Cameron Iwasa and Republic FC were poised to break into Major League Soccer in 2017. Things didn’t go as planned.
Iwasa was signed by MLS club Sporting Kansas City after a stellar 2016 season for Sacramento in which he scored 12 goals, a franchise record. He thought he’d be an important piece of the offense in Kansas City, but a hamstring injury hamstrung his goals. The Republic FC brass thought 2017 would be the year that MLS welcomed them into the league. But the franchise was spurned, restrained by a lack of deep pockets to bankroll the jump from the United Soccer League to MLS.
Iwasa, a Sacramento native and graduate of Jesuit High School, re-signed with his hometown team in the offseason and, together, he and the team are looking to ascend – permanently – to the top soccer league on the continent.
The parallels of what happened in 2017 to Iwasa and Republic FC is not lost on either entity.
“When I made the jump to MLS, it was ideally to be permanent and to carve out a successful career,” Iwasa said. “I was doing well in the preseason then I pulled my right hamstring trying to prove myself during two-a-days and overexerted.”
Iwasa was unable to play for six weeks, and Sporting KC started the 2017 season with five wins and a draw in nine games.
“When I look at it from the coach’s perspective, why change the lineup for me?” Iwasa said. “My chances of playing were hurt by the team doing well, but I was also happy they were doing well. It was a tough situation to be in.”
Iwasa was loaned to the Swope Park Rangers of the USL but he said his playing style and the philosophy of Rangers head coach Nicola Popovic did not mesh. He made 22 appearances for the club and had two goals and an assist, mostly as a substitute, an unfamiliar role for Iwasa.
“(Popovic) wanted to essentially play with my position as another midfielder, which doesn’t allow me to get into the box where I make my living,” he said.
Iwasa said he didn’t struggle with his confidence. He's proven he can score in bunches if given the opportunity. He leads Sacramento in scoring this season with two goals in just three USL matches.
But without the opportunity and freedom to play in an offense suited to his style last season, he started to mentally check out. Practices became drudgery and soccer became his job more than a passion. It wasn’t fun anymore, he said. He handled the situation as professionally as he could, but knew that he’d likely be a free agent at the end of the season.
“Cameron was a great player to have within our club; he possessed qualities that we liked and worked hard every single day,” said Brian Bliss, Sporting KC director of player personnel. “His injury in preseason set him back in the depth chart for the first team, but we’re happy to see him having success again in Sacramento and we wish him all the best.”
Iwasa kept tabs on Republic FC, mostly through his friend, Emrah Klimenta. Iwasa said the two became close during the two seasons they played together in Sacramento. Iwasa hoped to be reunited in 2018, but Klimenta was signed by the LA Galaxy in January.
Last Winter, Iwasa stopped by the Republic FC offices to say hello to the staff. New chief operating officer and chief adviser Ben Gumpert saw Iwasa in the hallway and the two struck up a conversation. It wasn’t long before Iwasa was offered a contract and his return was complete.
“When we were taking a look at this roster late last year, we were wondering how we could grow the team for the future,” Gumpert said. “We wanted a great group of guys who all had the same philosophy and who could build character from the locker room to the community. Cam checks all of those boxes.”
Gumpert said Iwasa has served as a Sacramento tour guide of sorts for the new Republic FC players. The franchise has had the most roster turnover by far in its five seasons, and having a guy who holds a team record as the face of the franchise and leader is a huge positive.
Gumpert sees the parallels between Iwasa’s and Republic FC’s MLS odyssey in 2017. He knows that the hard work to reach the next level is continuous.
“Nothing that has happened has deterred us,” Gumpert said. “We think we belong there (MLS) and we’re redoubling our efforts. We’re incredibly confident that we’ll get there eventually, and that’s similar to Cam’s situation. He has those MLS dreams, just like I do.”
If Iwasa continues to score like he has this early season, he may get the call from MLS before Gumpert and the rest of the Republic FC brass.
“Yeah, we may have to bench him for a few games,” Gumpert joked. “Sort of hide him.”
Iwasa is confident he’ll get another shot at MLS. In the meantime, he continues to enjoy the freedom given to strikers in coach Simon Elliott’s offense.
“Cam is unselfish and he’s a powerful player with a low center of gravity, so he’s hard to knock off the ball. He also recognizes where the defensive pressure is coming from and can adjust to it quickly,” Elliott said. “He sure is motivated. I know that. I can’t speak to his Republic FC or MLS experience, but I do know he’s hungry. He had a taste. It’s not the setbacks, but how you deal with them. You continue to work and improve, and he’s doing that.”