Republic FC forward Thomas Stewart scored 13 goals during USL play last season and was a key cog in Sacramento’s run to the league championship in its inaugural season.
But entering Saturday night’s critical USL match against the Western Conference-leading Seattle Sounders FC 2, Stewart had yet to score a goal in league play.
Injuries and a deep roster of forwards had limited the Northern Ireland native to three USL starts and 302 minutes in only eight league appearances.
But Paul Buckle decided to make Stewart a focal point in a new formation that he unveiled in his USL debut as Republic FC’s coach.
Stewart responded with a brace in leading Sacramento to a 2-0 win over Seattle in front of an announced sellout crowd of 11,442 at Bonney Field, the 22nd consecutive USL regular-season sellout for the ambitious franchise.
The win moved Republic FC (10-7-3, 33 points) to within three points of the first place Sounders 2 (11-7-3, 36 pts.) and Los Angeles Galaxy II and within two points of the third place Colorado Springs Switchback FC in the highly competitive Western Conference.
Stewart, playing as the lone forward up top in Buckle’s midfield-heavy formation, scored his first league goal of the season on a well-placed one touch shot from an assist by Rodrigo Lopez in the 36th minute.
Stewart added a second goal in the 83rd minute after beating Seattle’s offside trap and corralling a long, lofted ball from midfielder Danny Barrera.
Stewart tried to chip the ball over Seattle goalkeeper Charlie Lyon, but he blocked it, though right to Stewart. He shot the rebound into the empty net.
“I haven’t played as much as I would like this season due to injury and due to the manager’s decision,” Stewart said. “A new manager has come in. I’m a goal scorer, that’s what I do best. So hopefully now I can kick on for the rest of the season.”
Lopez’s assist, which came after he split two defenders with a spin move in midfield, was his 23rd in USL play, breaking the career record he had shared with Orlando City SC’s Kevin Molino in the nearly five-year-old league. Molino and Orlando City moved to Major League Soccer this season.
Buckle’s new formation, which featured one forward, five midfielders and four defenders, helped keep the Sounders 2’s potent offense in check. Seattle entered the match with 37 goals, second most in the Western Conference.
But Republic FC’s attack remained potent – Sacramento outshot Seattle 13 to 6 ‑ though coming more from plays through the middle rather than from crosses from the overlapping runs by the outside defenders that coach Preki preached.
“You are playing the top of the league, a very good side, a very strong powerful team, that looks to exploit space on the outside,” Buckle said. “So it was important that we fill the mid level like we do. It was important that we didn’t expose our fullbacks to one vs. one matchups.”
He also wanted to take advantage of the skill and guile of Lopez and Barerra to find the seams in Seattle’s defense.
“Tommy Stewart can score goals,” Buckle said. “He scored a lot of goals last season. I want him to threaten the back of teams, like he did. We have the players in the team that can thread those balls to him.”
Republic FC goalkeeper Patrick McLain made three sparkling saves in recording his sixth shutout of the season. Republic FC also got a break in the 30th minute after Aaron Kovar went down in the box after making contact with defender Mickey Daly. Kovar’s penalty kick went wide left.
“I didn’t think it was a penalty, I thought it was soft,” Buckle said. “Our goalkeeper had to make a couple of saves. You are not always going to have it your own way. But I felt we deserved the win.”
Seattle played a man down the final 14 minutes after captain Amadou Sanyang received a red card for a studs up tackle on Octavio Guzman. Guzman injured his right knee on the play and was forced to leave the game. He was replaced by Justin Braun.
“It was a red card,” Buckle said. “You never want to see 11 v 10. But it was a pretty poor challenge.”
The win was a confidence boost for a team that lost 4-0 to the Galaxy II in its last USL match three weeks ago. It also was Preki’s farewell as coach.
“It was very important to get the victory after not playing in league for a few weeks,” Stewart said. “The team is very happy. We wanted to get a kick start so we can go on a run and finish the season strong.”
Republic FC will play host to Colorado Springs on Saturday at Bonney Field.