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The Oakland Roots Plant an Acorn in The Town

Oakland sports history will be made Saturday at Laney College, where the Oakland Roots SC soccer team will play its first-ever home game.

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The Oakland Roots have signed a number of Bay Area-bred soccer players. - PHOTO COURTESY OF OAKLAND ROOTS SC
  • Photo courtesy of Oakland Roots SC
  • The Oakland Roots have signed a number of Bay Area-bred soccer players.

Oakland's pro sports teams have never felt more rootless. The Golden State Warriors have deserted Oakland for a new arena across the bay. The Oakland Raiders have backstabbed The Town for the second time since 1982, as the Silver and Black prepares to play its final season in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas by the fall of 2020. The Oakland Athletics have been searching for a new home for almost 25 years, although the team now seems genuinely committed to rooting itself in Oakland at the Howard Terminal waterfront site near Jack London Square.

The impending relocations have wounded a fan base renowned for loyalty and passion. But it's also created a void in The Town's sporting heart, one that the Oakland Roots Sports Club hopes to fill. In many ways, their timing could not be better.

Oakland has been the site of so many unforgettable pro sports games. And this Saturday, another historic athletic moment will unfold yet again in The Town, as the fledgling Oakland Roots Sports Club plays its first-ever home soccer game. The Roots, a new member of the National Independent Soccer Association, will play against the California United Strikers FC of Orange County. The match will begin at 7 p.m. at the Laney College Football Stadium. Roots leaders hope it's merely the first stage of what becomes a new Oakland sporting tradition.

Laney College's stadium can hold up to 5,000 people, said Roots execs, who hope to sell out the venue. Doors at Laney will open at 6 p.m. Saturday. A pregame block party featuring food and beer trucks will run from 3 to 6 p.m. next to the field, at E. 10th Street and 2nd Avenue. Admission to the street party is free, and it will feature KBLX radio deejay Armand Carr, as well as live performances by Lyrics Born, Collectivity, and other musical artists.

The block party is partly what the franchise had in mind when it coined the slogan: "Oakland first, always." In an era where new stadiums and arenas have priced out the working-class customer, team leaders say they want to welcome all local fans, regardless of the size of their bank account.

In short, Roots execs want to celebrate all things Oakland. And they want to be inventive in how they accomplish that.

"One of our goals with the block party is to extend the stadium into the streets," said Mike Geddes, the Roots' senior vice president of impact and social enterprise. "It's ambitious, but it's tied to how we want to be an Oakland institution that everyone has access to."

Geddes works in a front office — led by team president/co-founder Benno Nagel and chair/lead investor Steven Aldrich — that wants to flip the script in terms of how a sports team interacts with its home city. They hope to build a franchise that has a positive social impact off the field, in addition to notching wins on it.

This approach has led the franchise to reach out to local youth clubs and build relationships with like-minded organizations such as Soccer Without Borders, Street Soccer USA, and the Oakland-based My Yute Soccer.

The Roots also created a 12-member advisory board that represents a cross-section of Oaklanders, said Geddes. "We've asked them to help us figure out how best to live up this promise of 'Oakland first, always,'" he said.

The team's early public relations efforts, led by franchise co-founder and chief marketing officer Edreece Arghandiwal, have been nearly masterful. Polished promotional films announcing signings of the squad's first player and coach were better than that of most big-budget NFL teams. And the Roots' partnership with local merchandise kings, Oaklandish, has created eye-catching and sharply designed hats, T-shirts, jerseys, and sweatshirts. Roots items have quickly become popular; they've already appeared in music videos and been conspicuously worn by Oakland sports superstars like Damian Lillard — all before the team has even played a real game.

The team's other three home games in this inaugural season will be held at Laney on Sept. 8, Oct. 13, and Oct. 19. Tickets to all Roots matches can be bought online at OaklandRootsSC.com, where season ticket information also is available.

Team coaches and players say they aim to field a competitive soccer squad, a tall task for a roster that has had only a few months to practice, let alone play an official match together.

Oh, yeah, the soccer.

The team has signed a number of Bay Area-bred athletes, such as Benji Joya, an attacking midfielder who grew up in San Jose. In spite of the challenges faced by a new team, the players can feel the optimism building within the franchise, Joya said.

"It's exciting to be a part of this group of players, that's a beautiful thing already," he said after a recent team practice. "I thank all the Roots fans who are going to come out on Saturday. I hope they're ready to join us in making history in Oakland."

Paul Bravo, the Roots' head coach, describes the roster as a good mix of young players and older professionals who have playing experience in Major League Soccer and European leagues. He said the Oakland Roots SC will be an "attack-minded" team that also will try to control the ball as much as possible.

Bravo's ties to Bay Area soccer run deep. He graduated from Santa Teresa High School in San Jose and won back-to-back state soccer championships for Foothill Community College in Los Altos. In 1989, he led Santa Clara University to an NCAA co-national championship. In 1996, the then-San Jose Clash drafted Bravo, who played in the first game in MLS history, a 1-0 Clash win over D.C. United.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Bravo is set to lead a new soccer team that, win or lose, will reach yet another Bay Area sports milestone on Saturday.

"This will be the first game in the history of the Oakland Roots and that's something we're really excited about," he said.

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

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