Republic FC players hope core group can stay together

The championship is won, the celebrations are over and the contracts have expired, but for many of the Republic FC players, they hope it’s not a one-and-done experience.

“We’re on our own now, but I know a lot of the guys would like to come back,” said midfielder Rodrigo Lopez after Friday’s championship parade and ceremony on the steps of the Capitol. “I’m pretty sure most will come back. To keep a winning franchise, you need your core.”

Lopez will return to his Santa Barbara hometown for a few weeks but plans to spend most of the off-season in Sacramento, where he expects to be involved with a number of Republic FC community activities.

The 10-year veteran would like to return next season, but the former Chivas USA and Portland Timbers player could be a target of a Major League Soccer team after earning USL Pro first team honors as well as being a Player of the Year finalist.

He said he received an MLS offer in July but wouldn’t reveal from which team.

“I just knew there was something special going on here, and I had to stay,” Lopez said. “I knew we were on the type of run where we could win a championship. I don’t regret my decision. It was a very hard one. But at the end of day, I did the right thing.”

Forward Thomas Stewart expects to be in Sacramento next season. He’s returning home to Northern Ireland through the remainder of the year but plans to return to California in early January.

“This club wants to go places,” Stewart said. “I think it is important for players to have a bit of a settlement, to have a base for a couple of years to get the best of them. Sacramento has given that for me, and I want to do the same.”

Only a handful of Republic FC players have area roots.

One is 31-year-old forward Chad Bartlome. He grew up in the Grass Valley area, competed at Oregon State but spent most of his pro career in Switzerland.

Bartlome, recently married, says he would prefer to stay home rather than return to Europe.

“Talking in the locker room, most guys want to stay,” Bartlome said. “The chemistry worked. We all got along so well, which you don’t see that often in this level of sports.”

But he said players also have to consider what’s best for their careers. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of his teammates are targets of other teams.

“Teams are going to be looking at us because we had a lot of success, and we have a lot of good players,” Bartlome said. “Guys showed they belong in this league or higher.

“But if we can keep the core of the group together and make some additions, we’re going to be back next year way stronger.”

Which players return could hinge on whether Republic FC becomes an MLS team. Club officials are expecting MLS to make an announcement in December about Sacramento’s fate.

Republic FC technical director Graham Smith thinks a number of current Republic FC players could succeed in MLS, most certainly if they were playing for Sacramento.

“I think from the current squad we’d take quite a few,” Smith said. “Some of them are deserving of the chance. Some can more than survive at that level.”

(Republic FC coach Preki was even bolder during an MLS podcast show earlier this week. He said Republic FC not only could compete in MLS now, it would make the playoffs.)

If Republic FC has to remain in USL Pro for a few more seasons, Smith said the organization won’t try to stop players from moving to the higher level.

“It would be morally wrong to do that,” Smith said. “Three years in a footballer’s life is a long time.”

Graham also said that because of the team’s monumental first-season success, a number of talented players are showing interest in coming to Sacramento, especially if the team becomes an MLS franchise.

“Because of technology, soccer people around the world know what’s going on,” Smith said. “Sacramento has become a name. I’ve been receiving contact from people in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Central America. We’ve got people looking out for us.”

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