Soccer

Republic FC’s defense comes clean

Equipment manager Jason Corbally constantly tracks down Republic FC players after practice to collect their dirty, sweaty togs.

But Republic FC has been spotless on the pitch this season.

Through its first three USL matches, Sacramento has three clean sheets, the popular soccer vernacular for a shutout.

Republic FC is the only team in the 29-team league that has not allowed a goal this season. Even more impressive, Republic FC has allowed only two shots on goal.

“It’s staying organized throughout 90 minutes,” midfielder Danny Barrera said. “It’s everybody’s willingness to work for each other and to stay in the right positions. It’s made us hard to break down and why we’ve produced those clean sheets.”

Defender Derek Foran credits coach Paul Buckle for instilling a tougher mindset throughout the team.

“It’s not how the individuals play. It’s how the manager wants us to play as a squad,” Foran said. “Since the start of training, the manager has been drilling us on the defensive points he wants to get across. And we’re a lot fitter than we were at this time last year.”

The scoreless streak is even more impressive considering Republic FC lost four defensive starters from last season, including three who were keys during Sacramento’s USL championship in 2014.

Central defenders Mickey Daly (All-USL second team in 2015) and Nemanja Vukovic (USL Defender of the Year in 2014) went to the Bethlehem Steel FC and Indy Eleven, respectively, during the offseason. Goalkeeper Patrick McLain also left in the offseason for the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer, and defensive midfielder Ivan Mirkovic moved to the Orange County Blues FC just before the team’s USL home opener April 2.

But Foran, a reserve last year who now starts, said chemistry trumps talent.

“We lost a lot,” Foran said. “Mickey and Nemanja are fantastic players. So was RoRo (midfielder Rodrigo Lopez). But we saw last year that you can have all the quality individuals in the world but without that fighting spirit, you can’t get it done. This year we have team spirit and equally good players. It’s a lot better formula for me.”

Foran and newcomer Chris Christian are filling the roles vacated by Daly and Vukovic in central defense. Veteran backup Dominik Jakubek is the starting goalkeeper and former San Jose Earthquakes player JJ Koval and utility standout Agustin Cazarez have been stellar in the defensive midfield.

Even while stopping opponents, outside defenders Emrah Klimenta and James Kiffe have joined the attack and created problems for opposing defenses with their crosses and occasional runs into the box for shots.

“It’s just picking and choosing our time when to go and when to stay,” Barrera said. “I think that’s a credit to all of us in our decision making.”

Republic FC’s defense has helped overshadow the team’s lack of offense. While going 2-0-1, Sacramento has scored just two goals. Sacramento won 1-0 at the Seattle Sounders FC 2 in the season opener and downed Arizona United SC 1-0 in its home opener before tying 0-0 at the Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 last Sunday.

“I’ll take a 1-nil win every day of the week,” said Republic FC assistant head coach Adam Smith, who is filling in this week while Buckle is with his wife, Rebecca Lowe, as they prepare for the birth of their son. “And coming away with a draw on the road and getting another clean sheet was an important thing. That shows a lot of character in the team and the organization of the team.”

Republic FC could move into at least a tie for first place in the Western Conference with a victory Sunday against the winless Portland Timbers 2 (0-3-0) at the University of Portland’s Merlo Field. Portland is in last place in the Western Conference.

But Foran is anticipating a slugfest.

“I wouldn’t read anything into the league table at this moment,” he said. “They are fighting for their lives, and we are, too. They need a win, and we want to continue the run we’re on.”

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

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