Oakland Roots captain Emrah Klimenta has been involved with many “soccer startups” in his career, but none have sparkled quite the way this one has.
“You see it anytime someone comes to our facilities these days,” Klimenta said at a Roots media day Monday in Alameda ahead of the 2023 United Soccer League (USL) season. “Their eyes just light up. Most [soccer players] can go a lifetime without getting this kind of experience.”
He’s referring to the 16-acre state-of-the-art training facility on Alameda's Bay Farm Island the Roots now call home, left behind by the Raiders NFL team when they left for Las Vegas.
Similar to the setups seen on Ted Lasso or Welcome to Wrexham, the Roots enjoy an open-floor space solely dedicated to their craft. Players, coaches and commercial staff work side-by-side under one roof, all overlooking a perfectly manicured soccer field.
The facility, which is co-owned by the City of Oakland and Alameda County, was built in 1995, ironically in hindsight, to lure the Raiders back to Oakland from Los Angeles. This, on top of a $100 million debt taxpayers are still paying off three decades later—used to add seats to the Oakland Coliseum that are now, more often than not, covered.
As the saying goes—one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The Roots cycled through a series of community college facilities before landing on their new professional digs, via lease, at the end of 2021.
“We’re leveling up,” said co-founder and chief marketing officer Edreece Arghandiwal, standing at his desk looking out at the gym. “The right budget, vibes and players are finally coalescing. There’s no better year to finally win this league.”
‘The Games Are Hella Fun’
It is no secret that the Roots have capitalized on the void left behind the departures of the Raiders, Warriors and arguably soon, the A’s. Most of their home games at Laney College sell out. The club’s smartly designed crest, which features an oak tree atop a stained-glass mosaic of roots and soil, is now seen everywhere in the city and has resonated with locals, soccer diehards and celebrities alike.
Their success has also earned them plaudits in city hall—which, as Oakland can attest—is not always a given, as public and private partnerships can sometimes grow adversarial.
Former city council member Loren Taylor, who just narrowly missed out on the mayorship in the last election, once explained to Oaklandside why he thought the Roots project is thriving. “They show up consistently across Oakland and partner with a diverse cross-section of nonprofit organizations throughout the city, from east to west and from flatlands to hills. And the games are hella fun to go to,” Taylor said.
Arghandiwal says that’s exactly what he wants to hear. When he co-founded the club in 2018, he said the intention was to flip the professional sports paradigm on its head. In order to build something lasting, he felt the Roots had to be a purpose-driven entity, not just some profit-making machine “parked on the community.”
“This club is a community asset,” Arghandiwal said. “We’re built on the premise that the people [in Oakland] want it to exist. Therefore, we have to live up to those expectations by not only winning on the field, but being present; showing up at all times; doing the tough work when most sports teams would gravitate towards the hashtag that likely leads to zero action in the real world.”
When The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, the Roots players wore jerseys displaying the name of the club’s new women's team, Oakland Soul, and auctioned off the game-worn shirts, sending the proceeds directly to local women’s rights organizations.
Then in December, the club partnered with Fredrika Newton—widow of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party—to make special edition “Rooted in Power” jerseys with proceeds going to both her foundation and United Black Players, which supports the work of underrepresented Black youth, players, coaches and administrators in the USL.
Roots technical director Jordan Ferrell, who oversees the club’s men’s, women’s and youth teams, is one of very few Black people in his position in America. He told The Standard that the purpose-driven ethos of the club is a major part of their player recruitment policy.
“We’re looking for people who are down with the work we do off the field,” Ferrell said as he watched the men’s first-team train. “At other clubs, that might be viewed as an extra burden on top of the difficult life as a professional soccer player, but here, we pride ourselves in having a voice and taking action.”
But Can They Win on The Field?
The Roots kicked off their 2023 season Saturday against San Antonio FC, who coincidentally bounced them from the playoffs en route to winning the USL championship last season.
This will be the Roots’ third season in the 24-team second division. After barely squeaking into the postseason two years in a row, players and staff have set the goal of hosting a home playoff game this year. To achieve that, they will have to win more games than they have before at this level.
John Morrissey has done data and scouting analysis for storied clubs like Sacramento Republic and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He now runs the preeminent USL tactics website and said he admires how the Roots have weathered some turbulent times.
Coming off the heels of pandemic disruptions, the Roots also went through a high-profile divorce in the middle of last season, when former coach Juan Guerra decamped for Phoenix. Assistant coach Noah Delgado took over on an interim basis afterward and guided the team to a playoff berth and upset win over San Diego Loyal.
His interim label was removed over the offseason after what Ferrell described as, “an extensive search.”
“Oakland stands out for their tactical adaptability and buy-in across the squad,” Morrissey said. “They lost a lot of stars over the offseason and didn’t replace them with surefire pieces, but their additions of two youth national team players is emblematic of a longer-term vision. They should be sniffing around the playoff bubble.”
The Roots organization is also actively looking to develop a new stadium that it can make its permanent home. In December, they announced they have zeroed in on two possible locations: the Oakland Coliseum site and a former naval base at Alameda Point.
All while the land on which their shining jewel of a training facility sits atop is currently being auctioned off by the county.