Before this season, Republic FC forward-midfielder Thomas Stewart was content playing soccer in Europe.
Stewart, 27, a native of Northern Ireland, played professionally only in Ireland and Scotland, where he had a stellar eight-year career that included 180 matches and 51 goals. He played three of those years with Ireland’s most successful soccer team, the Dublin-based Shamrock Rovers, winners of 17 League of Ireland championships.
And he has a close-knit family and a girlfriend who has been with him for a decade.
Yet, in February, Stewart was halfway around the world trying out for a new minor-league soccer team led by a coach who didn’t really care for his style of play.
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“I looked at it as a new challenge,” Stewart said. “I wanted to test myself. It’s not easy moving away from your home luxuries. But I’ve been delighted with my decision.”
Stewart has become a key player for Republic FC, which plays tonight at the Rochester Rhinos in New York and on Sunday against the Dayton Dutch Lions in Ohio in USL Pro matches.
He leads the team with three goals, including one Saturday in a heated 2-1 win over LA Galaxy II before a sellout crowd of 20,231 at Hughes Stadium. Seven minutes into the match, defender Harrison Delbridge lofted a long ball to Stewart, who chested it as he sprinted past a gap in the Galaxy II defense. Stewart sent a right-footed, one-touch volley over the goalie’s head and into the upper left corner of the net from 25 yards out.
“I knew there was space behind the defense, and I saw that the goalie was off his line,” Stewart said. “I got a good touch and, fortunately, hit the ball really well.”
It’s that type of creativity that caught the eye of Republic FC coach Preki during those tryouts.
“In the small-sided games and finishing drills, we saw that he was a guy who could put the ball into the net,” Preki said.
But Preki wasn’t sure how Stewart would adjust from the direct, physical style he was accustomed to in Ireland to Preki’s ball-control, cerebral form that relies on guile and skill while moving smartly without the ball.
“The way he played when he first came here, I wasn’t a big fan of,” Preki said. “I told him he would have to change his game.”
Stewart said he remained optimistic even though he played only 43 minutes in the team’s first three matches.
“Every manager brings a different dimension, but I’m happy Preki wants to play the right way,” Stewart said. “I came with a good pedigree, but I also know that football is a crazy business. Nothing is guaranteed. You just have to keep working hard and stay healthy.”
Preki was impressed that Stewart didn’t hang his head.
“We were trying to change his game a little, so he wasn’t playing much,” Preki said. “But he’s a good pro. He’s worked incredibly hard. Now he’s not just scoring goals for us, but he’s making some plays that are very important.”
Stewart feels like a man on a mission. When the Shamrock Rovers finished a disappointing fifth in league last season, he was one of nine players jettisoned.
While he had several offers from other teams, Stewart saw Republic FC as the best fit.
“Everything felt right here,” Stewart said. “I just felt more at home, more at ease. I can see where the club wants to get to, what it wants to achieve.”
While California often is a lure for foreign players, Stewart said his decision had nothing to do with fun or sun.
“I’m not down at the beach – I know that’s some people’s perception,” Stewart said. “It’s about the soccer. It’s not as easy playing here as it is back home. I’ve had to adjust to the way I train, the way I rest. The biggest challenge is the heat. I’m still trying to adjust to that.”
He says he’s a “wee too old” to get homesick and uses social media to keep in contact with friends, parents, siblings Jonathan, Samuel and Tara, and girlfriend Catherine Carville.
“Without Skype, it would be 10 times harder,” Stewart said. “It’s good to have the support back home. There’s a bit of a buzz about the team with my friends and family. Every time a match comes on, they stay up and watch it, even though it’s 3 in the morning.”
It helps that his roommate, midfielder Chad Bond, is from Wales. Most of the Republic FC players are from areas well beyond Sacramento, with 11 countries represented on the 24-man roster.
“This is the big thing with this team,” Stewart said. “The chemistry is good despite being together for such a short time. The players are fighting for each other and for the manager (Preki), and that shows on the pitch.”