Republic FC eliminated by Swope Park 2-1 in first round of USL playoffs

Cameron Iwasa was angry, and Simon Elliott was as animated as the normally reserved Sacramento Republic FC head coach gets. Their frustration and emotions matched that of the team’s fan base who witnessed second-seeded Republic FC getting upset again at home in the first round of the United Soccer League playoffs.

Two first-half goals within four minutes propelled the No. 7-seed Swope Park Rangers to a 2-1 victory Saturday night at Papa Murphy’s Park, ending Sacramento’s season.

“It’s a playoff game, and it needs to be better,” Elliott said. “If you’re not prepared to bring it then, sorry, simply not good enough. Our attitude wasn’t good enough, our willingness to get pressure on the ball wasn’t good enough, and in the end we were just lumping hopeful balls into the box instead of thinking about ways to get it into the goal.”

Swope Park of Kansas City moves on to play Friday at Phoenix Rising FC. No. 3 Phoenix beat the No. 6 Portland Timbers 2, 3-0, Saturday.

Sacramento scored first when Villyan Bijev gathered a weak clearing pass from Rangers defender Amer Didic in the 16th minute and pounded a low skimmer to the left post. Shannon Gomez hustled to the end line to gather a pass, and his sliding pass knuckled in front of the box. Rangers’ keeper Eric Dick slipped trying to gather Gomez’s feed and Didic ran up to clear, but popped the ball into the air about 20 feet away to a waiting Bijev.

Swope Park tied it in the 27th minute when Wan Kuzain juked Gomez and ripped the ball low past Josh Cohen’s right foot.

Four minutes later, Swope Park struck again with the eventual game-winner when Hadji Barry found the net from the top of the penalty box. Emrah Klimenta was about 10 feet in front when Barry shot. Klimenta turned to his side just as Barry connected with the ball, which Cohen didn’t expect, allowing the ball through.

“I saw the play forming and I knew that’s their bread and butter,” Cohen said. “It was opening up and we didn’t have enough time to react and respond. I tracked the ball as well as I could and I saw it as it came around our defense and the guy did well by putting it hard, low and in the corner.”

Sacramento kept the pressure on throughout the second half and generated several nice chances, including one in the 50th minute when Jeremy Hall dribbled through two defenders at the top of the penalty box and hit a shot that bounced low off the left post.

Sacramento outshot Swope Park 13-5 but only five were on target, the same as Swope Park.

“It’s a thinking game at the end of the day,” Elliott said. “It’s not just all fire, blood and brimstone and passion, and all that you have to think your way through situations, and I think they did a better job of that than we did.”

Sacramento finished 19-7-8 while Swope Park improved to 16-11-8. Entering Saturday’s match, Sacramento was 10-2-5 at Papa Murphy’s Park this season – a league best for home-pitch advantage. The team had outscored its opponents 24-15 this season at home.

The loss was the second first-round homes loss in three years for Sacramento. The other was in 2016 when Orange County beat Sacramento 5-4 on penalty kicks. Sacramento was the top seed in the USL Western Conference that season.

Swope Park eliminated Sacramento last season, 1-0, in the Western Conference semifinals in Kansas City.

The USL affiliate of Major League Soccer team Sporting Kansas City, in only its third season of existence, has gone to each of the last two USL finals, but has yet to win a championship. The last Western Conference team to win a USL title was Sacramento in 2014, its first year in the league.

Iwasa, a Sacramento native normally effusive with his praise, was asked what was ahead in the days to come. His answer was simple and direct.

“I don’t have a plan,” Iwasa said. “I planned on being back here next week.”