Graham Smith had mixed emotions during Wednesday’s second-round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match between Republic FC and the Ventura County Fusion at Cosumnes River College.
Smith, as technical director, is one of the architects of the first-year Republic FC, the entertaining and popular USL Pro team that has taken Sacramento by storm and is setting league attendance records.
But Smith also is one of the founders of the Fusion, one of the most successful teams in the USL Premier Development League, a notch below the third division USL Pro. Smith coached the team for the first three years and served as their player director until joining the Republic.
So while Smith couldn’t really lose Wednesday, that wasn’t the case for the Fusion, which fell 2-1 on two second-half Republic FC goals in front of 1,347 at the South Sacramento community college. Republic FC advances to the third round against the PDL Fresno Fuego on May 28 at a city and location to be announced.
“It’s bittersweet tonight,” Smith said. “My colors are definitely nailed to the Republic mast, that’s for sure. But it always makes me proud to see the Fusion do well.”
Five members of Republic FC played previously with the Fusion, including veteran midfielder Rodrigo Lopez, who still has strong ties to the Southern California team.
Ventura County coach Rudy Ybarra was Lopez’s first youth club coach and also worked as an assistant to Smith, who was the Fusion’s first coach.
“His family and I are really close, and his sons are my best friends,” said Lopez, who assisted on Republic FC’s first goal, a header by defender Harrison Delbridge from Lopez’s free kick. “It’s a really good team in the PDL division, one of the best.”
Lopez has special memories of his time with the Fusion, especially in Smith’s last season as coach in 2009. He had recently been cut by Chivas USA and had been playing in Mexico.
He joined Ventura County for the last three matches of the PDL playoffs that season and had the match-winning goal in his debut in the quarterfinals, then was named MVP after helping the Fusion to a 2-1 upset of the Chicago Fire Reserves in the championship match.
“I owe them a lot,” Lopez said. “After I was released from Chivas they gave me a home, gave me the confidence to again play at a competitive level to move back to MLS with the Portland Timbers.”
When Smith became technical director of Republic FC, the first player the club signed was Lopez.
“Graham’s a guy who believes in me, believes in my potential and that I should be playing at the highest level,” Lopez said. “He’s always helped me out with my career.”
Smith played more than 250 professional matches as a goalkeeper on various English teams and later coached in his home country. He was a board member of Chelsea FC, the English Premier League team.
Twenty four years ago he started a company, First Wave Sports Marketing, that represents professional soccer players and coaches and arranges player transfers, training camps and pro exhibition matches worldwide.
But Smith, living in Southern California, missed coaching and jumped at the chance to develop a new high-level soccer club when the Fusion was formed in 2006.
He decided to take on a bigger challenge in helping Republic FC President Warren Smith with the dream of bringing an MLS team to Sacramento and playing in a downtown soccer-only stadium.
As technical director, Smith is responsible for helping coach Preki develop a system of play that is both attractive and successful.
“I hope my experience helps,” Smith said. “I want to be part of this amazing journey.”