Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Republic FC’s ultimate goal is MLS

The Sacramento Republic FC players kick balls to fans during a timeout in the first half at Sleep Train Arena Tuesday April 7, 2015 in Sacramento.
The Sacramento Republic FC players kick balls to fans during a timeout in the first half at Sleep Train Arena Tuesday April 7, 2015 in Sacramento. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Though Preki has confronted daunting challenges throughout his illustrious playing and coaching career, this current task ranks among the more unusual. He is intrigued and trolling for answers, too.

What is the encore for a championship season? What is the game plan for a coach and a franchise that blitzed expectations during its inaugural USL season? On the pitch? In the locker room? In a community craving the opportunity to put not one, but two feet forward in an attempt to secure a Major League Soccer franchise?

The MLS awaits. The backstory is an open book. Minneapolis beat Sacramento on the expansion list, but it’s only a matter of time before the San Jose Earthquakes share Northern California. Three years, four years, five years. Maybe less. If an MLS franchise folds – or Sacramento proves too irresistible to ignore – the folks with Republic FC of the third-tier USL intend to move fast and furiously.

“We are doing everything we can to be ready, to prove to MLS that if something comes up, something that is unexpected, we can step right in,” majority owner Kevin Nagle said as Saturday’s home opener approached. “It’s a no-brainer. It is going to happen. And, yes, we’re going to try to win a second championship, though that’s not as important as simply maintaining the momentum.”

In other words, don’t stop now. The ownership’s plan is to generate even more enthusiasm, increase the season-ticket base, schedule more downtown rallies and rowdy, raucous sidewalk parades, and continue filling Bonney Field while dismissing the temporary facility’s limitations in terms of ambience and big-time soccer atmosphere. And, as much as anything, they’re keeping the fingers crossed that Preki, the hyper-competitive coach, isn’t lured overseas by a club that competes in an elite league and can offer a larger salary.

“Preki is a great motivator, great teacher, great athlete,” Nagle said, “and he’s an experienced coach. That’s one of the great things about him. He has already coached in the MLS, which is a major asset for us.”

There are two elements in enduring coach-team marriages – romance and luck – that are important to differing degrees. When Republic co-founder Warren Smith pursued his first head coach, Preki was eager to return to the sideline after being released three years earlier by Toronto FC, one of his two MLS coaching jobs, and was attracted by the blank slate of possibilities.

A year later, his landing spot feels even more comfortable, and even more promising.

“When I was talking with Graham (Smith) and Warren before I took the job and was told how big this is going to be here, I had my doubts” Preki said. “Then once I saw first night, 20,000 fans, I was like, ‘Really?’ Forget about football, what I call soccer. This is a great sports city. The support for the teams here is amazing. When I went to Kings game the other night, it was almost full arena for a team that has nothing. I mean, you go to another country, go to Serbia like that, there will be three people in the arena and they’ll be throwing eggs at you.”

Any conversation with the engaging Preki invariably includes references to basketball and the Kings, who now are run by Vlade Divac, his friend and fellow countryman. During a lengthy chat at a midtown cafe the other afternoon, Preki was at it again, noting the similarities between the grace and fluidity of his boyhood passion – basketball – with the preferred style of his later love.

“It’s movement, passing, reading the game,” said the 5-foot-9 Preki, who at 51 is trim and wiry. “I want us to be fluid and be aggressive with the ball, where everyone is involved. Dictating the tempo of games. That’s my mentality. I want the ball at our feet. I don’t like to bring my playing days into this, but I always loved having the ball at my feet. I didn’t want to defend for hours. Let’s defend quick. Let’s win it back quick.”

Between sips of green tea, he laughed, leaned back and said when his team is on its heels, it “stresses” him out.

“That’s who I am,” said Preki, whose trademark left-footed strikes – known as the Preki Chop – once fooled many defenders. These days, he relieves tension by throwing passes and shooting jumpers in a weekly adult basketball league, though the magnitude of his opportunity, he said, is a constant companion. He eats well (salads, vegetables) but sleeps poorly, often tossing and turning and replaying games and practices in his head, mulling how to improve on an impressive 2014.

In a home schedule split between Hughes Stadium and Bonney Field, the Republic compiled a 17-7-4 record, led the USL with seven road victories and set USL attendance records. They return to Bonney Field with a 12-match home sellout streak and the USL championship trophy – the first expansion franchise to do so in an inaugural season.

Pressure? What pressure?

Those MLS footsteps. Preki hears them, too.

“We still have a long ways to go to get to the next level,” he said, as he rose and flipped his coffee cup into the trash, “but everything comes in time. We’re going to be tough again, and we’re deeper. Are we going to win it? I don’t know. But our responsibility is to play hard, like a team every night, not individuals.”

Grinning, he added, “Everything is possible.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

REPUBLIC FC ROSTER

No.

Player

Pos.

Ht.

Wt.

Age

1

Dominik Jakubek

G

6-1

195

35

2

Derek Foran

D

6-1

190

25

3

David Estrada

F

5-8

155

27

4

Matthias Bonvehi

D

5-9

150

25

6

Agustin Cazarez

M

5-7

145

25

7

Gilberto

M

6-1

172

26

8

Rodrigo Lopez

M

5-7

152

27

9

Gabe Gissie

F

6-0

172

18

10

Thomas Stewart

F

5-11

175

28

11

Max Alvarez

M

5-10

160

23

12

Nemanja Vukovic

D

6-3

180

30

13

Adnan Gabeljic

F

6-3

197

22

14

Cameron Iwasa

F

5-10

180

21

16

Zev Taublieb

M

5-6

140

21

17

Justin Braun

F

6-2

195

27

18

Ivan Mirkovic

M

5-6

150

27

19

Octavio Guzman

M

5-10

175

24

20

James Kiffe

D

5-11

180

26

21

Mickey Daly

D

6-1

180

27

22

Gabe Gonzalez

M

6-4

205

27

23

Emrah Klimenta

D

6-1

180

24

24

Patrick McLain

G

6-3

205

26

25

Joaquin Rivas

F

5-11

172

22

26

Alfonso Motagalvan

M

5-10

170

28

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