Even as a first-year club that came together in a matter of a few months and won a USL Pro expansion record 17 matches, Republic FC players and coaches still felt they were good enough to win the third division league’s regular-season title.
Instead, Sacramento finished second to Major League Soccer-bound Orlando City, the USL Pro three-time regular-season champions.
But the playoffs are a second-chance opportunity for the team that hopes to one day follow Orlando City into the MLS.
Second-seeded Republic FC took the first step toward a potential championship match appearance on Saturday night at Bonney Field.
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Behind two goals by Nemanja Vukovic and one by Mickey Daly, both center backs, and another by forward Adam Jahn, Republic FC topped the No. 7 Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads 4-1 in front of a crowd of 8,000 raucous fans ignited by the Tower Bridge Battalion rooting section.
It was Republic FC’s 13th consecutive home sellout, and it comes before a visit by MLS officials to Sacramento later this week.
Republic FC will host a semifinal match Saturday night against their California rivals, the Los Angeles Galaxy II, 2-1 winners over the Rochester (N.Y.) Rhinos in Southern California.
“There’s three steps to get to the final,” said Preki, the Republic FC coach. “Step one was tonight, and we jumped over that step. Now the next game is the Galaxy. It’s going to be a tough game, a hard game. We have to prepare ourselves.”
Republic FC is 2-1-1 against the Galaxy II in the regular season, but Los Angeles snapped Sacramento’s 10-match unbeaten streak 2-1 in the last regular season match Sept. 6 at Bonney.
If Republic FC can get past Los Angeles, it will host the championship match the following week after top-seeded Orlando City SC was upset 1-0 by the No. 8 Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders in Florida.
Against Wilmington, Republic FC came out strong and dominated play through the first half before Vukovic scored in front of the Wilmington net from a Max Alvarez corner kick in the 40th minute.
Earlier, Thomas Stewart and Jahn put shots off the crossbar as Republic FC outshot Wilmington 10-4 and had seven corner kicks to the Hammerheads’ two in the opening 45 minutes.
Getting the first goal was important. Republic FC was 9-0-0 when scoring first at home entering the match.
But Republic FC goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, who had two brilliant point-blank saves in the first half, was called for taking down Samuel Ochoa on a one-against-one in the box in the 58th minute, and Ochoa converted the penalty kick for a 1-1 tie.
“I felt the game, in all fairness, should have been over in the first half,” Preki said. “But somehow we make it difficult for ourselves. Then we let them back in, and we had a fight on our hands. But I thought the team responded very well.”
The tie didn’t last for long.
Daly put Republic FC back up 2-1 in the 64th minute on a header from the left side off a Rodrigo Lopez corner kick, then three minutes later Vukovic headed in a goal in the six-yard box from a Stewart header.
Jahn, just back from a northwest trip with the San Jose Earthquakes, finished things off with a diving header in front of the goal from a cross by defender James Kiffe in the 88th minute.
Republic FC outshot Wilmington 24 to 11 and had 13 corner kicks to four for the Hammerheads.