Oakland’s other professional sports team eyes bringing title to The Town

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On March 7, the Oakland Roots pro soccer team celebrated its first victory of the National Independent Soccer Association spring season.

A few days later, pro athletes nationwide began testing positive for COVID-19, which resulted in the cancellation of almost all sports leagues, including the Roots’ remaining spring matches.

Then in late May, the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked protests throughout the United States. Pro athletes expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, with actions ranging from wearing custom jerseys to the postponement of NBA playoff games. The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin reverberated in the NISA as well, and last weekend’s three scheduled NISA matches were postponed.

The Roots were not part of those three matches, but they say the cause of racial justice will be at the top of their minds when they hit the field for the first time in six months for their fall season opener on Sunday. “We will play the games and use our platform on the field to bring attention to the issues of inequality and racism in our society,” the team wrote in a recent statement. “We will use our jerseys to honor the names of those murdered by police and to make statements of unity and change.”

Since the Roots played their first ever match in August 2019, the organization has strived to earn a reputation as one of the more progressive organizations in professional sports. In June, the club’s ownership became one of only two soccer teams in the world to join the Common Goal Initiative, committing to donate one percent of team salaries to help combat social injustice.

“Oakland Roots as an organization came into playing with a purpose,” says Roots forward Matt Fondy. “They have a mission statement about using soccer to harness the magic of Oakland into something that can create social change. All of us on the Roots are aware of that and take that with us onto the field.”

Oakland Roots Head Coach Jordan Ferrell conducts a practice at the College of Alameda.

Oakland Roots Head Coach Jordan Ferrell conducts a practice at the College of Alameda.

Courtesy Oakland Roots

The path to a unified protest came after many months of conversations, facilitated by Roots first-year head coach Jordan Ferrell.

“We have a lot of guys from different backgrounds within our group,” says Ferrell, who’s written about being a victim of racial profiling. “I think it was fascinating to hear how some of the guys were viewing the things that they were seeing. Not everybody was looking at it from the same lens…It made the group tighter.”

ALSO: New Oakland Roots coach breaks pro soccer color barrier

Ferrell notes the efforts of Roots players like Peter Pearson and Robert Hines, who have been active on social media advocating for racial justice. Some players have felt the need to un-friend or un-follow people who’ve disagreed or attacked their positions, but Ferrell has encouraged them to embrace frank discussions on race.

The Roots head coach says he made clear to his players that their jersey name change and Common Goal Initiative should be just one portion of their involvement in social justice initiatives, though neither Ferrell nor Fondy expanded on what other steps the team is taking this season — including whether they plan to kneel during the National Anthem.

“The real issues are systemic,” Ferrell says. “We are in a position as an organization, but also as individuals, to move the needle on those conversations and create long-term change by the actions that we take.”

As for the upcoming season itself: The Roots will play a condensed NISA fall schedule due to COVID-19. They have road games in Southern California against LA Force (Sunday at 5 p.m.) and Cal United on September 13, before traveling to Michigan to participate in the NISA league tournament from September 21 through October 2, which will crown a champion.

Ferrell used the unexpectedly long off-season to reinforce an attack-first mentality via online Zoom meetings. It was tricky getting the roster to reunite, though. Individual players started working out again in late May, and it took until July for the whole team to be able to train together. Without scheduled scrimmages in Alameda County because of local and CDC health regulations, the Roots traveled to Southern California for several friendlies. The Bay Area wildfires had a detrimental effect on regional air quality and led the team to cancel its Justice Match friendly in Oakland, so the Roots instead remained in Southern California to prepare for the season opener.

Despite an extended, difficult break in the action, Oakland expects to challenge for the NISA title.

Leading the charge up top for the Roots is a trio of former MLS forwards — Fondy, Tristan Bowen, and Jack McInerney — who will be relied on to score goals. The dismissal of midfielder Benji Joya during the offseason forced the team to adjust their midfield. They will depend on young players, including Sporting Kansas City academy product Seo-in Kim and former USL pro Nelson Blanco, to orchestrate the attack. Ex-San Francisco Deltas defender Nana Attakora will anchor the team’s backline.

Few details about the NISA fall champion tournament — including how the league plans to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 — have been announced to the public, except that there will be two daily games. All matches will be available on BeIn SPORTS extra, the broadcaster’s free live sports channel.

“We want to bring a championship to Oakland, and we want to use our platform to make a statement,” says Fondy. “It’s something that gives us a little bit of extra fire that we are going to bring to this tournament.”

Online Photo Editor Douglas Zimmerman oversees SFGATE’s Instagram and covers the Bay Area soccer scene on SFGATE’s Beautiful Blog.

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