Republic FC closing in on USL playoff berth

Republic FC can clinch a USL Western Conference playoff berth when it plays the Orange County Blues FC on Saturday night at Bonney Field.

A Sacramento win and a Real Monarchs SLC loss or tie against last-place Tulsa would put the Republic FC into the postseason for the third consecutive year.

But coach Paul Buckle is more focused on maintaining Sacramento’s high level of play through the final four regular-season games. The team is riding a seven-game unbeaten streak that includes wins in three of the past four matches.

The exception was Saturday’s scoreless draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 at Bonney Field, though Buckle went for broke in trying to get the win by playing five forwards at the end, including former English Premier League standout Carlton Cole, who made his debut and just missed getting the game winner. But it also was Sacramento’s third consecutive shutout and club-record 11th for the season.

“We’ve been on an excellent run,” Buckle said. “You can’t win every game – it’s impossible – but the crucial thing the other night is we didn’t lose it in the end. ... Again, it was another case of us being the totally dominant team as far as possession, crosses into the box and shots on goal.”

The tie, however, gave the second-place Rio Grande Valley Toros FC (11-5-9, 42 points) the chance to finish ahead of Republic FC (12-6-8, 44) for the conference title. The red-hot Texans, unbeaten in their past nine matches, have five games remaining and can finish with a maximum of 57 points. Republic FC can finish with a maximum 56 points.

The Toros face a critical game against the seventh-place Swope Park Rangers FC in Kansas City on Saturday. That match likely will conclude just as Republic FC prepares to play the Blues FC.

But Buckle said he won’t be checking the results.

“I won’t follow the game,” he said. “I won’t be influenced by anything that’s going on there.”

Orange County lost 1-0 to Republic FC on Aug. 24 in Irvine, but the Blues FC is unbeaten at Bonney Field in the past two seasons. That includes a 1-0 win at Bonney on April 30.

The Blues, led by former Republic FC midfielder Ivan Mirkovic, are fighting for their playoff lives. Orange County (10-12-4, 34) is tied for eighth place in points with San Antonio FC (9-9-7, 34.), which has played one less game than the Blues.

The top eight teams in the Western Conference make the playoffs.

Cole getting acclimated – Cole said he enjoyed playing against Vancouver after being in Sacramento less than a week. The former Chelsea and West Ham forward played 15 minutes and nearly scored in the 88th minute on a well-placed cross from Harry Williams. Cole’s sliding toe-poke in front of the goal ricocheted off goalkeeper Spencer Richey and away from the net.

It was his first match since playing Jan. 19 for Celtic, this past season’s Scottish Premiership champions.

“It was good to be back on the field and good to be amongst the lads,” Cole said. “I really enjoyed the atmosphere, the fans and seeing how passionate they are about the game. It was a really good experience. I was a bit upset I didn’t score on that one shot that hit the keeper’s face. I know as long as I stay in the box, things will happen.”

Hall gets the call – Defensive midfielder and Major League Soccer veteran Jeremy Hall played for the Puerto Rican National Team during a 1-0 friendly loss against the Dominican Republic on Tuesday, his fourth cap for Puerto Rico since joining the team earlier this year.

Hall also played against the United States in a 3-1 friendly loss on May 22, then helped Puerto Rico win its first two games in the Caribbean Cup qualifying against Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda in June.

“I hadn’t been on the island since I was little kid,” said Hall, who grew up in Tampa Bay. “So just to get down there, see the guys and meet family has been pretty amazing.”

Hall has played in eight matches for Republic FC since being loaned out to Sacramento by the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League.

No Tommy Thompson – San Jose Earthquakes loan player Tommy Thompson will miss his second consecutive Republic FC game. The midfielder is expected to play for the ’Quakes in their friendly against Liga MX side C.F. Pachuca on Saturday at Avaya Stadium.

Thompson played in four consecutive Republic FC matches before missing the Vancouver game to travel with San Jose on Saturday for its 2-0 loss at the Columbus Crew. Thompson, who had a goal and three assists in his latest stint with Sacramento, did not play against the Crew.

Players are loaned to San Jose – Republic FC announced late Friday that reserve midfielders Joaquin Rivas, Max Alvarez and Chase Minter and new forward Christian Chaney have been loaned to the Earthquakes for the Pachuca match. Minter has been playing on loan with the Tulsa Roughnecks FC.

“They will be playing in an environment away from their daily training routine with us and they will be able to use the experience as a barometer of where they are at in comparison to both MLS and Liga MX players,” said Republic FC Director of Football Graham Smith in a release.

Academy openers – The Republic FC Academy program will enter its second season on Saturday as the 17/18s and 15/16s play host the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Academy in both age groups at Batholomew Sports Park in Elk Grove. The 17/18s play at 10 a.m., and the 15/16s at 12:30 p.m.

The academy has expanded from three to five teams this season. Last year’s 13/14s team is now separate U-13 and U-14 squads. Sacramento also has added a U-12 team.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP