Saturday’s match at the OKC Energy FC will be a test for Republic FC and its feisty 5-foot-6, defensive-minded midfielder, Ivan Mirkovic.
The defending USL champions lost both matches in Oklahoma City 2-0 last season, though Sacramento (6-4-0, 18 points) beat the Energy (2-2-3, nine points) twice at Bonney Field.
In the first loss last June, Sacramento played with 10 men for 69 minutes after Mirkovic was ejected in the aftermath of a pushing and shoving incident involving players from both teams. The straight red card came in Mirkovic’s first appearance after a two-match suspension for another ejection in a match where he received two yellow cards.
Mirkovic was the poster boy for a team that ranked second in the USL in yellow cards and red-card ejections. Including U.S. Open Cup matches, Republic FC played seven matches a man down last season.
Mirkovic led Republic FC in fouls (69) and yellow cards (12) and was tied for first in ejections (two) while playing in just 27 of the team’s 38 matches. The minutes lost were costly for someone who Republic FC technical director Graham Smith calls the team’s “glue” and coach Preki says is “an important piece.”
The OKC match proved to be pivotal for Mirkovic, who was ejected after sprinting from midfield to join the scrum of pushing and milling players near the Energy goal after teammate Nemanja Vukovic was knocked down trying to score a goal.
“I’ve watched the video so many times,” Mirkovic said. “I jumped in to defend my teammate, and for no reason I exploded. It was the right call. I deserved it.”
Mirkovic hasn’t been ejected since, and it may be no coincidence this season that Republic FC has played its first 13 matches without losing a player to a red card. Mirkovic has started all 10 USL matches and is second in minutes played.
But Mirkovic and his teammates haven’t become passive.
He continues to lead the team in fouls and is one of three Republic FC players, along with defender Mickey Daly and forward Justin Braun, on warning Saturday with four yellow cards. A fifth will earn a one-match suspension from USL play.
Still, Preki said Mirkovic is becoming more disciplined.
“We talk to him about trying to control his emotions,” said Preki, adding that two of Mirkovic’s cautions this season were tough calls. “We show him what are good plays and what are bad plays. You don’t want him to lose his aggressiveness. But in terms of (temperament), he’s been better.”
Mirkovic entered the season with a goal of reducing the number of cards by improving his defensive techniques and positioning. He said it helps having experienced defenders behind him in Emrah Klimenta, Daly, Vukovic and James Kiffe.
“We’re still aggressive because that’s how Preki wants us to play,” Mirkovic said. “I’m trying not to get cautions for arguing with other players or the referees. Those are not acceptable. If I do foul and get a caution, then that’s up to the referee.”
Klimenta, a converted forward now playing outside back, said defenders sometimes walk a fine line with referees because they often make the riskiest tackles. Even so, he sees maturation in Mirkovic.
“He’s still a little pit bull, a little bulldog,” Klimenta said. “But he’s a lot more disciplined because he felt he let down his teammates, coaches and fans by missing games last season. He still sacrifices his body and does everything he can for the team, but in a smarter fashion.”
Klimenta said the animated Mirkovic is even showing more restraint in his dealings with referees and opponents.
“He’s not getting in the middle of discussions – check that – he’s always in the middle of them. But he’s a lot more relaxed, more calm now,” Klimenta said.