It seemed almost hopeless Saturday night for Republic FC in its USL Pro semifinal playoff match against the rival LA Galaxy II in front of an announced sellout crowd of 8,000 at Bonney Field.
Los Angeles took a 2-0 lead on two first-half goals by Charlie Rugg and appeared to have the chippy, physical match well in hand early in the second half.
But then Republic FC’s Rodrigo Lopez and his teammates went to work.
Lopez converted penalty kicks in the 70th and 85th minutes, then scored on a miraculous bending free kick in stoppage time for a 3-2 victory that sent the first-year team into Saturday’s USL Pro championship match at Bonney Field.
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Republic FC will host the surprising Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders. The eighth seed upset top-seeded and MLS-bound Orlando City 1-0 in the opening round in Orlando, then topped the No. 4 Richmond Kickers 3-2 Saturday in Richmond, Va.
Harrisburg beat Republic FC 2-1 in Sacramento’s home opener in front of a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 at Hughes Stadium on April 26. It was the teams’ only meeting during the regular season.
Lopez scored his first penalty-kick goal after Ivan Mirkovic was taken down in the box by Andre Auras. Lopez delivered the equalizer 15 minutes later after a handball was called on a Galaxy II defender.
But the veteran midfielder saved the best for last when he was fouled just outside the box in stoppage time. Lopez’s bent his free kick around the Galaxy II wall and into the upper right corner of the net beyond the reach of goalkeeper Brian Perk.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was a goal,” Lopez said. “It’s a dream come true. To have a hat trick in a game like this is unreal. But give all the credit to my team.”
Republic FC came out strong in the first 25 minutes, then seemed to hit a wall as Galaxy II dominated the rest of the half.
In the 26th minute, Dragan Stojkov’s right cross found the head of an unmarked Rugg near the back post. He neatly headed the ball behind goalkeeper Jake Gleeson from inside the 6-yard box.
It was Rugg again in the 44th minute, taking a short pass from Bradford Jamieson IV and moving the ball from his right to left foot in one move to beat Gleeson near post.
Republic FC coach Preki thought all the excitement involving the team unveiling a new stadium plan and a visit by Major League Soccer officials affected his players.
“I think it’s been a difficult week for us in terms of MLS things and different things surrounding the group,” Preki said. “I felt we came into the game very nervous tonight, especially after we gave up a goal. We almost stopped believing.
“At halftime I had to be really hard. I had to let them know how I felt. I give them a lot of credit. They responded like a group of men who came out in the second half like they really wanted this. And they made it happen.”
Republic FC will become the first California team – and the first team from beyond the Eastern United States – to play for a USL Pro championship since the third-tier league was reformulated in 2011 from the old USL first and second divisions.
The raucous crowd helped provide the spark. The Tower Bridge Battalion brought out a huge contingent that filled most of the north end and cheered throughout the match. The fans showed their humorous side, too.
“They may take our water, but they’ll never take our trophy,” a giant poster read on the railing in back of the Battalion’s section beyond the north goal.