A lot will be at stake tonight when Republic FC hosts OKC Energy at Bonney Field.
A victory by Republic FC (16-6-4) will lock up second place in USL Pro and secure a second-round home playoff match. A victory or tie will extend Republic FC’s unbeaten streak to 10 before the regular-season finale Saturday at home against LA Galaxy II.
“It will be an important game for us,” midfielder and team captain Rodrigo Lopez said. “It would be good for the team to get a victory so we can get some other guys minutes just to get their feet wet against Galaxy. That will help get them ready for the playoffs.”
Republic FC had its best month of the season in August, with the most wins and points, the fewest goals allowed and the best goal differential in the league. The team was 5-0-1 in August, including a 0-0 tie against the Wilmington Hammerheads on the road Saturday in which goalkeeper Jake Gleeson made a couple of big second-half saves.
While Republic FC had several scoring chances, the tie ended any hope it could catch Major League Soccer-bound Orlando City for first place. By playing Wilmington to a 0-0 draw on Wednesday night, Orlando City, the defending champion, locked up home-field advantage through the playoffs.
“We fought – we knew there was a chance,” Lopez said. “We wanted that win against Wilmington, obviously. We had a really good first half. We just couldn’t finish. We got a little tired in the second half. But with the traveling and the humidity, to come out with a tie against a Wilmington team that’s playing well right now, it shows that our defense is really solid.”
The only way Republic FC could host the championship the last weekend in September would be if Orlando City is upset in the first or second round and Sacramento wins its two playoff matches.
Lopez said the reason for the first-year team’s long run of success – Sacramento’s last loss was July 12 at third-place Richmond – is simple.
“The unity in the locker room has been great,” he said. “It’s good to come into the locker room and see all the smiles. Some teams don’t have that, which is why they’re not successful.”
OKC Energy (8-13-5) has lost five in a row and is in 12th place, battling to finish in the top eight to make the playoffs.
But OKC Energy, also an expansion team, is the only USL Pro team to twice beat Republic FC, both times 2-0 at home. Republic FC beat Oklahoma City 2-1 on Aug. 9 at Bonney Field, where Republic FC is 7-0-1.
“We’re going into this game like any other game,” Republic FC coach Preki said. “We’ll make sure we have a good mentality, good work rate. If we can do that, then things will take care of themselves.”
New man helps out – James Kiffe, recently signed by Republic FC from the Ventura County Fusion, has been solid in his two starts at left back.
“James has done a decent job so far, though the jury is still out,” Preki said. “He’s working hard. Hopefully, he can keep his mentality right, and if he does, he’ll do himself a lot of good for the future.”
Veteran Chad Bartlome, who played left back for the first time in his career, has moved back to forward after starting five matches at the defensive position.
“We needed to throw somebody in there, and Chad took the challenge on and did a pretty good job,” Preki said.
Among the leaders – Entering Wednesday, Lopez was fifth (26) and Thomas Stewart tied for sixth (25) in points in USL Pro. Stewart was tied for fifth in goals with 11, and Lopez was tied for second in assists with eight. Gleeson was third in goals-allowed average (0.94) and was in a three-way tie for second in wins (10).
Two anticipated sellouts in its final regular-season home matches will push Republic FC’s attendance to more than 158,000. The USL Pro season record, set by Orlando City last year, was 112,748.