Former Republic FC star Jake Gleeson looks forward to Bonney Field return

Jake Gleeson is unsure what kind of reception he will get Saturday night from fans at Bonney Field.

The goalkeeper is in Sacramento with his Portland Timbers 2 teammates to play Republic FC, the team for which he played last season on loan from Portland and helped lead to the USL title in its first season.

But Portland decided to field its own USL team this season, ending its agreement with Republic FC.

“It’s going to be a little different, being on the opposite side,” Gleeson, a native of New Zealand, said. “I have no idea how I’m going to be received, but I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to seeing the boys again.”

Gleeson was popular, always quick with a smile and a joke. He also was one of the top goalkeepers in the USL, though he missed several matches with injuries.

“It was great to come in and win a championship,” Gleeson said. “Everything clicked for us. It was a great season, and I enjoyed every minute of it. But now it’s a new season and I’m with a new group who wants to win a championship.”

Last year, Gleeson could count on the Tower Bridge Battalion’s huge contingent for verbal support, but he knows the reception is a lot different for visiting keepers.

“I recall a few of the chants,” Gleeson said. “They aren’t things I dare repeat. They definitely weren’t positive ones.”

Gleeson is one of three former Republic FC players on the Timbers 2. The others are midfielder Steven Evans and defender Harrison Delbridge.

They are looking forward to receiving their championship rings and playing in the expanded stadium that now seats 11,000.

“It’s going to be neat to see all the improvements,” Gleeson said. “With a couple of thousand more people, it’s going to be a little more intimidating. That means more Battalion fans to yell at us. But I love it. I expect there will be some good banter, good quips.”

This is the second meeting between the teams this season. The Timbers 2 defeated Republic FC 2-1 on April 9 in Portland, with all three former Sacramento players factoring in the win.

Gleeson had two saves, including a one-on-one shot in the 48th minute by Republic FC forward Cameron Iwasa. Delbridge’s pass to Taylor Peay led to a goal by Kharlton Belmar to tie the score 1-1 in the 62nd minute, less than 60 seconds after Iwasa put Republic FC up 1-0.

In the 87th minute, an unmarked Evans gathered a poor clearance at the top of the box and blasted a shot into the upper-right corner of the net for the game-winner.

“We were fortunate to get the winning goal in a tight game, and I expect we will be in for more of the same at Bonney,” Gleeson said. “Hopefully we make our chances and they miss theirs.”

Gleeson will be keeping special watch on Rodrigo Lopez and won’t venture too far off his line.

Lopez, the Republic FC midfielder and USL scoring leader, connected on a 60-yard shot in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps 2. Lopez revealed later he made a similar shot against Gleeson when they were Portland teammates.

“It was an intra-squad match, and I got him from half-field,” Lopez said. “Don’t tell him that I said that. Jake’s a great goalie. I don’t know how he is not playing for the first team.”

Gleeson made a splashy debut with the Timbers in 2011, their debut Major League Soccer season. Then 20, he played in four of the team’s first five MLS matches.

But he hasn’t played in an MLS match since as Portland has gone through a succession of starting goalkeepers. During the offseason, Portland signed Adam Kwarasey, a 27-year-old Ghana national team goalkeeper, and made him its No. 1 guy.

“It’s part of the business,” said Gleeson, who is on loan to Timbers 2 from the parent club. “Adam is a good goalkeeper. You have to make the best of the situation. I’m just focusing on how I’m doing.”

The upside is that he’s playing in the USL, which has grown at a tremendous pace. It has expanded from 14 to 24 teams and increased its MLS affiliates from one to eight since last season.

“The league is getting a lot more exposure with the MLS teams,” Gleeson said. “USL is on the rise, and soccer as a whole is strong in America.”

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