Republic FC will face a mountain in more ways than one when it plays at the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Friday night.
It will be the first time Sacramento has played at an altitude of more than a mile, and it must do so against a team that is 8-2-1 at home in the USL and beat Republic FC 1-0 on Saturday at Bonney Field.
With the win, the Switchbacks FC (12-7-2, 38 points) moved into first place in the Western Conference, five points ahead of Sacramento (10-8-3).
Republic FC coach Paul Buckle said his team didn’t do anything special to prepare for the physical challenge in Colorado Springs, where the visitors’ bureau posts warnings to travelers about the effects of the thin air.
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“I’m following my usual weekly routine, which I don’t like to change,” said midfielder Rodrigo Lopez. “I like to hydrate a lot anyway. It’s obviously an important game, so it’s more about being mentally ready.”
Lopez said Republic FC can’t afford to yield an early goal, as it did on Saturday. Rony Argueta scored in the third minute, and the first-year franchise rode his 25-yard blast to victory by bunkering in defensively and taking just two more shots.
You’ve got to be careful not to get carried away with it because it can be disruptive. But it’s certainly a useful tool when you are going to play at altitude.
Paul Buckle, Republic FC coach, regarding the USL’s five-substitution rule
“It’s going to come down to us keeping the ball and running with the ball,” Lopez said. “We don’t want to be chasing around and getting tired in the first 20 or 30 minutes. It would be good to get an early goal and sit on it a little bit and force them to chase.”
Buckle said he may take advantage of a rule unique to the USL that allows teams up to five substitutes instead of the traditional three under FIFA bylaws. The USL adopted the more liberal substitution rule more than 20 years ago because of the punishing travel and scheduling.
“It’s taken a little bit to get used to that,” said Buckle, who as a player and coach hadn’t previously encountered the five-substitution rule. “It’s good; it’s interesting. You’ve got to be careful not to get carried away with it because it can be disruptive. But it’s certainly a useful tool when you are going to play at altitude.”
While Buckle said his 25-man roster is deep, Sacramento actually is down one player (teams are allowed 30 but can dress only 18 for a match). Republic FC announced Monday that it released forward David Estrada, a five-year MLS veteran who signed with the team in March.
Estrada had been a mainstay under former coach Preki, starting 20 matches (17 in USL play), with three goals and three assists. But Estrada, 27, didn’t suit up in Buckle’s first two USL matches.
“It’s tough, but I want to be true to players,” Buckle said. “If you are someone like David in your mid-20s, you want to be starting. But I’m keen not to block the pathway for our younger players, and we do have seven strikers on the club.
“I decided it was right for David to move on for us, and it was great that David saw it that way, too.”
I’m not worried. We’re going to make the playoffs.
Rodrigo Lopez, Republic FC midfielder
Republic FC, the defending USL champion, will enter Friday’s match tied for either fifth or sixth place with the Orange County Blues FC, depending on how Tulsa Roughnecks FC fares tonight against the last-place Real Monarchs SLC. Tulsa trails Republic FC and Orange County by one point in the highly competitive Western Conference. The top six teams in each conference reach the playoffs.
“I’m not worried,” Lopez said. “We’re going to make the playoffs. Obviously we’re looking to finish in the top two so we can play at home and give the fans some games in a playoff environment. But even if you are the No. 6 seed, anything can happen in the playoffs.”