Preki was the Major League Soccer Coach of the Year in 2007 with Chivas USA, but Republic FC technical director Graham Smith thinks his good friend’s finest hour came this season, when he led the first-year franchise to the USL Pro championship.
After a 2-3-1 start, Republic FC finished with 17 regular-season league victories, then beat the Wilmington Hammerheads and LA Galaxy II to reach the title match. On Saturday, Republic FC beat the Harrisburg City Islanders 2-0 to become the league’s first West Coast champion.
Sacramento did it while playing an attractive, attacking style a lot of coaches might find too risky.
“He has brought out in these players something a lot of mere mortals would not have been able to do,” Smith said of the USL Pro Coach of the Year. “If (former Sacramento State player) Maxie Alvarez keeps believing in what Preki is telling him, he will go all the way (to MLS). Ro-Ro (midfield star Rodrigo Lopez) has become a far better player in terms of his defensive duties. Emrah Klimenta has been an amazing physical presence on defense, and he came from an open tryout.”
Smith also thinks Earthquakes loanee Adam Jahn (Jesuit High School) can become an impact scorer if Preki has another season to work with him. And Smith said Brazilian midfielder Gilberto and African forward Mawolo “Gabe” Gissie, 17, “have exciting, bright futures ahead with our football club.”
Smith also loved seeing Ivan Mirkovic, like Preki a Serbian, blossom this season. Smith knew of the former Fresno Pacific player from the defensive midfielder’s days with the Ventura County Fusion, a Premier Development League team Smith helped found.
“I told Preki he was very undisciplined, but he’ll respond to you,” Smith said. “And it worked. Ivan can step in and play in Major League Soccer tomorrow.”
Harrisburg coach Bill Becher, who has coached the City Islanders for 11 seasons, was impressed with what Preki accomplished.
“He was a fantastic player and a great coach in the MLS, but what he has done here is incredible,” Becher said. “You see most first-year teams don’t fare very well in this league. I don’t care what players you get – it’s not easy to do what they have done.”
The Portland Timbers loanee turned back a handful of strong goal-scoring opportunities during the tense match.
The New Zealand native blocked Antoine Hoppenot’s 8-yard header from a cross by Morgan Langley 30 minutes into the match, then used all of his 6-foot-5 frame to go airborne and snag a cross by Robbie Derschang that was en route to a wide-open Langley on the back post in the 79th minute.
Gleeson swatted away Klimenta’s errant header to prevent a tying own goal in the 90th minute, then blocked another point-blank shot by Hoppenot in stoppage time, though it wouldn’t have counted because the Philadelphia Union loanee was ruled offside.
“Those plays he made saved us,” Kiffe said.
Gleeson’s heroics came before Thomas Stewart put the match away on a goal from a Kiffe assist moments before the end.
“Four years ago, when Orlando City came into the league, they set the bar for new USL Pro teams,” said Tim Holt, USL Pro’s president. “Well, Sacramento has taken that bar and reset it in 2014 for future first-year franchises.”
Holt credited co-founder and president Warren Smith for his leadership and vision in bringing pro soccer to Sacramento as well as producing a franchise with “a front office as good as any we have in the league.”
“It may be a rookie franchise, but it’s not a bunch of rookies running this team,” Holt said. “ ... They have done a fantastic job. It’s been a great story in the community. You can feel the buzz when you step off the plane and open the newspaper and walk around the streets. The same is the case nationally.”