Despite MLS excitement, Republic FC is on task for tonight’s USL Pro semifinal

There’s been a lot of buzz this week for Republic FC as it continues its ever-promising bid to become a Major League Soccer franchise.

There was an unveiling and tour of a new downtown soccer stadium site and the addition of other deep-pocketed investors. There was the large and festive downtown party for MLS officials that included the team’s players and coaches.

The players insist the distractions won’t impact their performance in tonight’s USL Pro semifinal match against the third-seeded Los Angeles Galaxy II at soldout Bonney Field.

“It’s tough because before a big game you don’t really want to be doing stuff like that,” Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez said of Thursday evening’s welcome party. “But I’m glad we went out there to show our support and that we as players want MLS. It was nice to see a huge crowd, and closing the whole downtown block was cool.

“At the same time, our focus continues to be on our game. The best way we can do our talking is through our performance on the field.”

A Republic FC victory over Galaxy II would put second-seeded Sacramento in the championship match next weekend at Bonney Field against the winner of tonight’s semifinal in Richmond, Va., between the No. 4 Richmond Kickers and the No. 8 Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders, the team that upset regular-season champion Orlando City SC last weekend.

Republic FC and Galaxy II, the MLS’ first stand-alone junior team, have developed an intense rivalry during their four regular-season meetings.

“It starts with the whole Lakers-Kings thing,” Lopez said. “We’re both first-year teams that have done well.”

Both are headed by men with MLS coaching experience.

Republic FC’s Preki coached Chivas USA and Toronto FC; the Galaxy II’s Curt Onalfo coached Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United.

The two sides played to a 1-1 draw in their first match in Los Angeles before Republic FC won the next two matches, 3-0 in Los Angeles and 2-1 in front of an announced sellout crowd of 20,231 fans at Hughes Stadium.

In that match at Sacramento City College, the intensity level reached a boiling point. A brief skirmish broke out between the teams in the 51st minute with the score tied 1-1 after a couple of players collided going for the ball. Galaxy II’s Rafael Garcia was ejected with a red card.

But Los Angeles got some satisfaction of its own in the regular-season finale by beating Republic FC 2-1 earlier this month at Bonney Field. It snapped Republic FC’s 12-match USL Pro home unbeaten streak.

That match had little meaning for Sacramento, which had already locked up second place behind regular-season champion Orlando City.

Preki continued to rest injured forwards Thomas Stewart and Justin Braun. Adam Jahn, another forward, was with the San Jose Earthquakes in Portland.

Preki started a primarily reserve lineup that struggled in the first half as the Galaxy II took a 1-0 lead on Jack McBean’s 18th-minute goal. McBean, a Galaxy Homegrown player, added another goal in the 59th minute, but a dissatisfied Preki already was subbing in regulars who had played two nights earlier against OKC Energy.

Lopez was inserted two minutes after McBean’s second goal and helped give the team a spark. Max Alvarez, who subbed in at halftime, scored on a free kick in the 69th minute. Though Sacramento pressured constantly in the final 30 minutes, it couldn’t find the equalizer.

“You’ve got to give the Galaxy credit because they played well that night,” Preki said. “For us, we gave some guys an opportunity. Some did themselves a favor and some didn’t. In the second half, we made some changes, put in some fresh bodies, and we played a lot better.”

Galaxy II forward Chandler Hoffman, who scored 13 goals in 17 matches, is looking forward to facing Preki’s “incredibly organized” team and Bonney Field’s special atmosphere.

“I can’t wait to play in front of the big crowd,” Hoffman said in a USL Pro interview. “It’s going to be one of those games that mean a lot, one of those games where guys have to step up, man up to get us into the championship game.”

Hoffman, who scored a goal and an assist in the Galaxy II’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over the Rochester Rhinos last Saturday, also played in eight matches for Galaxy’s senior team this season.

Midfielders Raul Mendiola, defender Oscar Sorto and forward Bradford Jamieson IV also have seen playing time for the senior team, while McBean and forward Charlie Rugg played with the Galaxy in 2013.

“They’re a good team with a lot of good young players,” Preki said. “They are going to come here and try to prove a point. It’s going to be hard game. At this stage of the season, we can’t expect anything but hard games.”

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