With Sacramento’s seemingly inevitable entry into Major League Soccer, the San Jose Earthquakes could soon be left without a USL affiliate. With Rio Grande Valley FC Toros joining the USL this season as a collaboration between the NBA Development League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Houston Dynamo, should the Earthquakes pursue a similar concept in Salinas?
Soccer in the Central Coast: Should the USL expand to Salinas?
Salinas is best known for its lettuce production and as the hometown of Quakes legend Ramiro Corrales, former Seattle Sounders and Sacramento Republic striker David Estrada, and former Major League outfielder/first baseman Xavier Nady. Although the Central Coast’s population (755,845) and television market (124th) seems a bit small for professional sports, the region makes up for it with its enormous sports fan base and its three-year-old 5,000 seat football/soccer stadium. The NBA Development League’s Santa Cruz Warriors regularly sell out the Kaiser Permanente Arena, the Pebble Beach Golf Links have hosted five (six by 2019) US Open tournaments along with the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Nature Valley First Tee Open, the Monterey Grand Prix is held annually at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and the California Rodeo Salinas have called the Central Coast home since 1911. The attractiveness of the region keeps on growing. Although a stadium deal couldn’t be reached, in 2014 and ’15, Bakersfield Blaze owner DG Elmore explored relocating his California League franchise to the Salad Bowl of the World.
History of Soccer in Salinas
The region played host to four prior soccer teams, including the USL’s predecessor, US Interregional Soccer League’s Santa Cruz Surf and Monterey Bay/California Jaguars in the 1990s. The Surf played two seasons in the USISL, finishing sixth in the Pacific Division in 1993 and ninth in 1994.
In 1995, the Jaguars, playing at the rodeo stadium in the Salinas Sports Complex, finished first in the Western Division. The Jags then defeated the Reno Rattlers 2-1 in the division semifinals and the Los Angeles Salsa U23s in the division finals before losing 2-1 in the Sizzling Nine to the Long Island Rough Riders. California would win the league in ’96, defeating the Richmond Kickers 2-1 in the final. Following the 1996 season, the USISL merged with the A-League and the Jaguars joined the newly formed USISL A-League for the next two seasons. After the 1998 season, the Jaguars dropped back down to the third division. The 1999 season would be the last in the franchise’s existence.
Competitive soccer returned to the Central Coast in 2004 when the Men’s Premier Soccer League expanded to Salinas. On April 18th, the Salinas Valley Samba kicked off their inaugural 2004 season at home, demolishing the Northern Nevada Aces 5-1 in front of 575 spectators at Salinas High School with future California Victory and Quakes reserves player Yuri Morales scoring in the 80th minute. The Samba finished the season fifth with a 9-6-1 record after losing 2-1 on the road against the Chico Rooks. The Samba would play five more seasons in Salinas, folding after the 2009 season.
Prior to the 2007 NPSL season, the Santa Cruz County Breakers joined the league, igniting a rivalry within the Central Coast. The Breakers finished their inaugural 2007 season third in the Northwest Conference and their 2008 season second in the conference. The Breakers would fold prior to the 2009 season.
The relatively new Rabobank Stadium, situated within the Salinas Sports Complex, broke ground in August 2012 and opened its doors in September 2013. The 5,000 seat stadium was built on the site of the former California League baseball Salinas Municipal Stadium and hosted its first professional soccer game on January 3rd, 2015, a friendly between Mexico’s Club Leon and Club Tijuana with Leon coming up on top 4-2, Rabobank currently hosts high school football with North Salinas and Palma calling the stadium home. The stadium is also home to the Hartnell College football program.
Main Photo: George Rose, Getty Images