Republic FC coach Paul Buckle walked off the Cosumnes River College pitch on Friday drenched in sweat.
For someone who spent most of his life managing teams in the cool environs of England, the steamy Sacramento summer is a new experience.
But Buckle, in his third week on the job, says he’s having a blast.
“I’m getting used to the heat,” Buckle said. “I’m enjoying every minute of it. I love living here. I like the group I’ve inherited and working with the players. ... So it’s been enjoyable all the way around.”
It will be even more rewarding for Buckle if his players can win in their return to USL play after a three-week hiatus on Saturday night against the formidable Seattle Sounders FC 2 at Bonney Field.
Sacramento enters the weekend in fourth place in the tightly contested Western Conference. Republic FC trails co-leaders Seattle and the LA Galaxy II and the third-place Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Sacramento has nine regular-season matches remaining as the second-year franchise defends its USL title.
Sacramento needs to finish in the top six of the 12-team conference to make the playoffs. The top two teams earn a first-round bye with the third- and fourth-place finishers earning a first-round home match.
Republic FC suffered a crushing 4-0 loss to the Galaxy II at Bonney Field in its last USL match July 11. It also was Preki’s send-off after he had announced he was leaving for a position somewhere in the United Kingdom. His landing spot has yet to be publicly announced.
Sacramento rebounded well in Buckle’s first two matches at Bonney Field, friendlies against English Premier League teams Sunderland AFC on July 14 and Newcastle United FC on July 18. Republic FC beat Sunderland 1-0 and lost to Newcastle United 1-0 on an own goal.
The players don’t think they’ve lost momentum or slipped too far in the standings despite the 14-day layoff. They haven’t given up on finishing at the top of the West despite entering the weekend six points behind the Sounders 2 and Galaxy II.
“If you look at the standings, a lot of the games went our way when we were off, so we’re not too far from first place,” said Rodrigo Lopez, who leads the team with nine goals and three assists. “I think winning (Saturday) will put us in a good place.”
Four of Republic FC’s next five matches are at home, including Aug. 8 against Colorado Springs.
Republic FC is 1-1 against the Sounders 2. Sacramento lost 4-2 at Seattle in the USL opener March 21, though without injured stars Lopez and Nemanja Vukovic. Republic FC beat Seattle 3-0 on May 9 at Bonney Field in arguably one of the team’s best performances of the season.
“It was one of our better efforts,” Lopez said. “It was one of those games where we came out of the locker room and played well from the start, and we got an early goal. But Seattle is good, so I don’t think they want that happening again.”
Seattle, which is 4-1-1 in its past six league matches, is tied for second among the USL’s 24 teams in goals scored with 37.
Argentinian midfielder Pablo Rossi leads the Sounders 2 with seven goals and two assists, and forward Sam Garza, a former San Jose Earthquakes player, has three goals and two assists.
“They’ve got threats,” Buckle said. “They’ve proved they can score goals.”
Buckle used his first 21 days as coach to add his own concepts to Preki’s pressing, possession-dominated system that was viewed by many as high reward but often high risk, too.
Lopez said the changes haven’t been radical.
“Paul is a guy who likes the ball at feet, so we’re going to play the soccer that we’ve always liked to play,” Lopez said. “Obviously there have been some changes, but a lot stays the same.”
Buckle dislikes the old-school, long-ball style of trying to poach a goal and then bunker in defensively.
“You can’t just be all-out attack or all-out defense,” Buckle said. “You’ve got to get the right balance. I want our players to express themselves because we are a very (skilled) team. But we’ve got to know how to use that so that when we attack, we hurt teams.”