Republic FC, Liverpool FC 21s set friendly matches

Republic FC director of football Graham Smith and coach Paul Buckle made a 13-day tour of some of the top clubs in England at the end of last season.

The relationships they built have paid off with the announcement that Sacramento will play friendlies against Liverpool FC 21s on May 21 at Bonney Field and May 25 in Reno.

The U-21 team is the reserve squad for the English Premier League Liverpool FC and is part of the Liverpool Football Club International Academy Soccer Schools program, recognized as one of the world’s best.

“It’s fantastic for the players and fantastic for the club to build relationships with top clubs, and they don’t come any bigger than Liverpool,” Buckle said. “The players that they are bringing with them have figured in Europe, have figured in domestic cup games in England and also the Premier League. ... They’ve got some incredible prospects who will put on a show.”

Buckle said the relationship with the Liverpool FC 21s could yield deeper benefits for Republic FC, possibly even a loan agreement between the two clubs.

Buckle, who played and managed in England, is a good friend of Liverpool FC Academy director Alex Inglethorpe.They worked together at Exeter City FC when Inglethorpe was a manager and Buckle a player/coach.

A number of the world’s top players have come through the Liverpool Academy system, including former Liverpool and England National Team standout Steven Gerrard, now with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Reno is hosting the second friendly at the Aces’ minor-league baseball stadium, the home of the USL expansion club Reno 1868 FC that will begin play in 2017.

Competition heats up – Republic FC’s bitter rival is the Los Angeles Galaxy II. But the Orange County Blues FC, Sacramento’s opponent Saturday at Bonney Field, is making a strong bid to be a close No. 2.

In a scoreless draw last year in Irvine, the Blues edged the Republic for first place in the Western Conference in the USL season finale. Instead of finishing first with a victory, Sacramento placed fourth.

Earlier last season, a 2-1 win by Orange County ended Republic FC’s USL dominance (11-1-1 to that point) at Bonney Field dating to 2014, despite playing the final 30 minutes plus stoppage time a man down. Including that loss, Sacramento finished the rest of the league season 4-4-3 at home.

“They proved last year they are a good side,” Buckle said. “So it’s going to be a tough game.”

Adding more fuel to the duel was the sudden transfer of Republic FC midfield stalwart Ivan Mirkovic to the Blues FC on April 1. Buckle said Mirkovic was dealt after he balked at going on loan to rehab an ankle injury without a guarantee that there would be a first-team spot when he returned.

A new face – The San Jose Earthquakes loaned defender and New Zealand native Kip Colvey to Republic FC. Colvey was the 49th pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft from Cal Poly. He has appeared in four matches for San Jose this season and had an assist in the Earthquakes’ 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers on March 13.

Colvey, 22, won’t feel out of place in Sacramento; forward Mackenzie Pridham and midfielders Matt LaGrassa and Chase Minter played with Colvey at Cal Poly.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

Republic FC vs. Orange County Blues FC

7:30 p.m. Saturday at Bonney Field

Radio: 1140 KHTK

Sacramento (2-2-1, 7 points) looks to avoid its first three-match losing streak in franchise history and end a three-match scoreless streak. Its two goals are tied with FC Montreal for the fewest in the 29-team USL. Orange County (2-2-1, 7 points) opened the season with two losses but is unbeaten in its last three matches. Both are in a four-way tie for sixth place in the 15-team Western Conference.

Republic FC will play without dynamic forward Harry Williams, out with a balky hamstring, and also won’t have the services of San Jose Earthquakes forward Mark Sherrod for the second match in a row. Sherrod underwent a procedure April 22 for a torn meniscus in his left knee, which is expected to sideline him for four to eight weeks. Sacramento will look to veteran forward Tommy Stewart for some offense against the Blues FC. He has scored four goals in six matches against them, including the club’s only regular-season hat trick in a 6-1 road win in August 2014.

Orange County features Brandon Miller, the 2015 USL Goalkeeper of the Year while with the defending champion Rochester Rhinos, and midfielder Didier Crettenand, who has two goals this season after scoring seven times last year. The Blues FC also signed 6-foot-4 Major League Soccer veteran defender Steven Purdy Ramos in the offseason.