Graham Smith once said the only constant in soccer is change. A few months later Smith stepped down as Republic FC’s general manager and, a few months after that, coach Paul Buckle parted ways with the team – just as the roster experienced its greatest upheaval in the franchise’s five USL seasons.
Twenty players who wore the old-glory red and maple last season are gone; eight players who helped Sacramento reach the 2017 USL Western Conference semifinals return. Eleven new players will suit up for Republic FC on Saturday night for the USL season opener against San Antonio FC at Papa Murphy’s Park.
“In professional (soccer) there’s always change, and we just have to deal with it and make sure we’re working hard as coaches and players to bring the team together as quickly and efficiently as we can,” new Republic FC coach Simon Elliott said. “The players have done a good job making the adjustments and they’re hungry. They’ve all contributed so far, and they all look strong.”
Elliott, 43, played for Fulham FC in the English Premier League and several Major League Soccer teams. He had coached Republic FC's U-15/16 and U-17 academy squads since 2015.
Republic FC hired Todd Dunivant as GM to replace Smith. Dunivant, who also played in the MLS, has been busy revamping a squad that finished tied for 14th in the USL for goals scored (46).
He welcomed back Sacramento native Cameron Iwasa after the Jesuit High School graduate played for Sporting Kansas City of the MLS last season. Iwasa scored a Republic FC record 12 goals in 2016 and looks to eclipse that mark with Elliott’s offensive philosophy that allows forwards to press farther up the pitch in an attempt to not only quicken the pace but isolate defenders.
“(Our offense) keeps me and the other guys up front from having to sprint around the field,” Iwasa said. “It’s a lot more contained, and, from that aspect, it’s definitely a good thing for us up top.”
Back for his third season is Wilson Kneeshaw, a striker who likes Elliott’s offense.
“Simon has us playing however we want to play,” said Kneeshaw, who had five goals and five assists last season. “He’s set out ways to get us to the final third, and then in the final third you go and do whatever you want to do. Once in the final third, if you want to express yourself by taking someone on, or looking for little passes, (Elliott) is not going to discriminate or hit on anything, so from that sense we are freer in our movement and in our ball movements. I’m really excited.”
Iwasa said he’s ready to reignite his career in his hometown after bouncing last season between Sporting Kansas City and its USL affiliate, the Swope Park Rangers.
“We’re starting from square one because it’s a new system with the coaching change," Iwasa said. "There are still four or five guys I played with in 2016 and with the new coaches it’s definitely a lot different. I guess it’s Papa Murphy’s Park now, but it’s the same great atmosphere and it’s always exciting to come back here and play in front of these fantastic fans.”
Gone is midfielder Danny Barrera who, along with Agustin Cazarez, Lamin Suma and Christian Chaney, left to help Fresno FC in its inaugural USL season. Likely replacements for Barrera’s play-making abilities in the middle include Villyan Bijev and Jaime Villarreal.
Villarreal played two seasons for LA Galaxy II and made seven appearances last season for the MLS' LA Galaxy. But Bijev has been getting the most minutes in the preseason. He scored the decisive goal in the 72nd minute on March 10 at FC Cinncinati for a 2-1 victory in the preseason finale. Iwasa struck first for Sacramento in the 34th minute.
“Villyan is a very creative player and I think he can unlock the defense for us,” Iwasa said. “I think Jaime, even though he covers a lot of ground, he’s a very creative player, too. We have lot of guys up front and on the wings who can create for themselves, so there’s not going to be a lack of goal-scoring production throughout the year.”
The midfield saw little change; the only newcomer is Kevin Alemán of Costa Rica.
Republic FC’s defense had the most turnover. Carlos Rodriguez and Elliott Hord are the only returners. They’re joined by five newcomers, including Justin Schmidt, who was selected in the second round (35th overall) of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft by Real Salt Lake, where he made seven starts at center back.
Goalkeepers Evan Newton left for FC Cincinnati in the offseason and Dominik Jakubek retired. John Cohen, who set a Phoenix Rising record last season with eight shutouts, and has played the most for Republic FC in the preseason. Sacramento also added goalkeeper Rafael Diaz, who spent last season with the New York Red Bulls II.
“We have got a new set of players, but the players we brought in we’re all of the same age so we’re into the same things, so we jelled pretty quickly,” Kneeshaw said. “We’ve been pulled from all over the world and the United States but we’re all of the same generation. We’re cracking the same jokes. That does make it 10 times easier to jell with your teammates.”