Earlier in the week, midfield star Rodrigo Lopez billed Saturday night’s Republic FC match against the Los Angeles Galaxy II at Bonney Field as the biggest in the intense rivalry – other than last year’s dramatic 3-2 come-from-behind “Miracle at Bonney” USL playoff semifinal win.
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But that was before Republic FC coach Preki announced he was stepping down to take a head-coaching job in the United Kingdom. So Preki’s last match with the franchise he guided to the USL championship in its inaugural season catapults to a different level.
“As a player, it makes the game even bigger,” Lopez said. “I know Preki cares more about us than himself. So as a player and working for Preki, we want to send him off as a winner for all the time and dedication he has put into this club. He doesn’t deserve anything less than us coming out (Saturday) and fighting extra hard for him and getting three points.”
Republic FC (9-6-3) is tied for first place in the Western Conference with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (10-5-0) with 30 points. Los Angeles (9-5-2) is tied for third with the Seattle Sounders 2 (9-6-2) with 29 points.
But Republic FC’s 11 other Western Conference members have played from one to three fewer matches than Sacramento, which will have a 20-day break from USL competition after the Los Angeles match.
A win likely will keep Republic FC near the top of the table, but a loss could put them closer to the middle of the pack when Paul Buckle coaches his first USL match for Sacramento against the Sounders 2 on Aug. 1 at Bonney Field.
“A win will do well for us, even if teams are playing the rest of the month,” Lopez said. “Some teams are going to drop games. I don’t see any team in the West going undefeated the rest of the season – other than us.”
Republic FC already has won three matches this season against Galaxy II and is 6-1-1 all-time against Los Dos. But since its 1-0 loss at Bonney Field on May 17, the Galaxy II has gone 5-1-1.
Los Angeles is led by midfielder Raul Mendiola with a USL-leading eight assists. He also has four goals. Forward Ariel Lassiter, the son of former MLS and U.S. national team player Roy Lassiter, has a team-leading seven goals. He has scored in three of his last four appearances.
The Galaxy II also has been boosted by the return of Bradford Jamieson IV. The gifted forward had been playing with the Galaxy’s top club and the U.S. men’s U-20 national team that played earlier this summer in the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Lopez has been a dominant force against the Galaxy II in his two seasons with Republic FC.
The former MLS player scored six goals and added an assist during Republic FC’s four-match winning streak against Los Angeles, including a hat trick in last year’s semifinal. Lopez, who has won the USL Goal of the Month award three months running, has scored nine USL goals, including five game winners, despite missing four league matches.
Preki, who coached his last training session Friday at Cosumnes River College, downplayed the commotion surrounding his exit, though he did pose for an impromptu photo with the players and staff afterward.
“I’m only focusing on what’s ahead of me, and that’s the game (Saturday) ,” Preki said. “What’s going on around me is not in my control. The only thing in my control is the preparation for the game.
“Every game is big for us, but the fact that we are playing Galaxy adds a little bit to it. Hopefully, the group is ready to compete. We had a good training session this morning, like always.”
The game will mark Preki’s 50th USL match (regular and postseason), and the 2014 USL Coach of the Year will be looking for his 30th win (he’s 29-13-7 overall).
“I’m going away with a great experience in my mind,” said Preki, who has yet to reveal where he is headed in the UK. “I feel I’m leaving everything in a good position and good place. This place is always going to be special to me. I will always be keeping my eye on Sacramento.”