Republic FC’s small players loom large against bigger foes

The moment symbolized the matchup between English Premier League West Bromwich Albion FC and Republic FC in Monday’s friendly at Bonney Field: Sacramento’s 5-foot-6, 145-pound defender Jack Avesyan going hip to hip with the Baggies’ tall and muscular striker Victor Anichebe.

Avesyan gave away 9 inches and more than 40 pounds to his formidable rival.

Avesyan wasn’t the only size-challenged player on the field for Republic FC.

Midfielders Rodrigo Lopez and Ivan Mirkovic and forward-midfielder Tommy Thompson, all between 5-6 and 5-7 and 145 to 152 pounds, were much smaller than the physically imposing West Brom players.

But the four mighty mites were among the most effective players on the field. Though West Brom won 1-0 on a penalty kick, Republic FC had the advantage in possession and shots on goal in turning in a highly entertaining, though sometimes frustrating, performance.

While West Bromwich is in its preseason with a new coach and several recent signings, Republic FC showed that soccer isn’t always about superior physical attributes.

“The game is not all about big guys, the game is about playing football the right way,” said Republic FC coach Preki, a former English League player with Everton and Portsmouth. “Some of our guys aren’t the biggest guys in the world, but as long as you are quick enough, have good balance, a good first touch and an understanding for the game, size really doesn’t matter. The best player in the world, (Lionel) Messi (listed at 5-7), is the smallest guy.”

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Preki, at 5-9, was no giant in his playing days yet was one of the early Major League Soccer greats, twice leading the league in scoring and earning MVP honors.

Lopez and Thompson are impact playmakers for Republic FC, while Mirkovic and Avesyan are defensive pests with skills.

Lopez, who has MLS experience with Chivas USA and the Portland Timbers, is the team’s creative focal point and leads Republic FC in points with 16. A set-piece savant, Lopez has six assists, which ties him for second in USL Pro entering tonight’s match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Bonney Field.

“Rodrigo is experienced and crafty, and he can do so many things with the ball,” Preki said. “But everyone wants to see more defense out of him, and that includes myself.”

Preki calls the feisty Mirkovic “a really important piece for us,” though he has spent much of his season in trouble with game officials. He missed three consecutive league matches in late June on suspension and won’t play tonight because of another suspension for receiving too many yellow cards.

“He brings all his heart into a game, and sometimes he gets too emotional,” Preki said. “That’s one of the things I’m trying to teach him, how to control his emotions and play the game the right way – to be at the edge but to never go over the edge.”

Thompson’s marvelous ball skills, headiness and tenacity have boosted Republic FC’s entertainment quotient since he joined the team on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes.

“He’s a young guy, an eager guy,” Preki said. “He has a long way to go, but he has really, really good potential and he really wants it. He’s always ready to play, and that’s something you got to like as a coach.”

Thompson, 18, played forward on Monday and spent much of the match slaloming among West Brom’s defensive trees, including 6-4 Jonas Olsson.

Despite drawing plenty of contact with his various jukes and feints, the 5-7, 150-pound Thompson managed to stay on his feet while creating opportunities for himself and his teammates.

“When you work with the ball all your life, it gives you enough talent to thrive on a field full of monsters,” Thompson said. “I like playing against bigger players. If a guy is bigger, he’s going to have trouble keeping up with my short, quick steps. That’s the beauty of soccer.”

Thompson also is a Bonney Field fan favorite for more than just being from Granite Bay High School.

He’s a player who doesn’t hit the turf easily.

“I’ve never been in an environment where diving or flopping was accepted,” Thompson said. “Growing up, I was always playing against players three or four years older than me, so I’d get hit a lot. But it was street rules. You know you are not going to get the call, so why go down?”

As a defender, Avesyan has to try to stay on his feet against forwards who almost always tower over him.

“I have to pick and chose when I can be an aggressive guy,” Avesyan said. “If I get into a 50-50 collision, I’m going to lose. So I have to be sneaky. If I let him think he has some space, and approach him in a smart way, then I can be effective.”

But for players like Avesyan there is little margin for error.

When he suddenly found himself in Friday’s rematch with West Bromwich Albion after defender Chad Bond suffered a dislocated toe midway in the first half, his focus waned.

Avesyan gave away a couple of passes and was easily beaten several times, one that resulted in the Baggies’ second goal in their eventual 3-1 win. Preki sat Avesyan down after 15 minutes.

“We have to keep working with Jack on the mental aspect of the game,” Preki had said the day before. “He needs to be more mentally in tune. Sometimes he takes these little breaks.

“But he does have quality. He’s quick. He’s good with the ball. If he can put it all together, Jack can be a very good player.”