Soccer

Rivals Republic FC, LA Galaxy II to clash in USL playoff opener

Republic FC’s Rodrigo Lopez, at center, is surrounded by teammates on the sidelines as they celebrates his third goal on a penalty to go ahead 3-2 during the second half against LA Galaxy II in the second round of the USL playoffs at Bonney Field on Sept. 20, 2014.
Republic FC’s Rodrigo Lopez, at center, is surrounded by teammates on the sidelines as they celebrates his third goal on a penalty to go ahead 3-2 during the second half against LA Galaxy II in the second round of the USL playoffs at Bonney Field on Sept. 20, 2014. Sacramento Bee file

Perhaps it’s a Southern vs. Northern California thing. Or maybe it’s because both clubs were formed at the same time last year and immediately became impact teams in the USL.

It also could be as simple as the fact that the players, coaches and fans of Republic FC and the LA Galaxy II love to push each others’ buttons.

The edgy rivalry will be renewed on Saturday night when fourth-seeded Sacramento (13-8-7, 46 points) hosts fifth-seeded Los Angeles (14-11-3, 45 points) in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs at Bonney Field.

Although Republic FC leads the two-year series 6-2-1, including a 3-1 advantage this year, the Galaxy II embarrassed Sacramento 4-0 in Preki’s farewell game at packed Bonney Field on July 11.

Not only was it the worst loss in the Republic’s short history, Los Dos had several academy players filling in for starters called up to the Galaxy’s top team for a friendly the same night.

But Sacramento holds the most important win in the series, 3-2 over the Galaxy II in last year’s semifinals behind Rodrigo Lopez’s hat trick and two disputed penalty-kick calls at Bonney Field.

After the heartbreaking loss in which Los Dos blew a 2-0 lead, Galaxy II coach Curt Onalfo called the officials “an absolute disgrace.”

But Saturday’s match will produce a new wrinkle. Paul Buckle enters his first Galaxy II match as Republic FC’s coach and says he comes in with a “clean sheet” and is looking ahead, not back.

What’s gone on in the past is gone. The team that performs the best on Saturday night is the team that’s moving through to the next round of the playoffs.

Republic FC coach Paul Buckle, on the rivalry with LA Galaxy II

“What’s gone on in the past is gone,” said Buckle, who is 4-1-4 since becoming Republic’s coach. “The team that performs the best on Saturday night is the team that’s moving through to the next round of the playoffs.”

The winner will advance to next week’s semifinals against the top-seeded Orange County Blues in Irvine.

Although the Galaxy II is 1-3-0 in its last four matches, Republic FC is riding a seven-match unbeaten streak (3-0-4) and has posted shutouts in its last three matches.

But Sacramento failed to earn the Western Conference’s top seed and a playoff bye after playing Arizona United SC and the Orange County Blues to scoreless draws.

Buckle thinks the strategy changes now that teams must win to advance to the semifinals.

7Straight matches Republic FC has won or tied

“All the ‘parking the bus’ (defensive play) we’ve had to put up with during the regular season goes away because the playoffs are about winning,” Buckle said.

Lopez has been a force against the Galaxy II. He has scored seven goals in the series, and two of his six game winners this season have come against Los Angeles. But Republic FC’s team leader in goals with 10 has scored just once since his two-goal performance June 25 in a 3-1 win at Tulsa.

Buckle said Lopez has played well despite scoring less as Sacramento has evolved into a more striker-driven offense. Nine of the Republic’s 14 goals since Buckle took over have come from forwards Justin Braun (five), Thomas Stewart (three) and Mark Sherrod (one). Still, Buckle expects Lopez to have an impact in the postseason.

“RoRo is an incredible big-game player,” Buckle said. “He did his business last year in the playoffs, and game-changer players like him want to step forward in games like these.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

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