He helped oust U.S. from World Cup contention. Can he deliver Republic FC a big upset?

Trinidad and Tobago’s Trevin Caesar, left, and Panama’s Harold Cummings battle for the ball during the second half of the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic qualifier in Carson.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Trevin Caesar, left, and Panama’s Harold Cummings battle for the ball during the second half of the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic qualifier in Carson. AP file

Trevin Caesar knows what it’s like to play spoiler.

He helped Trinidad and Tobago eliminate the U.S. men’s national team from World Cup contention last week and hopes to lead Republic FC to another big upset when it opens the playoffs against the USL’s best team.

Real Monarchs SLC will host Republic FC on Friday night in Salt Lake City at 7 p.m.

“The U.S. beat my country (27) years ago to go to the World Cup and our coach talked about that game,” Caesar said. “We had nothing to lose, so we went out and played for ourselves, our teammates, our fans and for our country. It was a great feeling to knock them out and to give our fans some hope.”

Caesar received a lot of good-natured ribbing from his Republic FC teammates after the 2-1 victory kept the United States from the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Republic FC captain Emrah Klimenta and several others threatened to not allow their striker back into the country in retaliation.

“Everyone was making a joke about it,” said Caesar, who was a late substitute and had a shot on goal against U.S. keeper Tim Howard. “It was a little weird beating the U.S. since I live and work here now. But I had a job to do.”

Now, he said, he has a job to do for Sacramento. And if he can help break the hearts of the Real Monarchs, then so be it.

The Real Monarchs are the top seed in the playoffs and only USL team to reach 20 wins (20-5-7, 67 points). Louisville City FC is the Eastern Conference top seed at 18-6-8 (62 points). The Monarchs have the USL’s second-best goal differential at plus-27. Only Reno 1868 FC is better with a plus-36. Reno’s 4-1 win against Orange County FC on Oct. 7 allowed Republic FC to clinch a playoff spot for the fourth consecutive season, despite a 1-0 loss to Colorado Switchbacks FC the same day.

Sacramento (13-12-7, 46) struggled in the last five games of the regular season, finishing 1-3-1. The Monarchs were 3-0-2 over their last five games, including a 2-0 victory on Sept. 27 in Sacramento. In 2016, Sacramento finished 6-0-4 over the last two months of the regular season and entered the playoffs as the Western Conference’s top seed, only to lose at home to Orange County FC on penalty kicks (5-4).

Now the roles are reversed. The Real Monarchs are the hunted. Republic FC is the hunter.

“There’s still pressure on us,” Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said. “We’re pushing for a spot in (Major League Soccer) so there’s always high expectations. Of course I thought we’d finish higher, but if we can make a good go of it (in the playoffs) then what a season it will be. It’s anyone’s championship, really.”

Experience could prove to be the difference for Sacramento on Friday in Salt Lake City. Republic FC is the most seasoned squad in the Western Conference. The West’s top three teams – Real Monarchs, San Antonio FC and Reno 1868 FC – did not qualify for the playoffs last season, although Reno was an expansion team this season. In all, five of the eight Western Conference teams are making their first playoff appearance.

Republic FC captain Emrah Klimenta and James Kiffe were part of the 2014 USL championship squad and will be looked upon to guide the team into the playoffs.

“I’ll be talking to a lot of my teammates to keep them calm,” Klimenta said. “Yeah, the playoffs are a big deal, but it’s just one game. Even if the ball isn’t bouncing our way, we have to stay calm.”

Klimenta said more pressure will be on the Real Monarchs, which may allow Republic FC to play the spoiler and advance to meet the winner of No. 4 Swope Park Rangers and No. 5 Phoenix Rising FC.

“At the end of the day, we are Sac Republic and we identify as winners,” Klimenta said. “But we didn’t win our last two games, so we need to prove that we belong. We’ll relish the underdog role, but we’re capable of beating anyone.”