Second-tier pro soccer is returning to the northern half of the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time since 2017 and with it, perhaps, some long-awaited stability.
The Oakland Roots, which launched last year and quickly made waves with their colorful logo, intriguing player signings and savvy grassroots marketing, will depart third-division NISA at the end of this year and join the USL Championship in 2021. The move simultaneously strengthens the second-division league—which will need a presence in Northern California once the Sacramento Republic enter MLS—and diminishes NISA, which is still struggling to establish traction in its second season.
The Oakland Roots aren't paying an expansion fee to enter the USL Championship. Instead, the club purchased the franchise rights already held by Mark Hall, a local real estate developer. Miami FC shifted from NISA to the USL in similar fashion when it acquired the now-defunct Ottawa Fury’s place last December.
The Roots play at Laney College, which is slightly southeast of downtown Oakland.
“We are excited to join the USL Championship in 2021,” Roots chairman Steven Aldrich said. “Playing in the Championship is a great opportunity for the Oakland Roots to continue our journey of using soccer as a force for social good. We can’t wait to showcase the passion, pride, and commitment of our players, fans, and The Town to an even wider audience next year.”
The Roots unveiled their brand in 2018 but didn’t take the field until NISA started up last summer. They drew more than 4,500 fans to their inaugural match, which ended in a 3–3 draw thanks to a hat trick by former MLS All-Star/journeyman Jack McInerney. NISA was slow out of the gate, however, as only seven of 11 teams completed the abbreviated fall schedule (among them Miami FC) before the spring half of the inaugural season was lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although more recognizable names like the New York Cosmos, Detroit City and Chattanooga FC are now on board, NISA remains in flux. It has retained its third-division sanctioning, but losing Oakland will hurt. There are eight clubs participating this fall, and the league will hope that the impending return of San Diego 1904, which is on hiatus, and an expansion team from Maryland’s Washington suburbs called Maryland Bobcats will help shore it up. In addition, former Chicago Fire GM Peter Wilt, who also helped found Indy Eleven and Forward Madison, is now working on bringing a NISA club to Chicago.
Pro soccer in the San Francisco–Oakland area has been unstable as well. The area was mostly dormant for a while—the Seals left the second-tier A-League in 2001—until the ambitious San Francisco Deltas kicked off in 2017 at downtown Kezar Stadium. The NASL team backed up its promise on the field, winning the league title. But it was a financial disaster off of it, and the Deltas announced their closure even before lifting the Soccer Bowl trophy.
The Roots are taking a different approach and have endeavored to live up to their name, becoming the first pro club in the U.S. to join Common Goal, the charitable initiative pushed by Manchester United’s Juan Mata that obligates players/clubs to donate at least 1% of their salaries/revenue to charity. San Jose Earthquakes captain Chris Wondolowski is another notable Bay Area member.
Oakland has several former MLS players on its fall 2020 roster, including McInerney, defender Nana Attakora and forward Tristan Bowen.