How Republic FC keeper Josh Cohen can lead a playoff run and get payback all at once

Josh Cohen is perfectly content at his small desk in his cramped apartment tinkering on various small projects, electrical wires strung every which way and a whiteboard filled with brainstorms and diagrams scrawled in several colors.

The Republic FC goalkeeper is a bioengineering graduate of UC San Diego and he’d love to have a career after pro sports designing consumer products from sports training equipment to medical devices.

But Cohen, 26, also tinkers on his goalkeeping skills, constantly refining and reinventing his technical and mental approach to arguably the most important position on the pitch.

It’s that mad-scientist mentality that has enabled Cohen to rise to one of the United Soccer League’s top keepers. He’s second in the USL this season in saves (117) and tied for third with three other keepers for the most shutouts with 12.

Cohen leads Republic FC into the USL Cup Playoffs against the Swope Park Rangers on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Papa Murphy’s Park.

“I have a lot of small projects working at once and it’s pretty messy,” Cohen said of his workspace.

But he definitely cleans up on the pitch. Cohen was signed by the team in January to replace Evan Newton, who left to join FC Cincinnati. At the time, Newton’s departure was a shock as he helped Sacramento make the playoffs in 2016 and 2017 and left a gaping hole between the pipes.

Cohen started for Phoenix Rising FC last year, a team ousted in the first round by Swope Park on penalty kicks (4-2). Swope Park beat Sacramento 1-0 the next weekend and later lost 1-0 in the USL Championship game to Louisville City FC.

“I want some payback,” Cohen said of the Rangers. “You always want to win in regulation because it’s a crap shoot with PKs. But as you gain confidence, you trust your instincts and commit 100 percent to trying to stop the shot.”

Republic FC coach Simon Elliott was hired a couple of weeks after Cohen was signed, so Cohen wasn’t promised a starting spot and had to beat out Rafael Diaz. Cohen and Diaz are the same height – 6-foot-1 – and are the same age. But Cohen played better than Diaz in the first weeks of the season and earned the spot. He’s been in goal since.

“He had a very good preseason and grabbed the No. 1 spot,” Elliott said. “And he’s improved every day since. Those first few games, when we were a little rough, he was huge for us.

“He continues to work incrementally to improve. I think the biggest improvement he’s made is his decision-making with the ball. He’s so good on his line and blocking the ball, but even before he has the ball, he’s already thinking what he wants to do with it.”

Cohen said even six inches off a goalie’s line can mean the difference in a bad angle and allowing a goal, or stopping a shot and demoralizing strikers. Reaction time is great and is a must, Cohen said, but being in the right position and making the right decisions at the right time comes with constant work and tinkering.

“I always look at my games critically,” Cohen said. “I’m looking for my game position and body language even with the ball in the other half. Am I on my toes or on my heels? Because even those little things like that can add or shave a fraction of a second if the other team suddenly gets a breakaway and I need to cut an angle.”

Cohen grew up playing soccer and started playing keeper at age 8. But, unlike most professional players, Cohen did not try out for a national youth team and he wasn’t a highly recruited keeper out of Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose. He was a walk-on at UC San Diego and earned a roster spot through a rigorous tryout process. He never earned a scholarship not because he wasn’t worth a full-ride offer, but because UC San Diego didn’t offer sports scholarships then.

“I did get a $500 stipend, as everyone else did,” Cohen said with a chuckle. “But for most of my collegiate career I had no expectations of playing professionally. But then I had a solid junior year and a really great senior year, and I started thinking that there may be an opportunity somewhere.”

Cohen made the National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-American First Team his senior year; California Collegiate Athletic Association Most Valuable Defensive Player; CCAA All-Academic team; was one of 12 UCSD Athletes of the Year and was one of four Tritons to start all 22 matches, but the only one to play every minute of the entire season. The Tritons finished fourth in NCAA Division II and Cohen led the CCAA with a goals-against average of 0.52.

Without a upper division professional tryout invite, Cohen made the Burlingame Dragons squad for the 2014 season and he helped them win the title in the Premier Development League (now the USL League Two). Cohen said the stint in the PDL worked out great, as his parents, Gary and Deborah, lived nearby in Sunnyvale.

“The Orange County Blues saw me and invited me to try out late in the 2015 season and I’ve been playing in the USL ever since,” Cohen said.

In 2016, Cohen became the Blues’ starting goalie for much of the season and longtime Republic FC fans may remember Cohen as the keeper who stopped JJ Koval’s penalty kick in the first round of the playoffs and led the No. 8-seed Blues to a stunning 5-4 PK win over top-seeded Republic FC. Orange County lost 2-1 to Swope Park the next weekend, so Cohen has even more history and payback on his mind Saturday.

Sacramento handled Swope Park relatively easy in both matches this season, each 3-1 victories. But Cohen and Elliott both cautioned being overconfident against a team that has been to the USL Cup Finals each of the past two seasons – also the franchise’s only two seasons. Sacramento has never failed to make the playoffs in its five-year history. Former Republic FC players Tyler Blackwood and Chase Minter lead the Rangers’ attack.

“That doesn’t mean a thing,” Elliott said of the wins over Sporting Kansas City’s USL affiliate this season. “Home-field advantage is nice, don’t get me wrong. But they’ll bring hungry players trying to get to the MLS. We have to make sure we do well what we do well.”

There’s no time to tinker. But it’s a great time to put the finishing touches on a title team.