‘We have that hunger back’: Can Republic FC keep improbable playoff run alive?

Republic FC Wilson Kneeshaw (29) dribbles through Orange County Blues FC defenders during last season’s USL Western Conference first-round playoff game at Bonney Field.
Republic FC Wilson Kneeshaw (29) dribbles through Orange County Blues FC defenders during last season’s USL Western Conference first-round playoff game at Bonney Field. Sacramento Bee file

Wilson Kneeshaw gained a new perspective while sitting out six games over five weeks with a right foot sprain. The Republic FC forward watched as his teammates struggled to get into the USL playoffs as the eighth and final seed.

“I had just scored a goal (in a 1-0 win) in Portland when I got kicked in the foot and I thought it was fine but once the swelling went down it was still unstable and the doctor said I had some ligament damage,” said Kneeshaw, who is tied with Tyler Blackwood for third on the team in scoring with 15 points (five goals, five assists). “I watched the games from our bench and even talked with some fans up in the stands about how the team was doing. I was able to analyze our play and what I learned helped our team.”

Kneeshaw had an assist last week in the USL Western Conference quarterfinals as Republic FC upset No. 1 seed Real Monarchs SLC. Republic FC faces the Swope Park Rangers in a West semifinal on Saturday at Children’s Mercy Park, home of Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. PDT.

Against Real Monarchs on Oct. 20, Kneeshaw hustled past a defender, gathered the ball near the end line and directed it in front of the goal, where Luis Espino hammered it home for Republic FC’s only goal. The score was tied 1-1 after regulation and Sacramento won 3-1 on penalty kicks.

“There’s so much more to come from Kneeshaw,” Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said. “That assist he had in Salt Lake City is what I want to see from Wilson every game. When he is aggressive, he’s really hard to play. He’s not 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds but when he’s on his game he’s a real pest (to defenses).”

Republic FC was in control for much of the match against Real Monarchs. Crisp passing and a stifling defense flustered the home team and only an 84th minute penalty kick saved Real Monarchs from getting bounced in regular time.

The irony was not lost on Buckle or his team. They were the top seed last year but lost on penalty kicks in the opening round.

Swope Park made it to the USL Cup Final last year and were beaten 5-1 by the New York Red Bulls II. The Rangers were the No. 4 seed last year, too.

The game Saturday, for about 18 hours, was to be played at Papa Murphy’s Park after the USL deemed the pitch at Swope Park’s 3,500-capacity stadium, Children’s Mercy Victory Field, to be unplayable. But, even if Swope Park got the gate receipts for a game 1,800 miles from home, it certainly didn’t want to play in front of 11,000 Republic FC fans. The USL reversed its decision and the game was moved back to Kansas City.

“First, we had the nanny scheduled, and then we canceled the nanny,” Buckle said. “And now we have the nanny back.”

Buckle said the USL would be in a tough spot to decide on the home pitch if Republic FC was to get to the championship. The final game does not have to be held at the home of the highest seed, Buckle said, and Republic FC’s sellout streak would be enticing to USL executives.

Regardless of where the team plays, Kneeshaw said Republic FC is ready and perhaps the “Arden Archer” will finally get to let loose an arrow. Kneeshaw is so nicknamed for his bow-and-arrow pantomime after a made goal. But why stop at just one? How about three? A quiver trick?

“Man, that would be nice, three goals in a playoff game,” said Kneeshaw, confident that his injury has healed. “We’ll be bringing more of the same Saturday because we’re fired up. We know what it means for our fans, and I don’t think there’s a team in the league that wants to play us right now. We have that hunger back.”

Mayor Steinberg and Republic FC owner Kevin Nagle gather at the downtown rail yards to announce the construction of a soccer field to go along with Sacramento's bid for a Major League Soccer program.

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