Graham Smith is constantly working the phones, always looking at player stat packages and continuously fielding inquiries from agents trying to secure a roster spot for their prized clients. And as Republic FC tenuously hangs on to a playoff spot with four matches left, his work isn’t finished.
The 2017 roster has changed more than in any in the team’s four-year history, and Smith, the club’s director of football, still spends seven days a week looking to sign players who will become injury replacements or roster upgrades.
“The one thing about (soccer) is that change is constant,” said Smith, who has more than 50 years of experience in the world’s most popular sport. “Our roster is always in a constant state of flux. Your best-laid plans can get destroyed once those 11 step onto the pitch.”
Republic FC is 12-10-6 (42 points) – seventh place in the USL Western Conference – after Wednesday’s 2-0 home loss to West frontrunner Real Monarchs SLC. Sacramento is just two points better than OKC Energy FC, which thumped Sacramento 3-1 last Saturday, and five ahead of ninth-place Orange County SC. The top eight in each conference make the playoffs, and Republic FC seeks its fourth consecutive postseason berth.
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Around mid-summer, Republic FC was in the top four and looked as if it would host a first-round playoff game. But the team went 4-4-2 through August and September and now the pressure is on. Republic FC hosts Phoenix Rising FC in its home finale on Saturday before playing at Orange County, Colorado Springs and Reno.
“I knew the season was going to be up and down,” coach Paul Buckle said. “And there’s been a lot of ups and downs. All the years before, we’ve been flying. Sooner or later you’re going to have to fight for something, and this is the year, and I think we’ve got it within us. Let’s have a fight now for it.”
Captain Emrah Klimenta said he finds himself worried about teams other than his own. Where is OKC Energy playing next weekend? What’s Orange County’s goal differential? Is Phoenix really on an 11-match unbeaten streak with five wins in a row? (Yes.)
“Everybody will tell you that we’re not looking at standings, but everybody has social media, we read the paper and obviously we look at the standings,” Klimenta said. “You have to mentally prepare yourself for who you’re going to potentially face in the playoffs. If (a player) says they don’t look at the standings, I’m not going to say they’re lying, but me, personally, I like to look at the standings to see who we may be going up against.”
Klimenta said he’s used to the ebb and flow of teammates coming and going. But this season seems different.
Sacramento had 22 players on the roster for its first USL game on March 26 and now has 27. Smith and Buckle released Julius James, Daniel Trickett-Smith and Enrique Montano in mid-August, the first time since 2015 that three players have been dropped mid-season. Recent additions to the roster include forward Matt Wiesenfarth and midfielders Roberto Hategan and Luis Espino. Wiesenfarth, who played at UC Davis, and Espino have started and played a lot of minutes. Hategan, 16, grew up in Roseville.
The loss of captain and midfielder Danny Barrera in July to a broken foot compounded the team’s offensive problems. Smith signed midfielder Hayden Partain in early August to help, but he went down two weeks ago with an ankle injury. Forward Wilson Kneeshaw has missed the past three games with a right foot sprain.
“Many things have happened this season, but no excuses,” Smith said. “I’ve never seen a team miss so many easy shots. I have a collage of missed shots, and there’s been so many misses from 2-3 yards in front of the goal. I can’t explain those.
“We’ve missed some horrendous chances and your confidence takes a knock. But I defy any team to deal with losing a player of (Barrera’s) stature and stay in the playoff hunt. He’s the pulse of our team and the creator of chances. The guy played three weeks for us on a broken foot. Yeah, it’s been frustrating without him. But that’s (soccer).”