Soccer

Late arrival James Kiffe has found a home with Republic FC

Republic FC defender James Kiffe figures he hit the trifecta.

In addition to signing his first professional contract late in the season with a playoff-qualifying team that has Major League Soccer aspirations, the Santa Barbara native has started the last four matches at left back.

That included Saturday’s 4-1 USL Pro playoff victory over the Wilmington Hammerheads at Bonney Field in which the former Big West Conference Defender of the Year assisted on Adam Jahn’s goal in the 88th minute.

Kiffe, 25, likely will start again in Saturday’s semifinal against LA Galaxy II at sold-out Bonney Field.

But there’s an added bonus for Kiffe, who signed in mid-August and is rooming with teammates Jake Gleeson and Steven Evans, both on loan from the Portland Timbers.

Normally, the new guy could expect a boatload of chores, from washing dishes to vacuuming to taking out the trash.

Not so.

“Stevie does all the cleaning for me and Jake,” Kiffe said. “He’s the house mom. I walked into a good situation. I didn’t realize that came with the apartment.”

Kiffe’s stint with Republic FC has been a reversal after some challenging times since he starred at soccer-mad UC Santa Barbara, where he once played in front of 16,000 fans against rival UCLA.

Kiffe was selected in the 2012 MLS supplemental draft by the Earthquakes but wasn’t offered a position after a three-month trial.

He spent another three months on trial with a pro team in Slovenia but never got a contract offer.

He returned to the United States at the beckoning of Sporting Kansas City, only to learn the MLS team had signed another defender.

Shortly thereafter, Kiffe spent nearly a year recovering from painful tendinitis in both ankles and feet.

“I had posterior tibial tendinitis and was trying to rebuild my arches in physical therapy, but I started too early and crushed my feet,” Kiffe said. “I wasn’t even sure I’d ever be able to play again.”

But after extended rest, Kiffe started to feel better, and in the spring, he rejoined the amateur Ventura County Fusion as a team captain. He had played for the Fusion, which has a strong link with Republic FC, off and on for four years.

Republic FC technical director Graham Smith is a former Fusion coach and president, and defender Mickey Daly and midfielders Ivan Mirkovic and Rodrigo Lopez are former Fusion players.

When Fusion was eliminated from the Premier Development League playoffs in late July, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Kiffe almost signed with struggling OKC Energy FC, like Republic FC a USL Pro expansion team.

Considering how well Republic FC was playing, Kiffe figured Oklahoma City might be a better option for playing time.

“Then Graham calls and tells me, ‘What the heck are you doing – why aren’t you staying in California?’ ” Kiffe said. ‘I said, Aw, you’re right.’ Graham has been a huge proponent for me in the past. I made the right decision to come here.”

But Kiffe wasn’t expecting much playing time because Republic FC was on a long unbeaten streak that reached 10 matches before a 2-1 loss to LA Galaxy II in the regular-season finale Sept. 6.

But converted forward Chad Bartlome, who had played well for several matches pinch-hitting at left back, moved back to the top after late-season injuries to Justin Braun and Thomas Stewart.

“James is doing a pretty decent job,” Republic FC coach Preki said. “He’s a guy who has some talent and confidence. Right now I’m working with him to teach him how important it is to come every day and practice hard. Not every pass is going to be perfect, but in practice, every moment of effort has to be perfect.”

Kiffe wasn’t nervous when he made his debut Aug. 27 in a 3-1 win over the Charleston Battery before a sellout crowd of 8,000 at Bonney Field.

“I’m out of time to be nervous,” Kiffe said. “At a certain point, you have to believe in yourself. When I step on the field, I’m not worried about messing up or playing just OK. I’m thinking how am I going to make an impact. I’m worried about how I am going to help this team win.”

Knowing some of the players has helped Kiffe. Veteran Nemanja Vukovic’s willingness to share his knowledge has been a huge boost, too. The former Columbus Crew center back plays next to Kiffe.

Kiffe says Republic FC’s lack of egos and focus on winning a USL Pro championship made his transition easy.

“It is really a good place to be,” he said. “This is a tight-knit group with a common interest. Everyone wants to win.”

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