Soccer

Republic notes: JJ Koval feels at home

JJ Koval talks the way he plays: Direct and to the point.

“I feel settled in,” the Republic FC’s defensive midfielder said. “I feel I’m getting to know the guys, know my role. It’s going well so far.”

Koval has played four matches since signing with Republic FC shortly after his release by the San Jose Earthquakes.

The former Stanford star is a key reason Republic FC has allowed a USL-best one goal and just three shots on goal during a 2-1-1 start. His performance has reinforced what Republic FC technical director Graham Smith and coach Paul Buckle knew all along – they got a gem.

Koval has helped orchestrate Republic FC’s muscular defensive play while moving the ball quickly enough to keep Sacramento dangerous on the offensive end. Sacramento has outshot opponents 41-17 (13-3 on goal) but has scored just twice.

In a nutshell, Koval does a lot of dirty work.

Earthquakes forwards Adam Jahn and Tommy Thompson loved playing with Koval i and had a chance to reunite with their friend twice this season while playing on loan for Republic FC.

“He is a huge addition for Republic,” Jahn said. “The work he does sometimes goes unnoticed by the fans. They don’t appreciate how much ground he covers or notice the passing lanes he blocks up. He does an immense amount of work.”

Thompson called Koval an “unsung hero” who will give Republic FC soccer purists “someone exciting to watch this season.”

While Koval said the job description for an effective defensive midfielder – also sometimes called a holding midfielder – involves a lot of things, flash isn’t among them.

“You need to be a good leader on the field; you have to work hard and cover a lot of ground defensively and be able to start the attack,” he said. “It’s getting the ball off the foot quickly and making clean, simple passes. It’s not a position where I’m going to be doing anything too tricky or fancy.”

Smith and Buckle are impressed by Koval’s physical presence, quick decision making, clean execution and potential to be a set-play scoring threat. But they also appreciate his attitude.

Koval, the No. 9 pick in the 2014 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, played in 39 matches and made 16 starts in his two seasons with the Earthquakes. But he’s come to Republic FC with the work ethic of a player fighting to keep his spot on the roster.

At 23 and featuring top-tier pro soccer experience, Koval could make the transition with Republic FC from the third-division USL to MLS should Sacramento get the expansion go-ahead.

“It’s never easy when you get someone who is hell-bent on having a career at a higher level,” Smith said. “But JJ is someone who could have gone to Europe. There were teams in Scandinavia that were interested in him. Instead he chose to come with us. It showed he had faith in Paul Buckle and the staff. He’s definitely a big part of the future of Republic FC.”

Koval is familiar with Republic FC’s attributes. He played on loan for brief spells in 2014 and 2015, so that made the decision to stay in Northern California even easier.

“This is where I want to be,” he said.

No longer No. 1 – FC Cincinnati’s attendance of 20,497 in its 3-2 home loss against Louisville City FC on Saturday broke the USL regular-season single-game attendance record that Republic FC had held since 2014. Republic FC drew sellouts of 20,231 three times at Hughes Stadium in its inaugural season before moving to Bonney Field. Orlando City holds the overall single-game record of 20,886, set during the 2013 championship game at the Citrus Bowl.

FC Cincinnati, coached by former MLS and U.S. National Team star John Harkes, will have the opportunity to set more USL attendance records because it plays at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, which has a capacity of 24,500 for soccer.

Open Cup ticket sales – Tickets for Republic FC’s second-round 2016 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match May 18 at Bonney Field are on sale. Sacramento will play the winner of the May 11 first-round match between amateur sides San Francisco City FC and CD Aguiluchos USA of Oakland.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

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