Republic FC made a splash in 2014 by winning the USL championship in its inaugural season.
Now the team’s United States Soccer Development Academy 17/18 team is creating similar buzz in its first season.
Sacramento moved into the lead of the nine-team West Conference Northwest Division after road wins over the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers academy teams last weekend. Sacramento (15-4-5, 50 points), which has won seven consecutive matches, has moved one point ahead of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Academy 17/18 (13-1-10, 49 points), an established residency program.
Republic FC can maintain that lead, and possibly increase it, when it plays the San Jose Earthquakes (8-10-5, 29 points) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Cosumnes River College.
The team’s performance is remarkable, considering it plays in a two-division Western Conference that features six Major League Soccer-sponsored academy programs.
“Knowing the history of the other academies and to be in first place at this point might seem surprising to some people,” Republic FC academy director Rod Underwood said. “But we have a great coaching staff, and our guys have really performed, really developed.”
Republic FC’s 25-man senior team has melded under coach Benjamin Ziemer, despite coming from 18 college, high school, charter and independent study programs.
“It’s a tribute to our coaches and director Rod,” said defender Nabilai Kibunguchy, a senior at Cosumnes Oaks High School who will play at UC Davis in the fall. “It’s pretty exciting, but we’re just focused on the next game.”
Forward Joe Restani, the leading scorer with nine goals, said the team has made tremendous strides since starting the season 1-3-4.
“Our coaches are great, and we get along with each other really well,” said Restani, a Pleasant Grove senior who will play at Saint Mary’s this fall. “We all have the same mentality in that we want to be professionals. We’ve just gotten better and better from where we were at the beginning of the year.”
With eight regular-season matches to go, Sacramento is in strong position to reach the playoffs that begin in late June in Frisco, Texas.
Republic FC’s two other age-group development teams also are doing well.
The 15/16 team (11-10-3), coached by Brian Willey, is 4-0-1 in its last five matches and has moved into playoff contention. The 13/14s, headed by Simon Elliott, are 13-4-2.
“Everybody has done a great job, and the academy has hit the ground running,” said Republic FC coach Paul Buckle, who also is the club’s technical director. “We wanted to come out and be competitive, and we’ve been more than competitive.”
Republic FC’s academy program is expanding to six teams next season with the addition of a U-13 team and two U-12 teams.
All MLS teams have academy feeder programs, but Republic FC is one of only a handful of minor-league teams to make the investment. The USL team picks up all the costs.
“It was a bold move,” Buckle said. “It’s expensive and anything we want to do, we want to do correctly. So we wanted to show the players, parents and coaches from day one that we mean business.”
Republic FC’s primary goals are to produce eventual players for the first team and help develop players for the United States men’s senior and youth national teams. Six Republic FC players are in national team pools.
Restani and Kibunguchy are among a handful of Republic FC academy players who already have gotten a first-hand look at professional soccer. Both trained and played with Republic FC during the preseason and were with the team for friendlies against the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes at Bonney Field, though neither saw action.
“It was a breathtaking experience,” Kibunguchy said. “I’ll remember it forever. It just makes me want to keep going, because I hope to one day play on Bonney Field.”
Buckle said it’s important to give the club’s promising youth players a look at what he calls “big-boy football.”
“We want the kids to see that if they work hard there is opportunity and a pathway into the first team,” Buckle said. “We want to fast-track the players as much as we can.”
Most of the older 17/18 players will compete at colleges in the fall; eight already have signed NCAA letters of intent, including defender David Burns, a U.S. national U-20 pool member headed to Cal.
“At the moment, the college route is important,” Buckle said. “There are no guarantees in football, with injuries and all the setbacks as a professional athlete. But you look at (Kibunguchy) and Burns, and we already see two potential center backs for us. So we are going to continue to closely monitor all the boys’ development when they go away to college.”