC Juarez’s Diego Rolan earned a yellow card after a brief tantrum in the second match, Roots fans afterward booed each time he touched the ball. One grandstand area featured drummers, as well as flags featuring the words “Roots Radicals.” The crowd chanted “Let’s go, Oakland” loudly and frequently during both matches.

“Fantastic atmosphere, it was really an electric night,” Roots head coach Paul Bravo said after the inaugural game. “I have to give our fans credit, the people of Oakland, the people who came out and watched the match. We’re hoping that sort of excitement brings them back.”

The next home game is scheduled at 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13. The opponent will be Club Atletico Zacatepec. The next home game against a National Independent Soccer Association foe will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct.19. The opponent that night will be the Los Angeles Force. Tickets to all home games can be bought online at oaklandrootssc.com.

Years ago, I saw Angela Davis speak at Marcus Books in West Oakland and, as the event ended, she thanked the audience for coming to see her. Then she added: “But you didn’t come to see me, did you? You came to see each other.”

The activist’s words have stayed with me. And I thought of them at each of the Roots matches because she was referring to something vital that too many businesses and big-league sports teams have forgotten about: community.

The Roots so far have gone entirely against the grain. They're all about community.

The franchise shut down E. 10th Street again for the second match on Sept. 8, and, despite having no live performances, it was nearly as festive as the previous week’s party. After enduring years of the R-rated experience of live NFL games, I was relieved to see so many families, smiling kids, and parents pushing strollers while clad in sharply designed Roots gear.

These games were about Oakland and its proud residents. They were about healing a city wounded once more from taking a hit it had not deserved. Like a heavyweight with as much heart as skill, Oakland keeps getting off the mat and willing itself to go the distance.

“You didn’t come to see me, did you?” a Roots player could have accurately said to the crowd, borrowing Ms. Davis’ words. “You came to see each other.”

With the first two Roots matches, the Oakland community, in all its myriad shapes and colors, had been invited to celebrate itself and the wonderful things it represents. And, once more, the Oakland community did not disappoint.

Long after the second game had ended last Sunday, I left Laney College's field and trudged toward downtown on a warm summer night.

I walked past the old Frank Youell Field site, where Jim Otto, Clem Daniels, Tom Flores, and other old Oakland Raiders once played. I strolled past the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, which formerly hosted a Martin Luther King Jr. speech, concerts by performers as dissimilar as Elvis Presley and The Grateful Dead, an occasional 1960s Warriors game, and radical political rallies that were filmed by French auteur Agnes Varda and featured Ron Dellums, Stokely Carmichael, and Bobby Seale. I huffed and puffed past the Alameda County Courthouse, whose steps long ago often were filled by Black Panther protests where the rank-and-file would call for racial equality and sing about revolution.

All of which is in the shadow of 1200 Lakeshore, the luxury apartment tower where Warriors coach Don Nelson hosted Hollywood stars Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, and Kate Hudson in celebration hours after the “We Believe” Dubs team ousted the heavily favored Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. It’s also where A’s owner Charlie Finley and team executive Carl Finley once lived next door to Huey P. Newton, and today their former neighboring penthouses still stand high above Lake Merritt, downtown Oakland, and what is now the football field the Roots call home.

You can squint in any direction from E. 10th Street and glimpse a site of Oakland history; a place or boulevard haunted by long-ago ghosts of The Town.

I thought of this city’s many famous sons and daughters, people ranging from Boots Riley to Amy Tan to Elaine Brown to Dave Stewart to Ryan Coogler to Curt Flood to Alice Walker to Clint Eastwood to Zendaya to Marshawn Lynch to Gertrude Stein to Bruce Lee and many, many others.

The soul of this proud city, though sometimes battered and often weary, remains intact and thriving. The pair of exuberant Roots matches had illustrated that, and likely not for the last time.

It’s too soon to say with certainty whether the Roots franchise will sustain itself and take its place next to that long list of Oakland legends. But for a city sometimes burdened by its past, it was wonderful to see something thriving in the present, suggesting great things for its future.

Against all odds, Oakland Roots SC is off to a wonderful start. And it’s easy to see why.

Everything they do is — as the song says — so Oakland, so Oakland …

Chris De Benedetti writes a regular sports column for the Express.

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