Republic FC is in the midst of a three-match winless streak in which it has scored only two goals.
But the players had no trouble filling the nets Tuesday.
In a bid to give his players a mental reprieve, Republic FC coach Preki took them to a downtown athletic club – where they played basketball.
“We just tried to get their minds off (soccer) a little bit,” said Preki, a basketball fan who still plays in a high-level recreation league at 51. “It was a day just to relax and have a little fun.”
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But the players attacked the court with the same intensity they show in their fast-paced and physical soccer practices.
“Basketball is my second favorite sport,” said defender Emrah Klimenta, who plays point guard. “So it was fun, a chance to get away from the grind a little bit. And even better, my team won both games.”
Republic FC hopes to snap out of its scoring doldrums Saturday when it plays Arizona United SC in Scottsdale.
The veteran Arizona United team was expected to challenge defending USL champion Republic FC for the Western Conference title this season, but Sacramento (6-6-1, 19 points) and Arizona (4-5-1, 13 points) are both struggling.
Arizona opened the season with three consecutive victories but has since gone 1-5-1 in USL matches. It has been outscored 10-0 in the last three matches, including a 3-0 loss to Chula Vista FC in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup. Sacramento beat Chula Vista 7-3 in the next round.
“We’re not doing so great, either,” Preki said. “It will be an interesting game. We’ll see who wants it more, and who can make plays.”
Arizona is loaded with USL veterans, plus a few players who have spent time in Major League Soccer.
Among them are forward Long Tan, a USL second-team selection last season; former FC Dallas forward Jonathan Top; and veteran Scottish defender Scott Morrison. Midfielder Danny Garcia is on loan from FC Dallas, though he has played only two matches because of back spasms.
“Heat is going to be a big factor,” Klimenta said. “It could be as hot as 110 at the start of kickoff. So we want to keep the ball and make them chase and get them tired. Hopefully in the final third we can create some magic and put the ball in the back of the net.”
Republic FC will be without midfielder Rodrigo Lopez and forward Justin Braun, its two veteran leaders.
Lopez is serving the last of a three-match suspension for his “violent conduct” red card early in a 2-1 loss at OKC Energy FC on May 23. Braun received his fifth yellow card in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Austin Aztex at Bonney Field and must sit out one match.
Lopez, who leads the team in scoring with seven goals and three assists, said it’s been painful watching as his teammates struggle to score.
In the loss to Austin and a 1-1 draw with last-place Real Monarchs SLC on May 30 at Bonney Field, Sacramento outshot the two foes 38 to 12 but scored just one goal.
“It’s no one else’s fault but mine – I’m the one letting the team down,” Lopez said. “To me, a three-match suspension was really brutal, but it’s out of my hands. I just keep grinding, keeping practicing and I’m hoping the team does well in Arizona.”
Republic FC was leading the Western Conference before its trip to Oklahoma City, where it lost 2-1 in a storm while playing most of the match a man down.
Now Sacramento is tied for third place, behind the Seattle Sounders FC 2 (7-4-2, 23 points) and Oklahoma City (6-2-3, 21 points), which has won six in a row.
Oklahoma City plays Saturday against the Tulsa Roughnecks FC before coming to Sacramento on June 20. Both also play Tuesday against MLS affiliates in the U.S. Open Cup, Republic FC at San Jose and OKC at Dallas.