Soccer

Defending champ Republic FC expects big tests in larger USL

Republic FC’s Rodrigo Lopez, left, is embraced by Gabe Gissie after scoring Battery in a USL game last August. Both players are back.
Republic FC’s Rodrigo Lopez, left, is embraced by Gabe Gissie after scoring Battery in a USL game last August. Both players are back. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Republic FC hopes to continue to build off its inaugural season of excitement, sellouts and Major League Soccer expansion buzz when it opens its second season Saturday at the Seattle Sounders FC 2 in an intriguing and rebranded USL.

United Soccer League has expanded from 14 to 24 teams, created Western and Eastern conferences, dropped the word “Pro” from the league title and hired a new president.

There are 13 new franchises, including seven with MLS affiliations. They join the second-year Los Angeles Galaxy II as the MLS expands its footprint in the third-division league that hopes to one day grow to 48 teams.

Republic FC is one of 12 teams in the Western Conference and will play 28 league matches, including 14 at Bonney Field, which is being expanded from 8,000 to 11,000 seats to accommodate the more than 9,000 season tickets that have been sold. Republic FC, which shattered USL attendance records last season, is anticipating selling out all regular-season games.

As the USL season kicks off, here are five questions to ponder:

Can Republic FC repeat as champions?

With the daring and demanding Preki, the 2014 USL Coach of the Year, and 14 returning players from last year’s team that went 20-7-4 in USL matches, it’s not impossible. But it will have to survive the Western Conference, in which the Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake join the Galaxy as MLS affiliates. Colorado Springs, Austin and Tulsa are expansion teams that will join holdover teams from Orange County, Phoenix and Oklahoma City. “Everyone is going to come at us with the mentality of beating the champs,” Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez said. “But as long as we prepare every day like we did last year and play our game, then we’ll be fine. Last year, we peaked at the right moment.”

Who will be Republic FC’s top title challengers?

Orlando City, the 2014 regular-season champion, has moved up to MLS. Los Angeles Galaxy II returns with the cachet of being an affiliate of the 2014 MLS Cup champions. Last year, Galaxy II lost in the semifinals when Lopez scored a second-half hat trick to rally Republic FC for an electrifying 3-2 win at Bonney Field. Republic FC then beat the Harrisburg City Islanders 2-0 to win the title. Among the Eastern Conference’s most intriguing teams are MLS-backed FC Montreal, the New York Red Bulls II and Toronto FC II and new independent teams Louisville City FC and Saint Louis FC, which like Republic FC is hoping to join MLS.

What are Republic FC’s strengths and challenges?

Republic FC has experience and depth. Back are Lopez, MLS veteran forward Justin Braun, USL Defender of the Year Nemanja Vukovic and league scoring leader Thomas Stewart. But the team starts the season with several key injuries, including to Vukovic (hernia), Stewart (left foot) and starting outside midfielder and former Sacramento State star Max Alvarez (pelvis). Crowd-pleasing midfielder Gilberto is playing on loan in Brazil and isn’t expect to return to Sacramento for several weeks. “We’re deeper,” Preki said. “When everybody gets healthy, we are going to be a good squad. Right now, we’re a little thin because of the injuries and because Gilberto is on loan. At the same time, it will give other players a chance to show what they can do.”

Who will be Republic FC’s top newcomers?

Goalkeeper Patrick McLain, who played last season for the Orange County Blues, has been impressive in the preseason and shows signs of capably filling the position vacated by Jake Gleeson, who was on loan last season from Portland. Former Vancouver defender Bilal Duckett gives Sacramento experience, size and athleticism on a back line that lacked depth last season and depended heavily on Vukovic, Mickey Daly and Emrah Klimenta. Veteran Gabe Gonzalez, a 6-foot-4 midfielder, has a rocket leg and USL experience. Young forwards Adnan Gabeljic and Joaquin Rivas believe they will thrive in Preki’s system and on a veteran team with good chemistry. “This is a great environment,” said Gabeljic, a 2014 Sporting Kansas City SuperDraft selection. “The veterans obviously have had a lot of success, but they’re very humble. Everyone works hard and wants to get better.”

Will going from two MLS affiliations to one affect Sacramento?

The pool of loan players will be reduced with Portland fielding its own USL team. But only two MLS players, Gleeson and San Jose Earthquakes forward Adam Jahn, played in a majority of Republic FC matches last season and most of the nine newcomers signed are veterans. It remains to be seen if San Jose will loan former Granite Bay High School star and U.S. National Team Under-20 player Tommy Thompson for an extended period. Thompson played in nine matches last season for Republic FC before returning to San Jose and becoming a starter. But he has not played in San Jose’s first two MLS matches this season for new coach Dominic Kinnear. Thompson and Jahn said they advanced their games playing with Republic FC last season. “That is the object for this association with the Quakes,” Preki said. “We bring their players up, work with them and give them confidence.”

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

REPUBLIC FC SCHEDULE

USL REGULAR-SEASON MATCHES

Date

Opponent

Time

March 21

at Seattle

7:30 p.m.

March 28

at Los Angeles

7:30 p.m.

April 2

at Portland

7 p.m.

April 11

vs. Los Angeles

7:30 p.m.

April 15

vs. Vancouver

7:30 p.m.

April 18

vs. Portland

7:30 p.m.

April 24

vs. Orange County

7:30 p.m.

April 29

at Salt Lake City

6 p.m.

May 9

vs. Seattle

7:30 p.m.

May 17

at Los Angeles

5 p.m.

May 23

at Oklahoma City

5 p.m.

May 30

vs. Salt Lake City

7:30 p.m.

June 6

vs. Austin

8 p.m.

June 13

at Arizona

7:30 p.m.

June 20

vs. Oklahoma City

8 p.m.

June 25

at Tulsa

5:30 p.m.

June 27

at Austin

6 p.m.

July 1

at Salt Lake City

6 p.m.

July 11

vs. Los Angles

8 p.m.

Aug. 1

vs. Seattle

8 p.m.

Aug. 8

vs. Colorado Springs

8 p.m.

Aug. 14

at Colorado Springs

6 p.m.

Aug. 22

vs. Salt Lake City

8 p.m.

Aug. 29

vs. Tulsa

8 p.m.

Sept. 6

at Vancouver

3 p.m.

Sept. 12

at Portland

7 p.m.

Sept. 16

at Orange County

7:30 p.m.

Sept. 19

vs. Arizona

7:30 p.m.

REPUBLIC FC ROSTER

No.

Player

Pos.

Ht.

Wt.

Age

1

Dominick Jakubek

G

6-1

195

35

2

Derek Foran

D

6-1

190

25

3

Bilal Duckett

D

6-3

180

26

4

Matthias Bonvehi

D

5-9

150

25

6

Agustin Cazarez

M

5-7

145

25

7

Gilberto

M

6-1

172

26

8

Rodrigo Lopez

M

5-7

145

25

9

Gabe Gissie

F

6-0

172

18

10

Thomas Stewart

F

5-11

175

28

11

Max Alvarez

M

5-10

160

23

12

Nemanja Vukovic

D

6-3

180

30

13

Adnan Gabeljic

F

6-3

197

22

16

Zev Taublieb

M

5-6

140

21

17

Justin Braun

F

6-2

195

27

18

Ivann Mirkovic

M

5-6

150

27

19

Octavio Guzman

M

5-10

175

24

20

James Kiffe

D

5-11

180

26

21

Mickey Daly

D

6-1

180

27

22

Gabe Gonzalez

M

6-4

205

27

23

Emrah Klimenta

D

6-1

180

24

24

Patrick McLain

G

6-3

205

26

25

Joaquin Rivas

F

5-11

172

22

26

Alfonso Motagalvan

M

5-10

170

28

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