A lot has changed for Republic FC since last April when it played the franchise’s first home match in front of a sold-out crowd and USL Pro regular-season attendance record of 20,231 at Hughes Stadium.
The match between Sacramento and the Harrisburg City Islanders seemed a mere backdrop to the electrifying atmosphere inside and outside the Republic FC’s temporary digs.
“I didn’t expect to see 20,000 people,” said forward Adam Jahn, who grew up in Davis, attended Jesuit High School and had joined Republic FC that week on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes. “So I was pretty surprised and excited to play in front of so many people.”
The visitors from Pennsylvania were just as amazed.
“To get here and see that was incredible,” said Harrisburg coach Bill Becher. “The guys were thrilled to play in that environment.”
The only bummer for the home crowd and the wide-eyed Republic FC players was that they lost 2-1 on Morgan Langley’s dazzling second-half goal after the two teams battled to a 1-1 tie through the first half.
But at that time, the result provided no indication that the two teams would wind up meeting in tonight’s USL Pro championship match, and in Sacramento, no less, though now at 8,000-seat Bonney Field.
The Harrisburg loss dropped Sacramento to 2-3-1. For the City Islanders, it was their first win in five matches.
“The franchise had been in existence for three months,” said Jahn, who scored Sacramento’s goal on an assist by Max Alvarez. “To compare that team to the one playing (tonight), you wouldn’t believe how much we have changed, and how much better we’ve gotten in just five months.”
Sacramento went undefeated in its next 12 USL Pro home matches, finished with 17 regular-season wins, secured second place and the second playoff seed, then in the postseason beat the No. 7 Wilmington Hammerheads 4-1 and the No. 3 Los Angeles Galaxy II 3-2, both at Bonney Field.
Harrisburg took a much tougher journey.
The City Islanders, 2-6-2 and in 12th place at one point, rallied to secure the No. 8 and final seed on the last day of the regular season. They followed up with a 1-0 shocker of top-seeded and Major League Soccer-bound Orlando City in Florida, then topped No. 4 Richmond 3-2 in Virginia.
Becher said the win over Republic FC and an overtime loss in mid-June to their MLS affiliate Philadelphia Union (Harrisburg led 1-0 entering the 89th minute) in the U.S. Open Cup kept his young team believing.
“Our match in Sacramento was a must game in late April because we were in a difficult spot since we had started 0-3-1,” Becher said. “We put a lot into that game. We had to have that game. Then later in the season we got a few more like that. It seemed every game down the stretch was like a playoff game.”
But Becher doesn’t think the win in April carries much weight now. He expects a different atmosphere at Bonney Field, where the pitch is larger and the fans closer to the action.
“They’ve probably been the best team in the league the last two to 21/2 months, and they certainly have been great at home,” Becher said. “We went into Orlando and won, and we went into Richmond and won. But this is going to be our tallest order yet.”
Preki was named Coach of the Year and Nemanja Vukovic the Defender of the Year.
“It looks like a personal accolade, but with me, it’s always a group thing,” said Preki, the MLS Coach of the Year with Chivas USA in 2007. “Myself getting credit for it means the players have done a good job. Everybody involved in team sports understands it’s not about you, it’s about the group. We win and we lose together.”
Vukovic, holding his player award and smiling widely, echoed his coach in sharing his award with his teammates.
“I don’t just play defense, everybody on our team plays defense,” he said.
Orlando City’s Kevin Molino, who had a league-record 20 goals in 27 matches, was the MVP. The Rochester Rhinos’ John McCarthy was the Goalkeeper of the Year.