Republic FC to face Earthquakes at expanded Bonney Field

When the San Jose Earthquakes play Republic FC in Saturday night’s friendly, a new Bonney Field attendance record will be set.

A sellout crowd of more than 10,000 is expected for the home opener between Sacramento’s defending USL Pro champion and its Major League Soccer affiliate as the first phase of the Cal Expo stadium seating expansion has been completed.

Seating capacity at Bonney Field was 8,000 in 2014, and Republic FC sold out all but one of the 17 matches it played there in its inaugural season.

Gone are the 1,350 temporary bleacher seats that lined the north end of the stadium.

They’ve been replaced by a massive, 54-foot tall, 4,000-seat structure, which took a little more than two weeks to erect. Its primary tenants will continue to be the Tower Bridge Battalion, Republic FC’s large and boisterous rooting section.

“We leave seating empty at the top for this match,” said Erika Bjork, the team’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We want to make sure that people are comfortable and things aren’t overcrowded.”

The second phase of the nearly $2 million expansion will start Monday with the addition of up to 1,300 seats to the west side of the bleachers. Construction is expected to be completed in time for Republic FC’s USL home opener March 28 against the Los Angeles Galaxy II. When both phases are complete, capacity will be between 11,000 and 11,300 seats.

Republic FC officials said the expansion was much needed because of the growing interest in the team, which is making a strong bid to join MLS. Republic FC already has 8,700 season-ticket holders, and nearly 17,000 tickets have been sold for the Feb. 28 friendly against the New York Cosmos, which will be played at Hughes Stadium.

“Short of a monsoon coming in the next five days, we should be sold out,” Bjork said.

Trialists to be tested ‑ Twelve unsigned players are on Saturday’s roster for Republic FC, including defender Bilal Duckett. The former Notre Dame and USL Charlotte Eagles player will start in place of 2014 USL Pro Defender of the Year Nemanja Vukovic in central defense. Vukovic had hernia surgery on Thursday and coach Preki expects him to be out five to six weeks.

Duckett isn’t the only trialist with USL Pro experience. Danish midfielder Philip Lund played last season for the Oklahoma City Energy FC. Midfielder Alfonso Motagalvan, who grew up in Gilroy and competed at UC Santa Barbara, played with the Pittsburgh River Hounds.

While the goal is to show well against a San Jose team that has played four more preseason matches than Republic FC, Preki said he will be looking at a number of players.

“Obviously both teams, both coaches want to win,” he said. “At the same time, it’s the preseason. We’re just making sure everyone gets through the game healthy and the people that come to the game see a good match.”

Braun is back – Veteran forward Justin Braun, the only Republic FC player with significant MLS experience, has a history of playing well against the Earthquakes. He scored Republic FC’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to the ’Quakes in the U.S. Open Cup last season at Kezar Stadium and also gave San Jose plenty of headaches while playing with four MLS teams.

“Hopefully, I can get on the score sheet again,” Braun said. “But I think most importantly we want to go out and do the things we’ve been working on. It’s going to be a good test to see where we are and where we need to keep going.”

The 27-year-old Braun, who signed a two-year deal this past week, looked at some other options during the offseason.

“Any time a contract ends, you want to see what’s best suited for you,” he said. “But I’ve enjoyed playing here and this city, so I’m definitely happy to be back.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee