In signing Mike da Fonte, Republic FC is getting a veteran defender who isn’t likely to take anything for granted.
The 24-year-old Ossining, N.Y., native has battled through his share of disappointments and rejections in fulfilling his lifelong dream of being a professional soccer player.
He bounced from three college soccer programs, never quite getting the hang of the balance between soccer and class work. He had several unsuccessful tryouts with American pro teams and was so short of money at one point he moved back home with his parents.
A brief stint with the amateur Premier Development League Westchester Flames led to his first professional opportunity. He played for two years with two lower-division clubs in Portugal, where he learned that trying to keep a job was a “kill-or-be-killed” fight, every day.
That mentality helped him land a spot from a tryout in February with the newly formed USL Red Bulls II, the affiliate of the Major League Soccer New York Red Bulls.
The 6-foot da Fonte developed into one of the team’s top players. He led the Red Bulls II in minutes (2,003), games started (23) and was second in games played (25). He often wore the captain’s armband for a team that finished fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 12-10-6 record and made the playoffs.
He also experienced his biggest career highlight to date when he was called up to the Red Bulls’ MLS team and played 45 minutes in New York’s 4-2 win over defending English Premier League champion Chelsea in a friendly.
Da Fonte comes to Republic FC to help boost a defensive back line that took a hit when two-year center defender Mickey Daly signed with the Philadelphia Union’s new USL team, Bethlehem Steel FC. Daly was an all-USL second-team selection last season.
Bursting at seams – The USL continues its dramatic growth with the announcement last week that it has tentatively approved an application by the owners of the NBA’s Spurs to operate a team at 8,000-seat Toyota Field in San Antonio this season.
The USL has jumped from 24 teams to 31 in less than a year.
During Republic FC’s inaugural USL championship season in 2014, there were 14 teams.
The yet-to-be named San Antonio franchise will join FC Cincinnati, Orlando City B, Rio Grande Valley FC, Swope Park Rangers KC and Bethlehem Steel FC as new teams scheduled to play this season.
That will bump the league to at least 29 teams for 2016. The Austin Aztex, who played in 2015, are on hiatus through at least 2016 as they work toward building a soccer-specific stadium after their stadium was damaged during stormy weather earlier this year. Reno is scheduled to join the league in 2017.
Republic FC coach and technical director Paul Buckle said it’s no surprise the league is thriving despite more than doubling in size in two years.
He calls USL president and fellow Englishman Jake Edwards a visionary.
“Jake has done an unbelievable job,” Buckle said. “The standard of play has gone up even with the incredible growth. That’s a clear indication of what the game is doing here.”
While there have been mixed reactions to the MLS-affiliate sides – most have meager fan bases – Buckle said it’s made the league more competitive.
Goalkeeper battle? – Buckle said the team filled a key hole with the signing of goalkeeper Evan Newton. He played last season for the OKC Energy FC and was a USL Goalkeeper of the Year candidate after finishing No. 2 in shutouts with 10 and saves with 89. Newton, 27, spent a season with the Houston Dynamo and two with the San Jose Earthquakes before playing the last two seasons in the USL.
But while Buckle is pleased to have the accomplished player aboard, he hasn’t anointed Newton the No. 1 keeper.
Buckle said he was pleased with how two-year journeyman backup Dominik Jakubek performed after starting goalkeeper Patrick McLain went down with a shoulder injury late in the season. Jakubek, 36, allowed one goal and had 11 saves in the team’s last four regular-season USL contests.
“He was outstanding for us,” Buckle said. “I’m delighted to have Evan on board. He’s got a good pedigree, and he really wanted to come to Sacramento. But the way I look at it is we have two top goalkeepers, we’re going to need both, and you have to have that competition. It’s all good. It’s very healthy.”