This is part three of a three-part series.
read parts 1 and 2
The lowest point for the Roots may have come on Saturday, June 19th, 2021, on what was to have been the team’s Division II USL Championship home debut. This was a night the Roots had been working toward for some time. The club had begun its young life playing in the Division III National Independent Soccer Association (NISA). With fans they were a hit from the jump, selling out their first home game, and going on to earn by the end of their first season the highest attendance totals in all of NISA.
“That first game was incredible,” Nagel, the club’s former president, told me recently. “Mistah FAB showed up. It was like a dream come true.”
But, troublingly, the club wasn’t winning many games; they didn’t win their first until the spring of 2020. Sportswriters even began wondering aloud whether the Roots would ever actually become a real soccer team, as opposed to something more like a lifestyle brand.
Soon, though, the club’s fortunes turned. They made it to the finals of NISA’s abridged 2020 Fall Championship. Around the same time, an opportunity to purchase a spot in the Division II USL arose. The opportunity was remarkable—American soccer has no official system of relegation or delegation between divisions—and auspicious, coming with increased exposure, new television rights, and a chance not only to play against more reputable competition, but win a sense of athletic legitimacy to compliment the authenticity of their branding and community work. Understandably, the Roots took it. After conducting another, this-time far more robust fundraising round, the Roots purchased the spot, and that fall set about preparing for their spring 2021 league debut.
The Roots aspired to make the debut a can’t-miss event, inviting new investor Marshawn Lynch to make an appearance before the game, and securing local R&B star Goapele to perform. As the NISA season wound down and 2020 came to a close, the club prepared, cementing plans.
Then: gameday. By some estimates, six thousand people showed up. The atmosphere at Laney was electric.
“We were bursting through the seams excited,” Arghandiwal told me.
Seven minutes before kick-off, however, Arghandiwal got a call from his operations team, summoning him to the field. The modular turf system the Roots had laid atop the Laney College football field for the game—which had met NISA’s playing field standards, but had not been cleared properly by USL officials—had been deemed hazardous. The game was being canceled. Everyone would have to go home.
Arghandiwal and VP of Communications Hodul retreated to the press box to put out a statement, while Geddes, the club’s chief purpose officer, took somberly to the speaker system: “I regret to inform you all that the match has been called off tonight,” he said, voice echoing off the stony faces of six thousand disappointed fans, Marshawn Lynch among them. Geddes went on. “The field was not approved by the [United Soccer League] and match officials.” There were boos, now. In the locker room, players and coaches cried. Geddes tried one last time to placate them. “We’re so sorry we let you all down. We’ll work to do better and take full responsibility for the errors in preparation.”
Over the next few weeks, the shipment of a new turf system—one that would actually be up to USL standards—was delayed due to supply chain issues exacerbated by the pandemic. In the end it would not arrive for several months. As a result, throughout the summer, the Roots were forced to play their home games at the remote Las Positas College, in Livermore—a 40 minute drive from Oakland. Attendance lagged; Las Positas could only hold a thousand or so fans, a far cry from Laney’s official capacity of 5,500.
Making matters worse, the team once again floundered on the field. Frustration, understandably, grew. In an article that ran in The San Francisco Chronicle a few months after the canceled USL debut, the writer Connor Letourneau asked fans whether “their beloved grassroots soccer club” might be “more style than substance” afterall.
Internal strife compounded problems
All of this was more than just embarrassing. Failure on the field threatened the Roots’ capacity to effect change off of it. If public service was central to the club’s purpose—not to mention their business model—competitiveness was its prerequisite, precondition for growth and, ultimately, survival. Providing an inspiring and fun fan-experience via home games at Laney College was a key revenue stream, plus another crucial element of the service the Roots’ endeavored to provide. To return the club both to Oakland as well as to competitive respectability was not just a matter of buffing a tainted reputation, but of mission-critical importance. Among the founders, stress mounted.
Yet there was one final, potentially even more consequential concern: Geddes and Arghandiwal were being sued—by Nagel, the club’s former president and co-founder.
Nagel had been ousted from the Roots’ board in the fall of 2020, after the Roots had raised money to purchase the territorial and franchise rights to the open USL seat. The board, at the time, had consisted of Nagel, Arghandiwal, and the Roots’ two primary investors, Barney Schauble and Steve Aldrich, the pair who’d invested in the Roots back in 2018. Ownership had been divided up so that Nagel held a 20.5% ownership stake, Arghandiwal 10.5%, and Schauble and Aldrich 31% each, with other investors owning about 7%.
Nagel and Arghandiwal had both feared that the new funding round might inordinately dilute their stake, and to assuage those fears, Aldrich and Schauble, cognizant of the sweat equity Nagel and Arghandiwal had put into the Roots, verbally agreed to extend to Nagel and Arghandiwal additional “profits interests” in the club. According to the civil complaint filed by Nagel in Alameda County Superior Court, however, disagreements over the number of shares Nagel and Arghandiwal were to receive dragged on.
By the morning of the Roots’ board meeting on October 23, 2020, no formal agreement had been reached. According to Nagel’s complaint, Nagel arrived at the board meeting that day to find that Schauble and Aldrich had concocted “a secret plan, pre-coordinated with Arghandiwal, to remove Nagel from the board and from his position as president.” This plan purportedly centered around “a secret agenda to grant Arghandiwal additional equity interests, effective immediately, so that Arghandiwal could become the majority interest holder among the Class F founders.” The plan called for Arghandiwal to “then use his newly granted interests to remove Nagel from the board.” Regardless of the inspiration, Nagel was removed from the board later that day, and fired as president the next. Nagel sued the club soon after.
What really went down? Arghandiwal, when I asked him, denied Nagel’s claims, though in a manner decidedly diplomatic. “The street code in me doesn’t want to talk about it,” he said. He and just about everyone else I spoke with at the Roots employed a similar sort of tone, voicing gratitude for Nagel’s contributions to the club but rejecting his allegations, all the while describing the overall situation with a sense of disappointment, the way families might talk about an alienated loved one.
Nagel, when I asked him about the suit, kept it equally civil, and directed me to check out the lawsuit for specifics on his stance, though he insisted on the veracity of his version of the story.
Others familiar with the conflict—who all asked to remain anonymous—corroborated the Roots’ version of the story, suggesting that Nagel’s removal was not some sort of conspiratorial coup. In December of 2021, a judge held that the “board’s actions were within the scope of the operating agreement and permissible under the law.”
Even so, by that point the litigious rift between the team’s founders had loomed over the entirety of the Roots’ 2021 USL season, and it had exacted a toll. For one thing, it had opened the door to something the Roots had not much yet had to contend with: bad press, rooted in skepticism over whether the Roots really were as unique and community-driven as they claimed. After all, they’d launched in Oakland suggesting they were grounded in something close to the European conception of what professional sports organizations should aspire to be—that is, community assets, driven not by profits but by an altruistic purpose—yet here they were, seeming to behave in precisely the coldly corporatized manner of the archetypal American franchise, preoccupied not by altruism but with internecine squabbling. (“All sports ownership has some shady rich people shit,” one fan tweeted at the time. “But there is a lot of shady shit going on here.”) Such observations collided with other, similarly critical takes, such as the view espoused by some that the Roots were now rostering too few local players: an affront to commitments the club had made early on to develop homegrown talent.
If one were looking for a catch to the Roots’ story—a reason for doubting the club’s salvific potential—or justification for writing them off as a lifestyle brand (or, worse, just another for-profit franchise), it’s possible they’d find what they were looking for here, in this stretch of the Roots’ rise that Arghandiwal described to me as “the most difficult year” of his life. But to write the Roots off in such a fashion would require, in the end, an awfully selective reading of their story. It would require ignoring, for example, the way the Roots responded to and overcame all this. It would require ignoring the many overtime hours every member of the Roots’ staff spent unrolling and gluing together the club’s new turf panel system on the hot asphalt of the decommissioned Alameda Navy Base, once the system finally arrived, so that the club could once again play their home games in Oakland, at Laney. It would require ignoring the work the Roots’ continued with their suite of purpose partners, in service of the initiatives to which they’d pledged their support, throughout not only the worst stretches of 2021 but 2020, as well, when the club wasn’t playing any games anywhere. As it pertains to the issue of rostering local players, it would require ignoring the unique competitive demands of Division II soccer. It would require overlooking the ongoing operations of Project 510, as well, which continues to provide youth players within Oakland pathways into the sport that had not previously existed. In fact, the team has signed several Bay-Area born players this year, including Timothy Syrel, whom the Roots recruited and developed through Project 510.
It would require one to ignore, as well, the adjustments the Roots eventually made on the field, midway through the 2021 season, which helped them pick up 34 points in just 19 games on a glorious stretch of play near summers’ end that culminated with their winning the final USL Championship Pacific Division playoff spot and eventually even upsetting El Paso Locomotive FC in the playoffs’ first round.
“We decided to stick with our core values,” Arghandiwal told me. “We never let an employee go, we kept the entire staff, we serviced our ticket members. We credited fans for future games when we had to cancel. We hired a new president [Lindsay Barenz]. We kept our heads down and did the work.”
The work appears to have paid off. Today, whether the Roots have strayed in any material sense from their founding mission is not much called into question. “Everything we discussed” going back to their first community advisory council meetings, Joanne da Luz, of My Yute Soccer, told me, “has come into fruition. They haven’t deviated from that. I mean, certain of what we discussed remains in the employee handbook. They’ve actually stayed true to their roots.”
“I’ve been with this club since the beginning,” said Jorge Leon, president of the Oakland 68s, a supporters group. “It’s been easy, because of what they’ve been doing since day one to connect with the community and connect with fans. I mean, they were moving a hundred miles an hour to work with the community before they even put a team on the field. They are about Oakland, one hundred percent.”
Anson Casanares, whom I met in the bleachers the night of the Loudon match, said something of the same. “I love watching the Premier League. I like watching baseball and football, too. I’m a fan of the A’s, the Quakes,” he said. “The difference between other teams and the Roots is the Roots work to make sure this fan community feels like an actual community. They really go the extra mile. I mean, we are in touch with management all the time. A few were over at Jorge’s house the other day. What other teams do that?”
“I’m impressed,” said DC-based sportswriter Charles Boehm, who has covered the Roots. “They’re definitely on the right track. They have the right sensibilities. And they have the right compass.”
Excitement about the Roots, meanwhile, is as feverish as it’s ever been. Four months after the Roots’ upset victory in El Paso the club held their 2022 USL home opener at Laney College. I happened to be walking my dog around Lake Merritt some 30 minutes before kickoff. A cloud of noise and light rose like a vision from the stadium. It drew the two of us in its direction. On E. 10th Street, we found a line of people stretching damn near to the Laney College Library, everyone in it wrapped in green-and-black Roots’ scarves, kids spidering through the legs of their parents, adults buzzing with such anticipatory fervor you would have thought they were waiting in line to see Paul McCartney.
I was back at Laney a few weeks later, standing next to Tommy Hodul beside the bleachers. As Roots’ midfielder Juan Carlos Azocar put away the match’s 3rd goal, which put the Roots up 3-0, the bleachers broke—en masse—into a raucous, bobbing, syntactically flawless rendition of Mac Dre’s “Feeling Myself.” Somewhere, Steve Murukami took his shirt off, the bottom half of his Roots’ tattoo glimmering in the light. I turned to Hodul. Yo, I asked. Is it like this every game? Hodul crossed his arms, vaguely bemused. “No,” he said. “Normally it’s louder.”
‘That is the recipe for success’
In the end, perhaps the rise of the Oakland Roots should be read as a story about the interplay between the responsibilities of pro sports organizations to the communities they play in, and their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, both of which they’re obliged to honor. Certainly it evinces how challenging it can be to build an organization that stays true to its mission at scale.
Are the Roots revolutionary for the fact that they’ve largely succeeded, to that end? Particularly in the world of international soccer—no, not really, I suppose. (Though the European organizations some purists hold up as paragons of virtue are hardly morally superior, as the number of major and historic European clubs owned by Russian oligarchs will attest.)
But in the context of professional sports in the East Bay, and by virtue of the manner in which they’ve overcome the challenges they’ve faced and responded to the controversies they’ve inspired, the Roots do stand out. In a city that’s been mostly used, abused, and betrayed by the teams it has loved, the Roots are a net-positive presence.
In fact, they’re more than that. In the sense of pride they inspire and the community they create, the Roots provide for Oaklanders a version of what every one of their formerly beloved teams—the Raiders of the 1970s; the Warriors of the late 2010s—each provided. That is, license for getting swept up unironically in a team’s success. They’re a reminder of how revivifying and unifying and fortifying pro sports can be.
One doesn’t have to personally enjoy soccer to feel it—to find themself, as if through hypnosis, invested in and inspired by the Roots’ success. I, for example, still don’t altogether understand soccer. But as an Oakland sports fan, I find it elementally restorative cheering on a club that so overtly conveys, both off the pitch and on it, in the bleachers and in the newly minted headquarters of the Oakland-based organizations they support, that they want to be here, and that they do indeed want to compete for something nobler than a paycheck. As Roots’ investor Marshawn Lynch has put it, “The organization isn’t just talking about creating change, but really being about that action.”
A few questions do remain, though.
Where do the Roots go from here? How much closer can they come to replacing the Raiders and Warriors in earnest—and what’s even fair to expect of them in that regard? Of course, it’s hard to tell. The Roots may at some point change hands. New owners could relocate the team.
Or they could defy every last one of their doubters. The writer Simon Kuper once wrote, “No one knows how many football fans there are.” He meant around the world, and was referring to the fact that there are so many football fans globally—in Italy, Brazil, practically from pole to pole—that it’s impossible to put a number to it. But this is probably true in Oakland, too, where the potential for soccer to become popular, possibly very quickly, is great, as the rabid response to the Roots suggests. Who’s to say the Roots won’t be able to tap into that?
Of course, to do so, there are some other, let’s call them “logistical” challenges they’ll need to surmount, such as the daunting, complicated, and expensive challenge of gaining entrance into the MLS—an arguable prerequisite for being able to fill the sports void in Oakland’s soul. Then there’s the even more daunting challenge of securing larger stadium accommodations. Which—actually, let’s not even go there.
After my months following this team around, though, I feel disinclined to count the club out. The reason, ultimately, at least in my humble opinion, has to do with the people running the organization.
So much about the relationship between pro teams and the communities that host them comes down to the motivations of team owners. Owners motivated only by money tend not to engender meaningful relationships with their host cities, nor leave much of an imprint on their people. Owners motivated to positively impact a place, or to represent it proudly, are far more likely to do so. Charlie Finley, the recalcitrant, oft-contemptuous owner of the Oakland A’s during both their dynastic run in the first half of the 1970s and their turbulent nosedive over the back half of that decade, nearly drove the organization into obsolescence on the back of his obstinate refusal to invest meaningfully in it—a refusal greased, at least in part, by a blatant disinterest in and even animus for the broader Oakland community. (Finley lived in Chicago the entire time he owned the A’s.) Walter Haas Jr., who purchased the A’s from Finley in 1980, took the opposite approach—he was the first owner in the history of Major League Baseball to start within his organization a “Community Affairs department”—and in time led the A’s to three straight World Series appearances. Perhaps more pertinently, he engendered a love for the A’s within Oakland that the club has never since matched: from 1989 through 1992, the A’s ranked fifth, third, fourth, and fifth in Major League Baseball in terms of attendance.
If John Fisher, the current owner of the A’s who claims to be “rooted in Oakland,” embodies the former outlook, the folks who run the Roots seem—at least for now—decidedly of the Haas school. And it’s possible to believe that their stated motivations are authentic. The purpose they claim to be driven by really does seem to drive them. Though tested by adversity and perhaps altered slightly by the pressures of capitalism, they’ve held onto it all the while, like a compass palmed by sea captains in a storm.
“Our success—whether it comes in ticket sales, people buying our merch, sponsorships, purpose partners—it will all be a byproduct of our commitment to our purpose,” Arghandiwal said to me, near the end of a later phone call, on a Monday morning in May. He reminded me briefly, then, what the Roots’ purpose was: to harness the magic of Oakland and the power of sport as a vehicle for social good. This was roughly the hundredth time over the preceding two months I’d heard those words, but it finally hit me why the Roots took such great pains to repeat them, aside from the fact that it makes for good PR. It reminded me of something similar Arghandiwal had repeated several times over our conversations, a Pharrell Williams quote: “When you make it, make sure your perspective don’t shift.”
I asked Arghandiwal if there was any relation between the sentiment contained therein and the religious seriousness with which everyone inside the Roots repeated the club’s mission statement.
He smiled. “If we stay true to our mission, if we stay true to our mindset… I mean, if anyone stays true to something like that, how could you fail? That is the recipe for success.”