There hasn’t been a drastic difference in goals scored by Sacramento Republic FC in the three seasons the franchise has been part of the United Soccer League. The inaugural season was in 2014 and ended with a USL title as the squad scored 49 goals. The team scored 43 in each of the past two seasons, which was seventh best in the USL for 2016.
But coach Paul Buckle knows there were too many shots that failed to find the net last season and he and the Republic FC’s front office resolved to fix the problem and find some finishers.
“Last year it was evident right from the start that defensively we were fantastic and it proved to be that way throughout the season in our league, our regular league, and breaking defensive records along the way,” Buckle said. “One thing we didn’t do was hit the ground running in front of the goal. We created chances. The chances were there and I always believed we would score in the end. We ended with Cameron (Iwasa) with 12 (goals), but we would like to start the season by being on the front foot and I think we’ve shown that in recruitment. We signed players in attacking positions that will really give us great competition and also pose a real threat to the opposition, which is what we want to do now.”
So far so good. In the USL opener against the Seattle Sounders 2 on March 26, Republic FC outshot their opponents 28 to 8 and won the match 2-1. Ochoa, who played three seasons for the MLS Seattle Sounders, had a goal and an assist to Emra Klimenta for the game winner. Twenty-eight shots are a franchise single-USL match record, besting the previous mark of 24 against Arizona United SC in 2015. Republic FC also tied the franchise record for most shots in a single half with 15 in the second half Sunday, tying the best second half performance against Orange County Blues FC in 2014.
“We made 539 passes in that game and consider that the top five (English Premiere League) teams pass in excess of 500 times a game, too, and I was very pleased with our efforts,” Buckle said. “And those weren’t just passes to make passes. We dominated 75 percent of that game.”
New signings over the off-season that Buckle hopes will lead to better ball control and create more scoring include Sammy Ochoa, Lamin Suma, Gabe Gissie, Tyler Blackwood and Trevin Caesar. Each of those foreign-born forwards will try to match or surpass the team-leading 12 goals scored by Iwasa, a Sacramento native who signed this offseason with Sporting Kansas City of the MLS. Iwasa’s 59 shots and 31 shots on goal in 2016 were both Republic FC single-season records.
Ochoa, who was born in Mexico but raised in Riverside, Calif., played the last two USL seasons for the Tulsa Roughnecks and scored a combined 20 goals. Suma, from Sierra Leone, played last year for the Philadelphia Fury of the American Soccer League. Gissie, a Liberia native, played for Republic FC in 2014 and 2015, but chose to play for Bethlehem Steel FC last season before returning to Sacramento. Blackwood, born and raised in London, England, played last season for Arizona United FC, now known as the Phoenix Rising FC. He had eight goals and an assist in 2016, including a goal against Sacramento. Caesar, from Trinidad and Tobago, was the leading scorer last season for the Orange County Blues FC with 10 goals.
“At the end of the season I sat down with (director of football) Graham (Smith) and he said ‘What do you want? What do you think we need?’ And I said I felt we needed pace,” Buckle said. “I felt we needed pace in the wide areas. We obviously have that in our fullbacks, too, in (James) Kiffe and Emra (Klimenta), and we’ve added (Elliott) Hord, and we’ve added Enrique Montano. They’ve got good pace.”
Buckle said he likes his wingers to come off their lines to beat players without the ball. Buckle said Danny Barrera did that a lot, but Barrera also plays in the middle and distributes. The “electric pace” as Buckle calls it, will have to be supplied by the new forwards.
“I feel like we have a lot of creative players, but we wanted that electric pace and we certainly got it in (Lamin) Suma, in Gabe (Gissie), in (Tyler) Blackwood and Trevin (Caesar), to name a few, we have some really good pace, Buckle said. “With that, you need stability and we got that with (Adam) Moffet, with (Jeremy) Hall and Augie (Agustin Cazarez). So the balance is vital, and now what it’s about is getting a formation that we’re really comfortable with. One thing the fans will see is the pace that I felt we lacked at times last season.”
Midfielder Daniel Trickett-Smith, 21, said the increased team speed was evident from the team’s first practice on their nine-day training camp in Mexico at the start of February.
“We did a lot of testing (in Mexico) and there is lot more pace on the side now, a lot more fire in the team and hopefully it can build into our game and get more goals,” said Trickett-Smith, who had a goal and an assist last season in just eight games for Sacramento in 2016. “The chemistry between us can only get better, and with the amount of players we’ve got, and the good players we’ve got, it can only help us with the options, say if someone gets injured, just as good of players can come in and make a difference. And hopefully we can do one better and win in the playoffs.”
Blackwood, 25, was brought in to finish. Plain and simple. Being 6-foot-2 should help around the goal, but it’s his speed and ability to crash down to the goal from the wide areas that should pose problems for defenses, Buckle said.
“I think my two main attributes are pace and finishing and that was specifically why I was brought here,” Blackwood said. “We’ve got a lot of (finishers) on this team. We’ve got rocket power, and firepower up top, as well as absolute class in defense. So, I feel like there will be some goals for Sac this year.”
Blackwood said he was pleased to hear that Republic FC were interested in him as soon as the 2016 season was finished. He’d heard good things about the franchise and its fans, and is excited to be wearing the home colors instead of the visitors’ kit.
“I was with Arizona last year but was out of the country when the two teams played in Sacramento,” Blackwood said. “When the boys came back to Arizona from Sacramento, all I heard about was the atmosphere at the home stadium is crazy, the fans are crazy and how much support they had. I saw the social media presence and the way the fans follow the team. It’s like a major-league team anywhere in Europe.”