Cameron Iwasa wasn’t sure if he would even play when Republic FC opened the USL playoffs last year against the Los Angeles Galaxy II at Bonney Field.
The former Jesuit High School standout was a rookie who played limited minutes on a veteran team.
Iwasa came off the bench in the 81st minute but was unable to help Republic FC get the equalizer in a bitter 1-0 loss to its rival.
Iwasa enters Saturday’s first-round Western Conference playoff match against Orange County Blues FC at Bonney Field in a much different position.
He’s now one of the team’s top players who rarely steps off the pitch. He appeared in all 30 USL regular-season matches, starting 27 and playing 2,453 minutes.
“It’s definitely a different mindset being a reserve and being a starter,” Iwasa said. “Preparation is a little different as a reserve, but you still have got to be ready. ... Being a starter and one of the main attacking players, I’d say it’s a little more exciting knowing that I’m going to be able to make my mark on the match, hopefully.”
Iwasa, 23, developed into one of the USL’s most versatile players while setting a club season record for goals with 12, bettering Tommy Stewart’s 2014 effort of 11.
“Cameron is a perfect example to young players that aspire to greatness,” said Republic FC director of football Graham Smith. “He’s worked hard, listened to his coaches, and now he’s reaping the benefits of his talent. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg if he keeps applying himself.”
Iwasa figures to be a primary target of Orange County’s defense. He has three times the goals of Republic FC’s next-highest scorer (Mike da Fonte and Harry Williams with four each) and tallied twice against Blues FC during the regular season, including the goal in a 1-0 win at UC Irvine, his alma mater, on Aug. 24.
Entering the season, Republic FC coach Paul Buckle saw Iwasa as a player with a huge upside and someone who, along with midfielder and captain Danny Barrera, could help fill the goal-scoring and playmaking void left by the departure of Rodrigo Lopez.
Iwasa gave Buckle the double-digit goal scorer he needed while Barrera filled the playmaker role with a club-record nine assists. That broke Lopez’s mark of eight set in 2015.
“You look at Cameron breaking Tommy’s record and look at Danny breaking RoRo’s, and that’s big,” Buckle said. “The goals and creativity we lost from RoRo, those were big worries for me. So what they did was a big plus.”
Buckle said Iwasa’s amazing fitness and his ability to play as a forward, winger and midfielder became a huge asset, especially after Republic FC had started 2-3-1 with just two goals scored.
“When we were struggling to find the back of the net and I couldn’t bring any other players in, it forced me to look at different systems and styles of play,” Buckle said. “Cameron and all our players were able to adjust and be flexible. ... It stopped the opposition from being able to analyze us, and we were able to keep them guessing.”
USL Western Conference quarterfinals
No. 8 Orange County Blues FC at No. 1 Republic FC
Today: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Bonney Field
The skinny: Expect some fireworks between these two as they meet for the fifth time this season. Republic FC leads the series 2-1-1 after winning 1-0 on Aug. 24 in Irvine and 2-1 on Sept. 3 at Bonney Field. Forward Trevin Caesar leads Blues FC with 10 goals, and three of midfielder Didier Crettenand’s nine goals have come against Sacramento, two on free kicks another on a penalty. Former Republic FC midfielder Ivan Mirkovic captains Blues FC, coached by former English League defender Barry Venison. Cameron Iwasa leads Republic FC with 12 goals, and captain Danny Barrera has nine assists, both season club records. Sacramento posted a club-record 12 shutouts in 2016 and is trying to extend its club-best 11 match unbeaten streak.