Republic FC director of football Graham Smith said the departure of six key players from last year’s team isn’t a sign the USL team is downsizing its ambitions of challenging for another title in 2016.
“We want players who aspire to go to higher levels,” Smith said. “I don’t think the fans should have a problem with it because we aim to replace those players with exciting players. At the end of the day, the quality of the product this year will be the best ever.”
Since Republic FC lost in the opening round of the playoffs in October to LA Galaxy II, five starters and a key reserve have signed with other teams.
The latest to leave were forward Justin Braun and defender Nemanja Vukovic, two key members of Republic FC’s 2014 USL title team who were sent to the NASL Indy Eleven on Tuesday for cash. That came one day after 2015 goalkeeper Patrick McLain signed with the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer.
Midfield star Rodrigo Lopez has moved to an Ascenso MX club in Mexico and defender Mickey Daly and teenage forward Gabe Gissie signed with Bethlehem Steel FC, the Philadelphia Union’s new USL franchise.
Smith and coach Paul Buckle said they didn’t want to replace so many important players this season.
They offered Lopez, a free agent, a chance to become the USL’s top-paid player. They also wanted free agents Daly and Gissie to return. They had a contract option on McLain but decided not to exercise it when he told them of his MLS ambitions.
“Patrick’s signing with Chicago vindicated our philosophy of not standing in a player’s way for a better opportunity,” Smith said. “Do we want them to stay in Sacramento? Of course we do.”
Smith said the decision to move Vukovic, 31, and Braun, 28, both under contract, was viewed as a win-win for the players and the team.
Both are moving from the third-division USL to the second-division NASL. They will play for a veteran coach with MLS experience and a franchise that has struggled on the field but has a huge fan base.
By freeing up their contracts and getting an undisclosed amount of cash, Smith said it will help bring in younger players with bright futures.
He said Republic FC could have as many as eight new players when the USL season starts in March. Sacramento has 16 players on its roster, including 14 from last year’s team that finished fourth (13-8-7) in the Western Conference.
“What our fans have to understand is that we are not building just for this season alone,” Smith said.
Republic FC has the highest attendance in minor-league soccer and a front office and support staff that is near MLS-caliber size. The third-year franchise also is one of a handful of USL teams with a youth academy program. But Sacramento doesn’t have the league’s highest player payroll.
“We’re trying to run a football club with good fiscal husbandry,” Smith said. “The priority is building the brand. But it doesn’t mean that the quality of football is going to suffer. If we as football people know what we are doing, we’ll get it right. We’ll be able to get a pint out of half a glass.”
USL alignments – The USL announced its conference alignments for the expanded 29-team league for 2016.
New franchises San Antonio, Rio Grande Valley FC of Edinberg, Texas, and the Swope Park Rangers of Kansas City will join Republic FC in the 15-team Western Conference. The league also moved second-year franchise St. Louis FC from the Eastern to the Western Conference.
New franchises Bethlehem Steel FC of Pennsylvania, FC Cincinnati and Orlando City B will compete in the 14-team Eastern Conference.
The 30-game regular season, played over 27 weeks, will begin March 25 and end Sept. 25. The schedule is expected to be released Tuesday.
More academy teams – Republic FC will double the number of teams for the 2016-17 U.S. Soccer Development Academy season. Republic FC is creating two U-12 teams and a U-13 team to join the U-14, U-16 and U-18 squads. Tryouts for the new teams will be Feb. 5 and Feb. 7 at Cosumnes River College.
The USL’s 2016 conference alignment
- Arizona United SC
- Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
- LA Galaxy II
- OKC Energy FC
- Orange County Blues FC
- Portland Timbers 2
- Real Monarchs SLC
- Rio Grande Valley FC
- Republic FC
- St. Louis FC
- San Antonio
- Seattle Sounders FC 2
- Swope Park Rangers
- Tulsa Roughnecks FC
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
- Bethlehem Steel FC
- Charleston Battery
- Charlotte Independence
- FC Cincinnati
- Harrisburg City Islanders
- Louisville City FC
- FC Montreal
- New York Red Bulls II
- Orlando City B
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds
- Richmond Kickers
- Rochester Rhinos
- Toronto FC II
- Wilmington Hammerheads FC