It would be unfair to call Republic FC the gang that can’t shoot straight.
After all, Sacramento’s 21 goals ranked third-highest among the USL’s 24 teams entering this weekend’s play.
But for a team that dominates possession and often outshoots its opponents by large margins, the results haven’t shown in the standings. The defending USL champions are 6-5-1 entering Saturday’s match against the Austin Aztex at Bonney Field.
Republic FC’s inconsistency around the net reached its high point in last Saturday’s 1-1 tie with the Real Monarchs SLC. Sacramento outshot the Major League Soccer affiliate 18-8, missing on a wide variety of attempts that left an announced record crowd of 11,442 at Bonney Field frustrated.
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It didn’t do much for Republic FC coach Preki’s disposition, either. He was pretty frank in assessing his team’s performance.
“We weren’t sharp; we couldn’t make a play,” Preki said. “We had our chances. (Nemanja Vukovic) hit the post. Tommy (Stewart) had a great chance 2 yards out, missed the whole goal. Cameron Iwasa had a one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
“That’s been our biggest problem since I’ve been here. We don’t have a crucial goal scorer, a guy who can put these plays away. That’s been our biggest problem, otherwise we would be scoring every game six, seven goals. The amount of chances we create is incredible.”
Republic FC has taken a league-leading 146 shots this season, averaging nearly 12 a match.
Republic FC’s lone goal against the Real Monarchs in the 19th minute showed the team’s creativity.
Iwasa out-battled a Real Monarchs defender before turning and laying a pass off to an onrushing Ivan Mirkovic in the box. The midfielder’s cross found the foot of a wide-open David Estrada on the back post.
“You saw Cam hold a ball for us, you saw Ivan make a nice run into space, and I just pretty much tapped it in,” said Estrada, a five-year MLS veteran. “It was a team effort right there. We were moving for each other and being in the right spot at the right time.”
Estrada said the players know they need to finish better.
“It’s a little bit frustrating,” Estrada said. “... That’s one thing that’s been discussed within the group.”
Stewart said USL opponents are clearly inspired to play Republic FC and their performances reflect that.
“They are going to look at our statistics and see that we get a lot of chances, so they are going to try to nullify that,” Stewart said. “They’ll defend even harder, make it more difficult for us to score.”
Stewart, Estrada and fellow forwards Iwasa, Justin Braun and Adnan Gabeljic have combined for seven goals on 54 shots in USL play. Midfielder Rodrigo Lopez has scored seven goals on 20 shots while playing in 10 of the team’s 12 league matches.
In fairness to Stewart, who has yet to net a USL goal, injuries have kept him out of all but four league matches (he had a hat trick in the U.S. Open Cup opener). Last year, Stewart had a team-leading 11 goals during the USL regular season.
Stewart and Estrada have been strikers all their lives, so their confidence is unwavering.
Rod Underwood, a former college and pro forward who is looking for future Republic FC scorers as the club’s new academy director, said that’s a good attribute.
“It’s a guy not afraid to make mistakes, a guy who almost has amnesia when he misses a goal,” Underwood said. “You forget it and move on.”
Estrada said a good striker has to be persistent and take risks.
“I’m not sure if you are born with that or you develop those things as you grow older,” Estrada said. “I always wanted to score the goals growing up.”
Added Stewart: “For me, striking is what I’ve always been good at. … I’ve always enjoyed celebrating the goals.”
Preki celebrated plenty during his star-studded MLS career, though he’s quick to note that he was a midfielder, not a striker.
“I had a good eye for the goal and composure in front of the net – the ability in a fast moment to size up everything around and to be calm enough to put a goal in the right spot,” he said.
Preki admits players who can develop those attributes are rare.
“You can work on it, and you can get better at it,” Preki said of the ability to score goals. “Sometimes you are just born with it.”