Soccer hopefuls face long odds in bid to play for Republic FC

Sola Abolaji moves the ball up field during a Republic FC tryout Sunday. He has been invited to the team’s training camp.
Sola Abolaji moves the ball up field during a Republic FC tryout Sunday. He has been invited to the team’s training camp.

A melting pot of soccer hopefuls with big dreams and longshot odds converged on Cosumnes River College on Sunday to showcase their skills.

Some 68 athletes participated in the last day of four two-day open tryouts hosted by Republic FC during the last four months that involved 275 players from across the United States and around the globe.

Most plunked down $200 in hopes of landing one of the six to eight coveted spots on the roster of the second-year USL Pro team that harbors big aspirations of its own.

“It’s amazing how many have turned up here to chase their dreams,” said Republic FC technical director Graham Smith, who led the tryouts.

Last year, defender Emrah Klimenta and midfielder Max Alvarez caught the eye of Smith and Republic FC coach Preki during the tryout process for the expansion team. They became starters and key contributors during the team’s improbable run to the USL Pro championship amid the excitement of potentially becoming a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.

With a much higher profile, the MLS possibility and 14 players returning from last year’s team, competition for Republic FC roster spots has gotten keener. Smith said the team’s theme of “Built for MLS” must also extend to the players.

After extensive scouting in Southern California, Mexico, Central America and overseas, Smith and Preki already have lined up 28 players for a four-day invitational tryout that starts Monday.

“We’ve got some really top-notch players coming in,” Smith said. “They all want to play for Preki. I think players see an association with him as a potential pathway to other things.”

Preki’s reputation, Republic FC’s on- and off-field success and the impressive support of fans were lures for many attending Sunday’s open tryout.

That was the case for defender Sola Abolaji, 29, the USL-1’s top draft pick in 2007 who most recently played in Sweden.

“When I was doing my research, (Republic FC) stood out by far,” Abolaji said. “When I watched their games on YouTube, what I really noticed was the support of the fans and how much the club means to the city. I think that’s 90 percent of what convinced me to come here and try out.”

Abolaji has been to enough tryouts that he’s learned to go with the flow when kicking around a ball with a group of strangers who become impromptu teammates.

“It’s just a bunch of dudes trying to get a team,” said Abolaji, who Smith has invited to Republic FC’s training camp in February. “The talent and skill level varies here, but everyone has the same love and desire, and that’s what matters the most.”

For forward Chimdum Mez, nothing would be finer than to play for his hometown team and with Alvarez, his former Sacramento State teammate and good friend. Mez, a 22-year-old Franklin High School graduate, works out regularly with several Republic FC players, including stars Rodrigo Lopez and Mickey Daly.

“It would be great to be the hometown kid, just like Max,” said Mez, an All-Big West Conference first-team selection for Sac State last fall. “I think it’s crazy what they have done in a year, especially winning the championship.”

Mez, 6-foot-5, may get his wish, but not directly through Republic FC. He was taken in the fourth round of Tuesday’s MLS SuperDraft by the San Jose Earthquakes and could wind up playing on loan with Sacramento because San Jose and Republic FC are expected to continue their affiliation agreement.

A number of international players also tried out with hopes of getting a chance to play in the United States.

Goalie Brice Krizman, 25, from France, and Henrique Ramon, a 20-year-old center back from Brazil, hope to play at a higher level than in their own countries.

“I’m kind of old to try to make one of the bigger teams in Brazil,” said Ramon, who already tried out at a combine in Oceanside. “I’m here just trying to do my best and to try to help out my family.”

Krizman played six seasons in the academy program for Marseille, a French first-division team, though he played last season for a fourth-division team.

“This is the best tryout I’ve been to in the U.S.,” Krizman said through interpreter Iboo Sarr. “At the other tryouts, we went straight into games, but here they take the time to look at players properly through drills and exercises.”

Krizman, who said he had a four-month tryout with MLS’ Chicago Fire, sees plenty of opportunity with USL Pro expanding from 14 to at least 22 teams and possibly 24 this year. He also has tryouts lined up with the Tulsa Roughnecks FC and Louisville City FC and already has attended tryout camps in Harrisburg, Pa., and Austin, Texas.

“I’ve going to keep trying out through February,” he said. “If I don’t make a team, then I’ll go back to France.”

Although Smith said only a handful of tryout participants showed well enough to be put on Republic FC’s radar, a number of others could wind up playing in California. He said scouts from the Ventura County Fusion and Fresno Fuego of the Premier Development League and the National Premier Soccer League’s Sacramento Gold and the indoor Sacramento Surge have attended some of the tryouts.

“Some of these guys can play, but just not for us right now,” Smith said.

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

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