This is a physically challenging week for Republic FC.
Last Saturday, Sacramento played its USL home opener against the LA Galaxy II at Bonney Field.
The defending USL champions played again at home Wednesday night against the Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2. On Saturday night, they will play their former affiliate, the Portland Timbers 2, at Bonney Field.
That’s three league matches in eight days, a grueling triple play for a team that has a half-dozen players either injured or just returning from injuries.
But you won’t hear any complaints from Republic FC coach Preki – or the players, for that matter. This year’s 28-match league schedule is much friendlier on the body and mind than the one they endured last season.
With the league’s growth from 14 to 24 teams, USL officials divided the league into 12-team Western and Eastern conferences. There is no cross-conference competition between the West Coast and East Coast teams until the playoffs. That’s eliminated some of the taxing cross-country travel.
The league also expanded the regular season by three weeks. That’s meant no back-to-back matches for Republic FC on consecutive days like last April when Republic FC played the Orange County Blues FC on a Saturday in Irvine before facing the Galaxy II the next night in Carson.
That was a costly marathon. Major League Soccer veteran Justin Braun blew out a hamstring late in the first half against Galaxy II after playing 77 minutes the night before against Orange County. Braun was sidelined for more than a month.
“No one in this world should be playing back-to-back games,” said midfielder Rodrigo Lopez. “That’s why the league has done fairly well this year.”
While playing matches against three MLS-affiliated sides is no picnic this week, Lopez said it isn’t asking too much of the players.
“It’s demanding, but the best teams in the world do it, so why can’t we?” said Lopez, who made the USL Team of the Week for his goal and assist against Galaxy II. “It’s good for us because these matches are at home and they are early in the year, when we are still fresh.
“I know this: Everyone wants to play 90 minutes in all three games. It’s just up to Preki if he wants us to play that much.”
Preki doesn’t need most of his players to be iron men, even with the rash of injuries that hit the team early this season and have kept Republic FC’s training, therapy and rehabilitation staff hustling.
Republic FC has 24 players on its roster; 22 are healthy this week, and the overall talent is deeper than last year’s group. And that’s without any loan players. The San Jose Earthquakes have yet to send a player to Sacramento this season.
Republic FC and other league teams also benefit from a rule that is unique to the USL. It allows teams to substitute up to five players in a match.
Under FIFA’s Laws of the Game, a maximum of three substitutes are allowed, though up to six can be used in friendlies. USL adopted the more liberal substitution rule more than 20 years ago because of the punishing travel and scheduling.
But Preki is a purist. If he had his druthers, the USL rule would be three subs. But since it’s five, he takes advantage, too.
Against the Galaxy II, he made four substitutions.
With a 3-0 halftime lead in an eventual 3-1 win over Los Angeles, 2014 USL Defender of the Year Nemanja Vukovic and midfielder Max Alvarez, both of whom are recovering from injuries, came on in the second half and saw playing time for the first time this season.
“Some games you make changes because of performances, and sometimes you want to give others minutes,” Preki said.
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MATCH AT A GLANCE
REPUBLIC FC 2, VANCOUVER WHITECAPS FC 2 0
Star of the match: Midfielder and 2014 USL MVP finalist Rodrigo Lopez continues to dazzle at Bonney Field in scoring both Sacramento goals, including an unassisted 60-yard towering rocket in the 71st minute into en empty net after catching the Whitecaps’ goalkeeper far off his line. He also scored in the 32nd minute. They were his 13th and 14th goals in the 15 USL matches at Bonney Field.
Unsung hero: Republic FC goalkeeper Patrick McLain made a one-handed save on Victor Blasco’s blast in the 44th minute. Blasco had split the defense for a 1-vs.-1 against McLain. McLain finished with five saves against Vancouver (1-3-0).
For the defense: Behind McLain and center defender Mickey Daly, Republic FC posted its first shutout of the season. Sacramento came into the match having allowed nine goals in four USL matches, with eight coming in the second half.
Moving up: The win moves Sacramento (3-2-0) into a three-way for first place in the Western Conference with the Seattle Sounders 2 and Arizona United SC.