“I’m falling apart,” Republic FC forward Justin Braun said with a slight smile while stretching a sore right hamstring during a practice at Cosumnes River College earlier this season. “I’m getting old.”
Braun is only 27, young even for a professional soccer player. But what has gotten old for the former Major League Soccer forward is the amount of time he has spent watching instead of playing this season because of injury.
The Salt Lake City native and team captain has played in only 21 of the team’s 36 matches entering Saturday’s USL Pro playoff opener against the Wilmington Hammerheads FC at Bonney Field.
Braun missed more than a month after injuring his right hamstring against the Los Angeles Galaxy II in Carson on April 13, one night after playing 74 minutes against the Orange County Blues FC in Irvine.
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He also missed a match in June with a right quad injury, then sat out the team’s last four league matches with a fractured small right toe.
Ironically, the last match he played in was Aug. 20 at home against Wilmington. Braun played 90 minutes in Republic FC’s 2-0 win three nights after breaking his toe in a 6-1 victory against the Orange County Blues, also at Bonney.
“I got kicked in the foot against the Blues, then it kept getting worse against Wilmington,” said Braun, who has six goals and one assist. “I’ve had one or two small injuries in a season before, but nothing like this. It’s been a bit frustrating.”
While still day-to-day, he hopes to play against the Hammerheads. A win Saturday would give Republic FC a home semifinal match on Sept. 20 at Bonney Field.
He tested his foot in practice Thursday and said it felt OK, but he wasn’t ready to commit to being healthy enough to help the team.
With injuries, player suspensions, scheduled matches within a day or two of one another and MLS loan call-ups throughout the season, Republic FC coach Preki is used to juggling the lineup.
For the most part, the team has played well without Braun, something he appreciates.
“Our play doesn’t drop at all,” Braun said. “I think one of the biggest reasons for our success is our depth.”
Still, two home losses, sandwiched between a 12-match USL Pro home unbeaten streak, came without Braun in the lineup.
Preki agrees that Braun’s talent and six years of MLS experience would help if he can play Saturday.
“He brings a commitment to every play,” Preki said. “When he’s fit, he’s sharp, he’s dangerous. He creates space for other players. He brings a lot.”
Preki, then coaching Chivas USA, discovered the 6-foot-2 Braun playing in a men’s amateur tournament in Southern California. Braun played in 96 matches and scored 24 goals during his four-year stint with Chivas USA.
When a disappointing season with Toronto FC ended last year, Braun decided to join Preki and the minor-league franchise with major-league dreams.
He says it was a good decision, despite the run of bad luck with his health.
“It’s been pretty standard with every team Preki has coached,” Braun said. “He’s been able to get the most out of the players by getting them to buy into his system and how he wants them to play. He sees strengths in players other coaches can’t see. And he sees how those strengths can work to help the whole team.”
While Braun said coming to Republic FC was a good decision to reboot his career – Portland Timbers goalkeeper loan player Jake Gleeson still considers him “MLS quality” – Braun won’t say what his plans are for next season.
“I’ve enjoyed my time here,” Braun said. “What has happened in a short five-month period, and what’s going to happen into next year with all the MLS talk, has been exciting for the club, the city and the players. It’s been awesome. As for my future, it’s wait and see. Right now I just want to see if I can get back on the field for these playoff games.”