Frustration bulged out of Paul Buckle’s eyeballs. It beaded up on his brow beneath the Bonney Field lights, and it sped off his tongue – with pace, as they say in soccer.
“It’s very disappointing,” the Republic FC coach said after Saturday night’s 1-1 tie against the last-place Real Monarchs SLC.
Now, “We’ve got to find our ‘A’ game,” Buckle said. “Going into this last bit, everybody’s got to find their ‘A’ game. This is when, as a player, you either grasp it or you let it slip.”
The next month will be telling for the defending USL champs who believe they’re better than that. They believe they’re good enough for Major League Soccer, the top flight of the sport in the United States. Last week, they hired an architect to design a stadium in the downtown railyard. They also landed a big-name company to manage it.
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If only they could beat the Western Conference doormat Monarchs.
Four times this year, they haven’t figured them out, losing once and coming out on the short end of a draw three times. That’s how it feels when you’re the defending champs, you’re fighting for a playoff spot, and you get only one point on the last-place team instead of three.
“For some reason, we’re Sacramento’s kryptonite this year,” said Salt Lake City’s Emery Welshman.
This is when, as a player, you either grasp it or you let it slip.
Republic FC coach Paul Buckle
The 23-year-old Monarchs forward looked a bit like Superman in the 86th minute when he took a ball and turned at the midfield stripe, ran past Sacramento inside back Mickey Daly and found Lucas Baldin on his left. It appeared Baldin was offside on the play, but not to anybody with a flag in his hand. Play went on, and Baldin proceeded unmolested with the Welshman pass, into the box to the right of Republic FC goalkeeper Patrick McLain. The calm Baldin right-footed it into the right side of the net to wrap the tie around Sacramento’s throats.
Republic FC does not inhabit a playoff spot. The club has the seventh-best record in the Western Conference, where only six teams advance. Sacramento does have five matches remaining to rectify the situation. The first is against the Tulsa Roughnecks FC, one of the two teams a point ahead of the Republic in the standings. A win over Tulsa on Saturday night at Bonney would help Republic’s playoff chances.
“We’ve got to show the fighting spirit now,” Buckle said, looking forward.
Looking backward, the coach said his club must learn to hold onto games like Saturday’s.
Sacramento took the lead in the 67th minute when Tommy Stewart dug out a ball deep in Salt Lake City’s end and passed to the right guy, Republic’s best player, Rodrigo Lopez, who took it into the box. From the left of the goal, Lopez fired one to the perfect spot – the middle of the wide-open forward Justin Braun’s forehead. Flying down the middle, Braun redirected Lopez’s left-footed smash into the net.
Nineteen minutes later, the locals gave away the lead. Republic FC’s Emrah Klimenta had a throw-in about 85 yards downfield from his own net. All his guys were covered, and it looked as if he was in the NBA with the referee counting him down. Unfortunately for Klimenta, he could not call timeout. So he tossed it in, and the ball wound up at the feet of the Monarchs’ Ricardo Velazco, who kicked it up to Welshman at midfield. A few seconds later, the score was 1-1.
“The last place you want to throw the ball is to that player,” Buckle said. “You want to throw it out so it goes for another throw-in. You want to throw it so maybe you get a free kick, or it goes for a goal kick, but not straight to them so they can punt the ball down the field and cause us problems.
“On another night, we get away with it. We just don’t seem to be able to be getting away with them at the moment.”
The Republic has won only 10 of its 23 matches this year, tying five. The club is 1-3-1 in its last four at Bonney.
Welshman identified the Sacramento problem as a matter of visitor-field advantage.
For some reason, we’re Sacramento’s kryptonite this year.
Real Monarchs SLC forward Emery Welshman
“We usually don’t get this kind of atmosphere in the USL,” Welshman said of the sellout crowds and the drums and rhythmic chants from the Tower Bridge Battalion. “These guys, it’s the biggest atmosphere they’ve ever played in. It’s good motivation for us to step up to these games.”
So keep it down out there, Battalion. You’re firing up the other guys.
Salt Lake also likes to play rough with the Republic. Saturday’s fights featured several knockdowns. Welshman, in one indiscretion, stuck his foot out on McLain on a goal kick. Referee Matthew Buckman flashed a yellow card on Welshman for that one. It was one of six cautionary cards he distributed, three to each side.
“We get frustrated because we haven’t beaten them this year,” Braun said. “They bring it every game against us. We’ve got a good little rivalry going.”
Buckle said his team must “be a little more street-wise” in its last five games if it wants to play a sixth.
“One-nil needs to be enough for us,” he said. “We need to learn to win one-nil. Now all that matters really is results. It doesn’t matter how we do it, by hook or by crook. We have to put up wins. Once you get into the playoffs, it’s game on, but we’ve got to learn to be more ruthless.”