Republic FC, showing it may be ready to play in Major League Soccer right now, capped an amazing and improbable first season by winning the USL Pro championship 2-0 over the Harrisburg City Islanders on Saturday night at Bonney Field.
The Sacramento players danced and celebrated amid a shower of confetti while they hoisted the championship trophy. But they made the match a lot more nerve-racking for their passionate fans and Preki, their demanding coach.
The rematch with Harrisburg, which beat Republic FC 2-1 on April 26 in Sacramento’s home opener at Hughes Stadium, wasn’t ensured until Thomas Stewart’s goal off a James Kiffe assist in stoppage time.
Republic FC had taken a 1-0 lead on Octavio Guzman’s goal in the 36th minute from a brilliant assist by Rodrigo Lopez, who was named the game’s MVP.
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But even though Republic FC dominated possession and shots, Harrisburg provided several heart-pounding moments in the last 15 minutes.
Jake Gleeson made a brilliant save on a Robbie Derschang cross in the 78th minute. Morgan Langley, who scored the game winner against Republic FC in April, was open on the back post. And Mickey Daly came up with a shot-saving tackle inside the box in the 86th minute.
“I would have loved to had that second goal a lot earlier,” Preki said, smiling.
But when Stewart scored a few minutes from the end, it was time to celebrate. The announced sellout crowd of 8,000 rimmed the stadium and chanted, “M-L-S, M-L-S,” during the postgame ceremony.
“What an absolutely thrilling championship game,” USL Pro president Tim Holt said before presenting the championship trophy to the team. “What a prefect way to top off another remarkable season in USL Pro.”
Preki said he believes the city of Sacramento, the franchise and players are ready to compete at the next level.
“The city of Sacramento deserves MLS,” Preki said. “We play an attractive brand of football. It would be a shame if Sacramento doesn’t go to MLS quickly.”
As he has all season, Lopez had his fingerprints all over the victory, finding open players several times for shots that just couldn’t find the mark.
The one exception was his chip to Guzman, who perfectly timed his run and split two defenders to beat the goalkeeper with a spot-on shot from the top of the box.
“I made the run and saw an opening, then saw a wide-open net,” Guzman said.
Said Lopez: “Octavio always makes good runs down the middle. That’s because he was a forward. All credit to him. All I did was put the ball on him, and he put it away..
Lopez said he had trouble falling asleep Saturday morning. He didn’t go to sleep until 1 a.m. and woke up 41/2 hours later.
“All of the hard work we put in came down to this game,” Lopez said. “We deserved this.”
The win capped a remarkable inaugural season in which Republic FC set a USL Pro regular-season attendance record of 158,107 fans during its 14 home league matches at Hughes Stadium and Bonney Field.
The sellouts continued at Bonney Field in the playoffs with a 4-1 win over the Wilmington Hammerheads in the quarterfinals Sept. 13, then a thrilling 3-2 come-from-behind win over the rival LA Galaxy II behind Lopez’s hat trick in the semifinals Sept. 20.
Republic FC’s season doesn’t end with the championship match. It is scheduled to play Real Salt Lake of MLS in an exhibition Tuesday in Salt Lake City.