Team leaders Justin Braun and Rodrigo Lopez were two of the most disappointed Republic FC players after Saturday night’s 4-0 loss to the rival Los Angeles Galaxy II. Both had hoped to send Preki out a winner in his last match as Sacramento’s coach at packed Bonney Field.
The result put a damper on the postgame celebration for their mentor, the man whom Braun and Lopez have come full circle with. Preki resigned on Wednesday to take a coaching job in the United Kingdom.
Both started their careers with Preki at Chivas USA, the now defunct Major League Soccer team.
Lopez was a member of Preki’s first Chivas team in 2007. The midfielder played in five league matches that season as Preki led Chivas USA to the Major League Soccer Western Conference title before falling in the semifinals to the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City).
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But Preki, named the MLS Coach of the Year that season, released Lopez. He didn’t think the the young player was dedicated or mature enough to play at that level.
Yet when Preki became Republic FC’s coach, the first player the new USL franchise signed was the well-traveled Lopez. The journeyman developed into the team’s star and was a USL Player of the Year finalist last season in scoring team highs of 14 goals and 13 assists.
He helped Sacramento to the league championship and watched as Preki was rewarded as USL Coach of the Year.
“I just recently spoke to him one on one and thanked him for changing my career completely and giving me another opportunity,” Lopez said before Saturday’s match. “He admitted I was the first one to change his mind as a player. He wasn’t too keen on me when I was at Chivas. But he told me my work and dedication since I got here has been really professional. He thought I proved to him that I can play at the next level.
“A lot of it had to do with my hard work. But I think he had a lot to do with it, too. I’ve said since Day One that he’s gotten the best out of me. It’s been an honor to play for him.”
Braun was ready to give up on his dream of playing professional soccer when Preki discovered him during an amateur tournament in Southern California in 2008. The forward went on to a productive six-year MLS career.
While with Chivas, Braun saw Preki squeeze the most out of his players. He saw it again last season with Republic FC, a team he decided to play for only because of his close relationship with the coach.
“We didn’t necessarily have the best overall talent in the USL,” Braun said. “But everyone knew their role and what was expected of them. That’s why he’s such a good coach. He knows exactly how he wants to play, how he wants the players to play and has a way to get the players to buy into the system.”