In early May, Republic FC had just endured a club-record three-game USL losing streak while going most of April without scoring.
Coach Paul Buckle and director of football Graham Smith heard rumblings. Fans started to question Buckle and Smith’s offseason decisions that allowed their most popular veteran players to leave, including USL star Rodrigo Lopez, who had 26 goals and 19 assists during his two seasons in Sacramento.
The replacements were largely untested rookies and unknown veterans.
“People were saying Smith out, Buckle out,” Smith recalled. “At that moment in time, people had their fingers on the panic button. We had lost three games 1-0, but we were telling the fans, ‘We’ll be there at the end, that it’s not a sprint but a marathon.’ ”
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On Saturday, Republic FC broke the tape on a grueling 30-game USL regular season by finishing atop the 15-team Western Conference.
Sacramento beat the host Tulsa Roughnecks FC 4-0, then got help from the Orange County Blues FC, who posted a 4-0 win over the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Colorado Springs held the tiebreaker over Republic FC. Orange County visits Bonney Field on Saturday for a USL playoff opener.
Republic FC set several regular-season franchise records: an 11-game unbeaten streak, 12 shutouts and 172,711 in attendance.
Forward Cameron Iwasa established a club record for USL goals in a season with 12, and midfielder Danny Barrera set a franchise mark for assists with nine, which also ranked second in the 29-team league.
Republic FC also finished in first place for the first time during the regular season in its three-year existence.
The team did it with mostly new players. Only six players on the 25-man roster remain from the team’s 2014 USL championship team.
Republic FC was forced into a youth movement partly because the club busted its budget by nearly $2 million in starting an academy program and expanding its Cal Expo stadium in a continuing bid to reach Major League Soccer.
Smith and Buckle fit the pieces together despite the limited player budget.
“It’s been a full 25 guys who have come in and played at different times of the year when we needed them,” said Barrera, the captain. “It’s been an amazing team effort. Everybody plays for each other, and that translates into being the best team in the league.”
Barrera said the team’s 2-3-1 start wasn’t unexpected.
“There was a huge turnover in players from last year,” he said. “So it’s always going to be hard getting a bunch of new guys to know each other. … Obviously (success) wasn’t going to come straight away. But after we went through those road bumps, made our mistakes and learned from them … we jelled and put a good product out there.”
Buckle knew the team faced a tough overhaul when it couldn’t re-sign Lopez after last season.
Ten players who finished 2015 with Sacramento were gone when USL play began in March. Then Republic FC sent midfielder Ivan Mirkovic to Orange County after the first league game and transferred forward Thomas Stewart to the North American Soccer League’s Ottawa Fury FC in mid-July.
“Anyone in pro (soccer) will tell you making a team jell, making a team come together on and off the field is not easy when you lose the players we lost,” Buckle said. “But we moved on. We’ve set new records, and we’ve won our conference. Now we’re desperate to win the championship.”