Republic FC gets help in tight Western Conference race

It’s been a pivotal week for Republic FC in its bid to earn a USL playoff spot and possibly win the Western Conference title.

It started last Saturday, when Republic FC beat the first-place Seattle Sounders FC 2 2-0 behind Tommy Stewart’s brace at Bonney Field. The win moved Republic FC to within three points of Seattle and LA Galaxy II in a Western Conference race in which seven teams are within six points of the top spot entering this weekend’s play.

Los Angeles failed to pull ahead of the pack Tuesday when it lost to OKC Energy FC 2-0 in Oklahoma City. Then Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC missed its opportunity to take over first place when it lost 1-0 at home to Tulsa Roughnecks FC on Wednesday.

The loss kept Colorado Springs in third, one point ahead of Energy FC and two ahead of Republic FC (10-7-3, 33 points), which hosts the Switchbacks (11-7-2, 35 points) on Saturday at Bonney Field.

“The results have definitely gone our way,” Republic FC defender Mickey Daly said. “And when we beat Seattle, that just helped us move in the right direction. It’s always exciting to be in a battle for the top spot. We know it’s coming down to the end, so we need to get wins and points however we can if we hope to be the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.”

Republic FC and Switchbacks FC will play again in six days in Colorado Springs.

Both are important matches for Sacramento because sixth-place Tulsa Roughnecks FC is just two points behind Republic FC and seventh-place Orange County Blues FC is three points behind in the 12-team division. Only six teams qualify for the postseason, and Sacramento has only eight matches remaining.

“Yeah, the league is tight, everybody knows that,” Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said. “It’s a stronger league than last year, which is why we’ve got to keep improving and focus solely on the next game.”

Colorado Springs, a USL expansion team, had a six-match winning streak midway through the season but is 1-2-2 in its last five matches. Switchbacks FC leads the conference in scoring with 39 goals and is second to the Galaxy II in goals allowed with 23.

Colorado Springs is led by Luke Vercollone, a midfielder who leads the team with 10 goals and seven assists. He played his previous seven seasons with the USL Richmond Kickers. First-year pro Miguel Gonzalez, a forward, has eight goals and five assists.

Daly expects a challenging match, and not just because Colorado Springs has a number of USL and North American Soccer League veterans.

“Pretty much everyone comes in motivated and wants to beat us, especially with our stadium and our atmosphere,” Daly said. “Being the defending champs just adds to it.”

Buckle said most of his focus has been on improving his team rather than planning for opponents. What’s impressed him is how hard his 26 players are making it for him to make lineup decisions.

“You are never going to make wholesale changes when you win a game,” Buckle said. “At the same time, it’s very tough because every player has given me everything he has in training this week. ... The pleasing thing for me is that I trust that every single player that puts on the shirt can come in and do the job for us.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP