Republic FC to face reinvigorated Hammerheads in USL Pro playoff opener

After Republic FC beat the Wilmington Hammerheads FC 2-0 on Aug. 20 at Bonney Field, the North Carolina team finished strong to make the USL Pro playoffs and set up a Sacramento re-match Saturday night at sold-out Bonney Field.

After the loss to second-seeded Sacramento (17-7-4), the seventh-seeded Hammerheads (9-8-11) went 3-0-3 under new coach Carson Porter before losing their season finale 2-0 at the Rochester Rhinos on Sunday.

The Rhinos and Hammerheads both finished with 38 points, but Rochester’s 10 wins to Wilmington’s nine was the deciding tiebreaker for sixth place.

During their six-match unbeaten streak, the Hammerheads beat and tied regular-season champion Orlando City and also tied Republic FC 0-0 in Wilmington on Aug. 30.

Porter was hired during the season as the team’s technical director and replaced 15-year coach David Irving, a USL Pro Hall of Fame inductee, while the team was in Sacramento.

“The game here that we won, I thought they were a pretty decent team, a decent group of players,” Republic FC coach Preki said. “Sometimes a new coach comes in and has new ideas, and it seems like the players are responding to the new ideas.”

The team is led by former Seattle Sounders FC forward Sammy Ochoa, who has six goals and five assists; MLS loanees goalkeeper Bradley Stuver of the Columbus Crew and midfielder Corben Bone of the Philadelphia Union; and 5-foot-5 Lesotho National Team dynamo Sunny Jane.

“They have a good squad,” Preki said. “We have a hard game on our hands. Hopefully we’re ready for it.”

Republic FC forwards Thomas Stewart and Justin Braun, who have combined for 18 goals (15 in USL Pro) this season but haven’t played since the Wilmington win because of injuries, practiced for the first time Thursday at Cosumnes River College.

But Preki wasn’t certain they will be ready to play Saturday.

“They’re day to day,” he said.

Preki also is uncertain about forward Adam Jahn. Jahn, on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes, was with the parent club for matches Saturday in Portland and Wednesday in Vancouver.

Regardless of whether he is able to play or not, Braun expects a tough match, but he says it’s not about the Hammerheads.

“I think the main thing for us is to focus on what we’ve been doing,” Braun said. “If we play the way we are capable of playing, we’re almost unbeatable, especially with the crowd behind us. Playing on that big field we’re able to move the ball well. All year we’ve focused on ourselves and what we need to do.”

Molino dominates – Orlando City SC forward Kevin Molino landed the trifecta of USL Pro awards this season.

Molino lead the league in points (49), goals (20) and assists (nine) to help the Major League Soccer-bound team win its third regular-season title in four years.

Republic FC’s Rodrigo Lopez finished second in assists with eight, third in points with 28 and eighth in goals with 10.

Rochester Rhinos goalkeeper John McCarthy was the goals against average champion at 0.772. He had 10 shutouts in 18 matches.

Looking ahead – If Republic FC beats Wilmington on Saturday, it will host a semifinal match Sept. 20 against the winner of Saturday’s Rochester Rhinos-Los Angeles Galaxy II quarterfinal. The Galaxy is seeded third; Rochester sixth.

Regular-season champion and top seed Orlando City is hosting No. 8 Harrisburg and No. 5 Charleston is at No. 4 Richmond in Saturday’s other quarterfinals.