Even though it’s still early in the season, Republic FC looked in championship form Saturday night in beating the Portland Timbers FC 2 3-0 at Bonney Field.
The defending USL champions turned in a dominating performance just 16 days after the Timbers 2 topped a then injury-ravaged Republic FC 2-1 in Portland.
Sacramento coach Preki doles out praise sparingly, but even he couldn’t hide his admiration.
“Tonight was just a joy to watch,” Preki said in the postgame meeting with reporters. “The movement, the pace of the game, the way we created opportunities.”
Midfielder Rodrigo Lopez continued to build his reputation as the USL’s most dynamic player in scoring his third goal in two matches while orchestrating the team’s attack. He was voted the USL Player of the Week and now has scored 15 goals in 16 regular-season and playoff games at Bonney Field.
Veteran defender Nemanja Vukovic and midfielder Max Alvarez made their first starts and played well after spending most of the season rehabbing from preseason injuries.
“It means a lot (to get these guys back),” Preki said. “They know the system really well, and they’re going to make it really tough for the other players to break into the team, but that’s what I like because we have some other quality players and now they see the standard, they have to get to that standard in training and in the games when they get the chance.”
And Republic FC (4-2-0) is only getting deeper as it prepares to play the Orange County Blues FC (2-1-0) Friday at Bonney Field, the last in a four-game home stand for the Western Conference leaders that are 14-1-1 all-time on their Cal Expo home turf.
Forward Thomas Stewart, who has yet to play in a USL match after undergoing foot surgery, practiced this week and playmaking midfielder Gilberto, on loan in Brazil, re-joined his Sacramento teammates on Wednesday.
“The team is just starting to gel,” said defender Emrah Klimenta, who joined Lopez on this week’s USL Team of the Week. “Everyone is getting healthy, and the competition at practice is a lot higher and more intense and making everybody better. Come game time, we all want to win. We want to repeat and be champions.”
Defensive midfielder Ivan Mirkovic says practices are every bit as an intense as the matches, just without the raucous fans.
“At every position, we’ve got one or two guys who can step in and play,” Mirkovic said. “You know there’s a guy who is hungry and wants to take your job. So you push yourself even more.”
Vukovic, the 2014 USL Defender of the Year, said it’s a perfect situation for the intense Preki.
“He practices like it’s a game,” Vukovic said. “So every practice you have to prove you deserve to play on the first team.”
In its three home wins over the Los Angeles Galaxy II, Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 and Timbers 2, Republic FC has outscored its opponents 8-1.
Goalkeeper Patrick McLain has made eight saves and recorded back-to-back shutouts in the last two matches.
McLain will look to extend that to three straight against his old team. McLain played 15 matches last season for Orange County before buying out his contract and getting his release from a team that collapsed in the second half of the season and finished second to last in the then 14-team league.
But this season Orange County has a new coach in Oliver Wyss and is riding a two-game win streak, including 3-0 over Arizona United SC on Saturday.
Forward Christofer Ramirez, on loan from first division El Salvador club team C.D. Atletico Marte, has scored two goals; midfielder Didier Crettenand has two assists and goalkeeper Pepe Miranda has posted two consecutive shutouts.
The Blues have a 247-minute shutout streak, second longest in USL. Republic FC has not allowed a goal in 212 consecutive minutes, third best in the league. The Eastern Conference Richmond Kickers are the leaders with a 325-minute scoreless streak.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.