Republic FC spoiled its fans last season.
The sellout crowds that packed Hughes Stadium and Bonney Field almost always saw the home side prevail in its USL matches.
Sacramento lost its regular-season opener to the Harrisburg City Islanders at Hughes Stadium and its regular-season finale to the Los Angeles Galaxy II at Bonney Field. In between, Republic FC was unbeaten in 12 USL home matches. Then Sacramento won three playoff matches at Bonney Field en route to the USL championship in its inaugural season, finishing 13-2-2 in USL home games.
It’s been a different story this season. Republic FC (10-8-4, 34 points) is 6-4-1 at Bonney Field entering Saturday night’s match against Real Monarchs SLC (2-13-7, 13 points) and battling to stay in the Western Conference race. Republic FC is in seventh place; the top six qualify for the playoffs.
But the players insist there’s been no drop-off in effort or the quality of their play at home. Instead, opponents are coming into Sacramento with a common game plan – score a quick goal, then pack everyone into the box defensively (“parking the bus,” in soccer parlance) to thwart Republic FC’s superior passing, possession and creativity with the ball.
“Last year, we were new in the league and teams didn’t know anything about us, so they actually came and played soccer,” defensive midfielder Ivan Mirkovic said. “This year, every single team has come to Bonney not to play soccer but to hit us, foul us and just to defend.”
In 1-0 home losses to the Austin Aztex and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, Sacramento outshot opponents by a combined 31-7. Colorado Springs scored in the third minute and took only two more shots. The Aztex opened the second half with a 58th-minute goal and never took another shot.
Orange County Blues FC went up 2-1 before halftime, then held on for the win while playing physically. The Blues committed 13 fouls to Republic FC’s six and played the final 30 minutes a man down after Luka Petricevic’s red-card ejection. Even during the emotion of Preki’s last game as coach, a crushing 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy II, Republic FC outshot its rival 17-11 and committed just seven penalties to Los Angeles’ 13.
Republic FC goalkeeper Patrick McLain, who was with OC Blues FC last season, said his old team didn’t pay much attention to how Republic FC played in the first two matches that ended in a split. Orange County won 2-1 in mid-April in Irvine, and Sacramento prevailed 2-1 in early May at Hughes Stadium.
“The first two times we played them, we didn’t make any changes, and we were more focused on what we were doing,” McLain said. “The third time, there was an attempt at a more strategic approach.”
The Blues played more defensively in that July match at Bonney Field. Though Sacramento dominated possession and outshot the Blues 12-5, Republic FC needed a goal by Octavio Guzman in stoppage time to prevail 2-1.
The contrast in how teams play Republic FC at Bonney Field and at home was on display in the Aug. 14 match against Switchbacks FC in Colorado Springs.
The teams tied 3-3 six days after Republic FC’s 1-0 loss at Bonney Field in which Colorado Springs took only three shots. In Colorado Springs, Switchbacks FC took 18 shots and led 3-1 in the 82nd minute before Mickey Daly and Mirkovic scored goals as Republic FC rallied for the draw.
“We scored early and the game was just wide open, so it must have been fun to watch,” said McLain, who had a team-record nine saves. “Certainly the altitude played a role. Guys get tired; that opens the game up.”
While Republic FC players may be frustrated with opposing teams’ tactics at Bonney Field, coach Paul Buckle understands why they’re doing it.
“If a coach sees a team come to Bonney Field that is successful, they have every right to look at it and do the same,” Buckle said. “And that’s what’s happening. Teams are coming in and parking the bus and, at times, they’re parking two buses. It’s a challenge, but we’ve got to find ways of breaking teams down, staying patient and not getting frustrated to make it easy for a team to score against us.”
It’s unlikely Real Monarchs will deviate from visiting teams’ strategy. In a May 30 match at Bonney Field, Max Rauhofer scored in the seventh minute for Real Monarchs before David Estrada tied it in the 19th minute. The match ended in a 1-1 draw even though Sacramento outshot Salt Lake City 20-4.
Though last in the Western Conference, Real Monarchs have played well against Sacramento. They have a win and two ties in three matches, potentially costing Republic FC seven points, which would put Sacramento at the top of the standings.
“It does drive us crazy,” McLain said. “To their credit, they have executed their game plan every time we’ve played them.”
In other words, they have done a good job of parking the bus.