Friday marked the one-year anniversary of Paul Buckle’s arrival as Republic FC’s coach.
The Englishman’s first American coaching gig has been a challenging but positive experience since he replaced Preki on July 8, 2015.
“There’s been a lot that’s happened in a year,” Buckle said. “I’m very proud of the performances and records in terms of wins that we have in that time. ... It’s really good. I’m really enjoying the job. The players are great to work with every day. I look forward to coming in; I think we all do.”
Buckle took over a team that had won the 2014 USL championship in its inaugural campaign but sputtered in the first half of Year 2 under Preki.
Buckle debuted with a stunning 1-0 upset of English Premier League team Sunderland AFC in a friendly at Bonney Field, followed by a late-season surge that enabled Republic FC to finish near the top of the Western Conference – a 0-0 draw on the last day of the regular season cost it first place – and reach the playoffs. The Republic lost in the first round to LA Galaxy II.
Then there were the big offseason player departures that left Republic FC younger and less experienced in a USL that expanded from 24 to 29 teams while continuing to get more competitive.
There also was the creation of the ambitious and expensive academy program that Buckle and club officials saw as a necessity for future success as Sacramento continues its pursuit of a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.
There was the early-season blip in which Republic FC lost a franchise-worst three consecutive league matches and the disappointing third-round ouster by the lower-division Kitsap Pumas in the U.S. Open Cup at Bonney Field.
But Republic FC went unbeaten in nine consecutive USL games before Real Monarchs SLC rallied late to beat Sacramento 3-2 last Wednesday night at Bonney Field.
“I think he has done a great job,” Republic FC president Warren Smith said. “It was tough coming in last year with players and a system that was not yours. He adjusted and got us back into the playoffs, which I thought was fantastic. And look at the results so far this season. He’s got us into the top (three) in the Western Conference after that little challenge at the beginning of the season. He has righted the ship.”
They’ve done it with one of the league’s smallest rosters – only 22 players are under contract – while Buckle has turned several little-used players from last season into key contributors this year. They include forward Cameron Iwasa, defender Derek Foran and goalkeeper Dominik Jakubek, all now starters.
Jakubek said Buckle is bringing out the best in his players.
“He’s doing a fantastic job,” Jakubek said. “He really allows us to enjoy our football, which is really important. … The most important thing is that coach Buckle respects us as (people) first rather than just good soccer players. That’s key (to) our team success. Obviously we have to perform well, but he wants good people out here, good people representing the club, the city.”
Director of football Graham Smith knew Preki had ambitions of coaching again at a higher level, so he was on the watch for a potential successor well before the former MLS coach decided to leave for a coaching opportunity in the United Kingdom that hasn’t panned out.
Smith knew Buckle, after coaching professionally for eight seasons in England, had relocated to the United States with his wife, Rebecca Lowe, an NBC Sports broadcaster. But Smith had to allay some initial fears about Buckle. His last coaching stint in England with Cheltenham Town FC didn’t go well. He lasted 13 games.
And Republic FC fans loved Preki for his wide-open, dare-to-stop-us attacking style.
But Graham Smith promised in that July 8 news conference that Buckle’s “attributes will be seen as we go along. The future here is very, very strong and positive.”
Smith looks like a prophet now.
“We are in a far healthier state now than we’ve ever been as a football club,” said Smith, who turned over his technical director duties to Buckle shortly after he was hired.
Buckle has had to make more than just on-field adjustments. He and Lowe became parents in April with the arrival of Edward “Teddy” Christopher Buckle – “having a newborn is the best thing that ever happened to Rebecca and (me)” – and there’s been the move from Connecticut to the Sacramento area.
Buckle, who is in the second year of a five-year agreement with Republic FC, says he loves the weather – so unlike rainy England – and the welcoming nature of the fans and the community. But he wishes he could share it with his father, Johnny, who is battling health issues in England.
“That’s the tough side,” Buckle said. “I’d love my dad to be here watching these games. It’s the only club he hasn’t seen me manage or be involved with from a player to a coach.”
Although Graham Smith notes that Buckle has the top UEFA Pro coaching license – “so he can go anywhere” – he believes Buckle will be with the team through Republic FC’s expected transition to MLS.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Smith said.
Buckle seconds that.
“I came to this club to build something,” Buckle said. “We’ve bought a home here. I’ve moved lock-stock to show my commitment. Everybody knows that if you have longevity as a manager, then you normally have success. But that longevity doesn’t come without ups and downs.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date for when Paul Buckle replaced Preki as Republic FC coach. The correct date is July 8, 2015.