Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez and defender Nemanja Vukovic were named Tuesday to the 11-player All-USL Pro first team.
But during the first half of Saturday’s semifinal playoff match against Los Angeles Galaxy II, Lopez was playing less like a 10-year pro than a timid rookie in the eyes of Preki, Republic FC’s demanding coach.
Trailing 2-0, Lopez and his teammates sat in the locker room in stunned silence. Then Preki lit into them about playing scared.
“It was a great speech,” Lopez said at the team’s practice Tuesday. “He went at me the most – rightfully so, as one of the leaders of the team. I think I needed that.”
Republic FC responded with a strong second half, highlighted by Lopez’s hat trick, including the electrifying, game-winning, bending free kick in stoppage time.
What looked like the final match of the season for the Sacramento team 25 minutes earlier turned into a wild celebration for Republic FC players, coaches and fans at sold-out Bonney Field.
It may be minor-league soccer, but even Preki, the former Major League Soccer coach and one of the greatest players in United States soccer history, admitted being a little wide-eyed.
“It’s one of the most exciting moments in my career, especially given the fact that we have put this group together from out of nowhere,” Preki said. “It’s a special moment because of how far we have come as a team, as a group, since the first day. It’s amazing.”
Lopez’s first two goals came on penalty kicks, including a debated call on Galaxy II defender Joe Franco, who took a blast by Emrah Klimenta off his right elbow as he turned his back in the box.
Franco appeared to have his elbow tucked into his body, but referee Baboucarr Jallow blew his whistle and Lopez converted with an upper goal kick in the 85th minute to tie the score at 2-2.
“Yeah, we got one call that went our way,” Preki said. “But there were two other calls that didn’t go our way in the first half that could have been a penalty kick and a red card. In the end, everything balances out. It’s just nice that sometimes it goes your way. Give the players credit, they made the plays.”
The 3-2 victory over LA Galaxy II sent Republic FC into Saturday’s USL Pro championship against the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders at Bonney Field at Cal Expo.
Through the first three months of the season, Harrisburg was 3-7-4 and near the bottom of the standings. But the City Islanders’ 4-2 win over the Charlotte Eagles in their last regular-season match secured the eighth and final playoff berth, despite a 10-11-7 record.
Since then, the City Islanders have upset regular-season champion Orlando City 1-0 and No. 4 Richmond 3-2, both on the road. They also defeated Sacramento 2-1 in its inaugural home opener April 26 in front of an announced sellout crowd of 20,231 at Hughes Stadium.
“It’s a good, young team with good athletes, and they have players from the Philadelphia Union, so it will be a hard game,” Preki said. “They went into hard places and they got good results, so hats (off) to them.”
In the first meeting with Sacramento, forward Morgan Langley scored the game winner in the 52nd minute from an assist by Garret Pettis. Langley had a goal and an assist in Saturday’s win over Richmond.
Defender Richie Marquez and midfielders Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez are on loan from the Philadelphia Union.
The City Islanders have been in existence since 2004 and played in the first USL Pro championship match in 2011, losing to Orlando City on penalty kicks.
East Coast dominates – Lopez and Vukovic were the only two Republic FC players to make the USL Pro All-League first or second teams.
The fourth-place Richmond Kickers had the most overall players. Defender William Yomby, midfielder George Davis and forward Matthew Delicate made the first team, and goalkeeper Joe Willis the second.
Harrisburg’s lone representative is second-team defender Matt Bahner.
Vukovic started 27 of Republic FC’s 28 regular-season matches and had a goal and three assists. He added two playoff goals in a 4-1 win over Wilmington in the Sept. 13 quarterfinals.
Lopez scored 10 goals and had a team-leading eight assists during the regular season, then added an assist against Wilmington before his hat trick against the Galaxy II.