Despite all the twists and turns Republic FC players have endured this season, from frustrating home losses to a midseason coaching change, they can win the USL Western Conference.
Sacramento (12-8-5, 41 points) is fifth entering Saturday’s match at the Portland Timbers 2 (10-14-2, 32 points). But if Republic FC can win its final three matches –the team plays its former MLS affiliate’s second team, the Orange County Blues FC (13-9-3, 42 points), on Wednesday in Irvine and Arizona United SC (10-14-1, 31 points) on Sept. 19 at Bonney Field – it will finish no worse than second in the conference.
And if the conference-leading Colorado Springs Switchbacks (14-9-3, 45 points) lose or tie one of their last two matches against the second-place Energy FC (12-7-7, 43 points) in Oklahoma City on Saturday or the third-place Los Angeles Galaxy II (13-10-3, 42 points) in Colorado Springs on Sept. 19, Sacramento will win the conference if it wins its last three matches.
“It’s been one of those seasons where the unexpected has happened,” said Republic FC defender Emrah Klimenta. “As the defending champions, the team to beat, everyone has been gunning for us. We’ve had our downs, but we’ve had our ups as well.”
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Klimenta said the momentum swing started when Republic FC rallied for two late goals to tie the Switchbacks 3-3 on Aug. 14 in Colorado Springs.
It’s been one of those seasons where the unexpected has happened. As the defending champions, the team to beat, everyone has been gunning for us. We’ve had our downs, but we’ve had our ups as well.
Republic FC defender Emrah Klimenta
Since then, Republic FC tied Real Monarchs SLC 1-1 – the team has four in a row since – and beat the Tulsa Roughnecks FC 3-1 before knocking off the Whitecaps FC 2 2-1 on Sunday in Vancouver. Justin Braun had two goals on assists from Klimenta and Tommy Thompson.
“We got that big win in Vancouver, and some other teams helped us out by dropping points, so now it’s a matter of carrying that momentum into the next three games,” Klimenta said.
Republic FC overcame several challenges in the victory over Vancouver.
Goalkeeper Patrick McLain, who leads the team in minutes, injured his shoulder late in a Sept. 4 practice and was unable to play against Vancouver.
And JJ Koval, on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes, didn’t make the trip after playing a key role in a victory over Tulsa. Koval rejoined the Earthquakes because of an injury and played 51 minutes in a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union the night before Republic FC’s match. San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear sent Thompson and forward Mark Sherrod to Vancouver but kept Koval.
Veteran goalkeeper Dominik Jakubek played well in his first USL start of the season, and Agustin Cazarez filled in nicely in central midfield, where Koval was expected to play. It’s a position usually held by Ivan Mirkovic, but he was serving the last match of a two-match suspension for yellow card accumulation.
“We had some obstacles to overcome,” Republic coach Paul Buckle said. “Dominik was ready, and I was delighted because he trains tirelessly. Augie came in and played fantastically. It just proved what I’ve been saying since I’ve come to the club. The players that aren’t in that starting 11 in any week are the most important players in the club because they are the next ones in.”
Buckle said one of Jakubek’s best decisions was not to foul on the goal scored by Vancouver’s Marcos Bustos in the 66th minute that tied the match 1-1. A foul could have led to a red card and ejection for a team that went to Canada without a backup keeper.
Republic FC regained the lead five minutes later when Braun redirected Klimenta’s cross at the near post. The play developed after Klimenta stole a ball from a Vancouver midfielder.
I believe when strikers get into 18-yard box, good things can happen, and that’s what we’ve worked on tirelessly in training. Justin (Braun) proved that on both goals. On the winner, he came from the back side to the front post. He believed Emrah (Klimenta) was going to deliver, and Emrah believed Justin was going to be there, and that’s always a successful combination.
Republic FC coach Paul Buckle on the team’s 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
“I believe when strikers get into 18-yard box, good things can happen, and that’s what we’ve worked on tirelessly in training,” Buckle said. “Justin proved that on both goals. On the winner, he came from the back side to the front post. He believed Emrah was going to deliver, and Emrah believed Justin was going to be there, and that’s always a successful combination.”