Soccer

Republic FC looks forward to challenge by Raul, of famed New York Cosmos

Raul Gonzalez Blanco is tossed skyward by appreciative Real Madrid teammates following a friendly tournament victory over Al Sadd in 2013.the Santiago Bernabeu trophy soccer match between Real Madrid and Al Sadd at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, in Madrid, Spain, Friday, Aug. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
Raul Gonzalez Blanco is tossed skyward by appreciative Real Madrid teammates following a friendly tournament victory over Al Sadd in 2013.the Santiago Bernabeu trophy soccer match between Real Madrid and Al Sadd at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, in Madrid, Spain, Friday, Aug. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza) Associated Press file

Republic FC veteran Rodrigo Lopezwill be able to cross off one item from his bucket list Saturday night when Sacramento hosts the New York Cosmos in a friendly in front of a sold-out Hughes Stadium.

The midfielder and Republic FC captain is looking forward to playing on the same pitch with Raul Gonzalez Blanco, one of the world’s greatest players.

Raul, as he is simply better known, is the new centerpiece of a talented Cosmos team trying to re-ignite some of the magic it possessed as one of the world’s most popular teams in the 1970s.

The 37-year-old striker is Real Madrid’s all-time goal scorer, having tallied 323 goals in 16 seasons for what is considered the world’s most valuable sports franchise at $3.44 billion, according to Forbes. Raul led Real Madrid to three UEFA Champions League titles from 1998 to 2002 and represented Spain in three World Cups.

“My father is coming to the game, and it’s just as much to see Raul as it is to watch me play,” Lopez said. “Raul is one of the best goal-scorers in history, and from what I’ve been told, he’s really a humble person both on and off the field.”

Raul made his debut for New York on Feb. 19 in Hong Kong. He played the entire match as the Cosmos beat the South China Football Team 4-2 on penalty kicks to win the Lunar New Year Cup. On Wednesday, he entered in the 83rd minute of the Cosmos’ 1-0 win over the Premier Development League Ventura County Fusion.

Lopez said Raul has been the consummate pro and expects that even at his age, he’ll be a danger on the tight confines and slick artificial surface at Hughes Stadium.

“His brain moves faster than everyone else on the field, so that counts a lot more than foot speed,” Lopez said.

Republic FC coach Preki, who was a creative goal scorer in Major League Soccer, said Raul will be a fun challenge for the defending USL champions.

“He’s always been a special player,” Preki said. “You give him half an inch, and he’ll score a goal on you. Our guys should have fun playing against him, just to see a player that comes from that level. It should be a challenge and a good challenge for us.”

The Cosmos dominated the old North American Soccer League in the 1970s by signing some of the world’s best players, including Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer. But while the Cosmos would draw sellout crowds and garner heavy media attention, the rest of the NASL struggled for fans and relevancy and folded after the 1984 season.

The team was reborn in 2010 with the initial goal of trying to become a Major League Soccer franchise. But the Cosmos joined the reformulated NASL in 2013, which is an 11-team, second-tier league, though one without a salary cap like the MLS. The Cosmos are now part of a crowded New York sports market that includes the Red Bulls and the New York City FC, which begins play this season.

The new Cosmos have some ties to the old franchise. Pele is the Cosmos’ honorary president. The team plays at Hofstra University, where the old Cosmos played in 1972-73 before moving into Giants Stadium. They have plans to build a $400 million, 25,000-seat stadium near Queens and have a sponsorship deal with Emirates.

The Cosmos won the 2013 Soccer Bowl in their first season with NASL, though they were semifinalists last season.

“They have a good budget, and they sign good players, so they are a team with MLS capabilities,” Preki said. “It will be a good test for us.”

Like Raul, 38-year-old midfielder Marcos Senna is a former La Liga star. Adam Moffat, Hunter Freeman, Carlos Mendes and Daniel Szetela are MLS veterans. Andres Flores, 24, has captained El Salvador’s National Team and 24-year-old Norwegian Mads Stokkelien led the team in scoring last season. The Cosmos are coached by former MLS player Giovanni Savarese.

“Because of the kind of players they have, this is more than just another game to get prepared for the season,” Lopez said. “We want to go out and show what we’ve got.”

Republic FC officials have announced a sellout of 20,231. Republic FC is playing at the Sacramento City College stadium because of construction to expand Bonney Field. Last year, Republic FC drew three sellout crowds and a fourth of 17,500 at Hughes while their Cal Expo stadium was under construction.

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

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