When Republic FC coach Preki told his players before practice Tuesday that he is stepping down to lead a team in the United Kingdom, it hit defender Emrah Klimenta like a punch in the gut.
Preki, the 2014 USL Coach of the Year, discovered Klimenta during an open tryout two years ago, moved him from forward to defender and watched him blossom as a pro.
“I’m devastated,” Klimenta said. “I’m sure the boys will come out and work hard for the new coach. But personally, it’s not going to be the same. Preki gave me the chance when other coaches didn’t. He believed in me and built me into the player I am today.”
Republic FC captain Justin Braun, another Preki discovery when he coached Chivas USA, said Preki’s resignation is “bittersweet.”
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I’m devastated. I’m sure the boys will come out and work hard for the new coach. But personally, it’s not going to be the same.
Emrah Klimenta, Republic FC defender
“He was the reason I came to Sacramento,” Braun said. “If he wasn’t coaching, I probably wouldn’t have come here. I’m happy for him and personally surprised it didn’t happen sooner. He’s proven he can win wherever he goes. He’s proven and he deserves a chance at the next level. I think wherever he ends up, he’s going to excel.”
Preki, 52, will coach his final Republic FC match Saturday, when Sacramento, which is tied for the lead in the Western Division, plays rival LA Galaxy II in a key USL match. He offered little insight into where he will coach next during Wednesday’s news conference and the announcement of his replacement, Paul Buckle, a veteran English coach.
Preki is viewed as a top candidate for the job opening at Leicester City, an English Premier League team. But he’s also been linked to a consortium that is in the process of buying one of four high-level United Kingdom pro teams that are for sale. Preki reportedly would have some financial interest and coach the team.
“I can’t elaborate as far as where I’m going or what I’m doing,” Preki said. “I feel like this opportunity has arrived, and I’m ready for it. At this moment, that’s all that I can say.”
Buckle, 44, played 20 years and has coached 12 years (some as a player-coach) in England. He has a 140-99-81 record coaching four lower-division English sides. Among his most noteworthy feats was leading his 2013 Luton Town team to the fifth round of the FA Cup, upsetting EPL club Norwich City.
His last coaching stint earlier this year for Cheltenham Town, however, lasted just 79 days and 13 matches, and the fifth-division club went 1-7-5 during his stint and wound up being relegated.
But Republic FC technical director Graham Smith thinks Buckle – who is married to Rebecca Lowe, the anchor of NBC Sports Network’s EPL coverage – is the right man to coach the team during the midseason transition. Because Smith knew for “a considerable time” that Preki might leave, he’s had his eyes on Buckle.
“We’ve known Paul for over 12 months and he has had the opportunity to spend some time with Preki, watch some of the training sessions and games,” Smith said. “We have great confidence in Paul. We wanted someone to carry on what Preki has been doing, albeit in a different way. He’s going to be great for the players.”
“We are going to get a coach that we feel that is going to be a good fit,” he said. “I think the team is going to be in a good place.”
29-13-7 Preki’s USL record with Republic FC
Players know little about Buckle, who wasn’t at the news conference. Smith said Buckle will be at Saturday’s match and take over the team Sunday.
“Obviously there will be a transition period where he will put his stamp on things,” Braun said. “And we’ll see what that is when it comes. I hope we can stick together and continue to win and continue to push for the playoffs and, hopefully, win another championship.”
Midfielder Ivan Mirkovic said the players won’t let up because they have a new coach.
“Soccer is a business, so you have to keep moving forward,” Mirkovic said. “Just as we had to adjust to Preki when we first came here, we will have to adjust to the new coach and give him the maximum support.”
Preki, a former star player in the EPL and Major League Soccer and member of the American National Soccer Hall of Fame, has a USL record of 29-13-7 with Republic FC. He was 52-47-40 coaching Chivas USA and Toronto FC, both MLS teams, and was MLS Coach of the Year in 2007. He is the only coach in U.S. soccer history to be Coach of the Year in both the MLS and USL.
But Preki has a reputation for being prickly and demanding, something Republic FC president Warren Smith learned from others when he was looking for the franchise’s first coach.
“I called everybody I knew in the sport and almost 100 percent told me to stay away from Preki,” Smith said. “But Graham (Smith) continued to make a case with me and brought him out and, to be honest with you, in our very first meeting, I just got to learn what a wonderful human being this man is.
“We are so sad to lose Preki, but we’re excited for the future he has to coach at the highest level. … Preki laid a very strong foundation for our club.”
Preki said it was nice to be part of “something very special.”
“Republic FC has been one of the best experiences in my entire career,” Preki said. “Our players have worked harder than any I know. The fans, city and soccer community opened their hearts to the club as well as to me. This was not a decision I made lightly. The opportunity ahead is a lifetime dream for me and a chance to challenge myself at the highest level of the game.”
Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct Preki’s USL record.
at a glance
- Age: 44
- Coaching record: 12 years, 140-99-81 (three-time FA trophy finals with Torquay United, two at Wembley, one at Old Trafford; led Luton Town in 2013 to the fifth round of the FA Cup, beating English Premier League Norwich City on its own turf; 2012 Conference playoff finalist and 2011 League Two playoff finalist)
- Playing record: 20 years, 62 goals in 650 appearances
- Personal: Married to Rebecca Lowe, anchor of NBC Sports Network’s EPL coverage