When Republic FC coach Preki asked midfielder Agustin Cazarez to switch to outside back during a training session, the former Saint Mary’s standout was surprised and intrigued.
Cazarez hadn’t played as a defender since his youth days. But he also had yet to play for Republic FC in USL action, so he saw it as a potential opportunity to get on the field.
A few days later against the Orange County Blues FC at Bonney Field, Cazarez entered the match in the second half at left outside back. Five days later, Cazarez started at what has been Republic FC’s most unstable position during its two seasons. He made his second start Saturday against the Seattle Sounders FC 2 at Bonney Field.
“There was a little bit of nerves and a little bit of excitement,” Cazarez said of his first action as a defender against the Blues. “You have the nerves because you know you can’t make mistakes. But I was a little calm, too. I know the more I play, the more comfortable I’m going to get.”
Preki has moved several players into different positions during his two seasons with Republic FC, but he said Cazarez’s transition is still a work in progress.
“He’s done OK so far,” Preki said. “Obviously, it’s a new position for him. But in professional football, players should be able to play every position.”
One of Preki’s biggest success stories is Emrah Klimenta, Republic FC’s second-year pro. The Bay Area product grew up as a forward, made the Republic FC roster from an open tryout and has been a fixture at right fullback from the start.
“It was a challenge, but Preki told me from Day One, I wouldn’t be here if he didn’t trust me and didn’t see something in me,” Klimenta said. “Preki is a genius when it comes to making the right decision. He moves people around in practice. But he’s not going to throw someone into a game if he doesn’t think he can do the job.”
When Republic FC opened its inaugural USL campaign, right back seemed to be the questionable spot because of Klimenta’s inexperience. Left back was considered a team strength. Nemanja Vukovic was an experienced outside defender with Major League Soccer experience. But when Harrison Delbridge struggled in central defense, Preki moved Vukovic to that position, where he went on to be named USL Defender of the Year.
Since that move, a carousel of players has played left back. James Kiffe came to Republic FC as a late signing last season and played well at the position in the last four regular-season and three postseason matches.
Kiffe started Republic FC’s first seven USL matches this season. But he didn’t return in the second half of the April 24 match against the Blues after forward Denzel Slager scored on a breakaway late in the first half of an eventual 2-1 Blues win.
In Preki’s system of play, outside backs are allowed to push up and become playmakers in the offensive end. But they can’t be burned for easy goals, either.
“The defending has to be solid,” Preki said. “You’ve also got to give us some quality movements forward. In those positions, players have to be good both ways. We’re always assessing here where the best place is to play people. We felt with Emrah, defender was the best place for him. Now we feel the best place for Cazarez is at left back.”
The left-footed Cazarez said playing defender as opposed to the midfield comes with a “different mindset, different mentality.”
“Positioning is huge, and your head is always turning to make sure you know what’s around you,” he said. “Your one vs. one defending has to be good, and you really have to be locked in, because if you make a mistake, they are going to (score).”
Klimenta knows how Cazarez feels, having been in his boots last season.
“Augie has come in and filled the position beautifully,” Klimenta said. “He’s an offensive player as well, so when he gets the ball, he’s comfortable on it. He’s making those nice passes in the middle and down the line. Going and up and down, he’s lacking a little game fitness because he hasn’t played that much. But that will come.”
Klimenta said the most important thing he learned in his transition from being a forward to a defender was the need to be tough and fearless.
“You have to be a little tougher and go hard into challenges,” Klimenta said. “For me, it’s more second nature now. I love cracking people – not to hurt them – but to win the ball back for my team so we can start off our attack again.”
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