Enough with the friendlies. For Republic FC, the rest of the schedule is all about playing USL Pro “enemies.”
No longer will Republic FC face teams from Mexico, Scotland or England in what amounted to practice games, as many of its starters were held out to preserve energy for the USL Pro playoff push.
Starting Sunday night at Bonney Field, the renewed quest for a top playoff berth began against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and an impressive 5-0 victory gave Republic FC three important points that brought the club within one point of idle LA Galaxy II for third place. It was Republic FC’s highest-scoring game in USL Pro play.
Republic FC improved to 11-6-3 (36 points), while the Riverhounds fell to 5-11-5 (20). The top eight teams advance to a postseason tournament that begins in early September. The top four teams host first-round games.
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Thomas Stewart scored his sixth goal of the USL Pro season in the seventh minute on a header from a great ball from Mickey Daly and added another in the 33rd minute on a beautiful feed from Rodrigo Lopez. Stewart gathered the soft touch from Lopez and chipped the ball over Riverhounds goalie Mike Lisch, who could only watch as the ball sailed into the back of the net.
Stewart had two golden chances at Republic FC’s first hat trick of the season, but each strike missed by mere inches, including one off the crossbar.
Lopez scored in the 69th minute off a rebound. He gathered the loose ball, faked Lisch and hammered in a right-footed shot from the top of the box. Had the net not been attached, someone in the Tower Bridge Battalion may have suffered a concussion.
Lopez scored again in the 85th minute for the final goal and his team-leading eighth this season. Adam Jahn (Jesuit High School) scored Republic FC’s other goal in the 84th minute.
“We needed a game like this rather than a 2-1 or 1-0 match,” Lopez said.
Republic FC kept the Riverhounds from finding the net for an equalizer or the go-ahead goal. Lately, Republic FC gave up cheap goals after scoring first. Since June 11, the club lost four games after scoring first and giving up the tying goal within three minutes.
“The most important minutes of any match are the next five minutes after you score,” said Republic FC captain and forward Justin Braun, who sat out Sunday because of a left hamstring injury. “The easy goals we’ve given up lately has been addressed. We can’t sit back and get punished.”
In a 2-1 loss to the Earthquakes on June 11, Republic FC scored first yet gave up an equalizer three minutes later and lost 2-1 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament.
On July 7 against Orange County Blues FC, Republic FC scored in the 32nd minute but gave up the equalizer three minutes later, yet won 2-1 in extra time. On July 12 at the Richmond Kickers, Republic FC again scored the first goal before allowing the tying goal two minutes later and lost a crucial road game 2-1. And on July 17 in a friendly against Rangers FC from Scotland, Republic FC again scored the first goal and gave up the equalizer three minutes later and lost 2-1.
“It’s so important to keep focus, and we’ve leaked a couple this season,” Republic FC coach Preki said. “We’ve got to clean that up.”
On Sunday, Republic FC did a great job collapsing on defense, and goalkeeper Jake Gleeson had a relatively uneventful night. Republic FC didn’t allow any cheap goals, let alone many serious shots on goal.
Republic FC outshot Pittsburgh 18-13, but Gleeson had a relatively easy night, or at least it appeared that way.
“It may have looked easy,” Gleeson said. “But a lot of work goes into (a shutout), and we stayed focused for 90 minutes. We talked about having a game like this so we can work toward getting a home playoff game first and foremost.”