Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Departing Republic FC coach Preki kick-started pro soccer in Sacramento

Sacramento Republic coach Preki tries to get the crowd going Thursday.
Sacramento Republic coach Preki tries to get the crowd going Thursday. jvillegas@sacbee.com

The founding fathers of the fledgling Republic FC feared the inevitable phone call from one of the big boys overseas. They knew Preki and his famous left foot were out the door the minute someone from the world’s elite leagues recognized what the Serbian-born coach was accomplishing in the humble but burgeoning soccer scene in Sacramento.

Two years ago, who would have imagined this? Soccer fans jamming a temporary stadium. A USL championship in the inaugural season. A downtown facility sketched for the railyard. Stunned but impressed Major League Soccer officials visiting and penciling a second Northern California franchise into their expansion plans.

While there is plenty of credit to be shared for the region’s response to the introduction of the modern pro game – among them owners, team executives and marketing officials – Preki’s impact as coach, personnel guru and unofficial public relations executive can’t be overstated. He might be the region’s most influential quick-hit sports figure since Jason Williams dazzled with those outrageous passes and wicked crossovers (1998-2001).

“Preki laid such a strong foundation, and we learned from that,” Republic president Warren Smith said after his coach resigned to pursue a yet-to-be-revealed position with a club in the United Kingdom. “He set a standard that really established what we’re trying to accomplish. And we’ve helped him, too, because of how well we’ve done. We always knew this was a possibility. Frankly, I’m surprised he’s not in the MLS.”

The plan was to ride Preki, 52, all the way to an MLS franchise. Though his contract included an escape clause, Smith attempted to retain his highest-profile employee with a seven-year contract and in recent weeks thought they were close to an agreement.

Preki laid such a strong foundation, and we learned from that. He set a standard that really established what we’re trying to accomplish. And we’ve helped him, too, because of how well we’ve done. We always knew this was a possibility.

Warren Smith, Republic FC president

But the dynamic Preki, who flashes a coy, knowing smile when described as a diva, didn’t hide his personal goals. A former standout on U.S. national teams and in several pro leagues, both here and abroad, he was lured to the third-tier Republic FC by an opportunity to coach, cobble together a franchise – his first opportunity to assemble a roster and dictate style of play by selecting personnel – and educate a community about an increasingly popular and evolving sport.

The announcement Wednesday of his departure came in the middle of an unusually eventful stretch that included: the Americans dominating the final of the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Vancouver; Rory McIlroy, one of the world’s greatest athletes – OK, one of its finest golfers – withdrawing from the British Open because he ruptured ankle ligaments while playing pickup soccer; and Fox Sports revealing the record-breaking viewership from Sunday’s U.S.-Japan rematch.

Preki has stepped down as coach of Republic FC to coach a team in the United Kingdom. His final game will be Saturday against Los Angeles Galaxy II. Video by Bill Paterson/The Sacramento Bee

Preki, who will coach his final game Saturday night, isn’t leaving quietly. His frequent critiques of American soccer will be missed. In the battle between the sexes, he sides definitively with the women.

“The Americans are just way better than the rest of the world,” he said. “They are not as technically good as some other countries, but they compensate in different ways with their physicality, and they are very committed. Also, (women’s soccer) has been in this country for a long, long time and is just evolving elsewhere. Look at how many people in other countries pay attention. Not many. The women are just starting to get recognition in the rest of the world, and this is great for them, and well-deserved.”

As for the men?

The Americans are just way better than the rest of the world.

Preki on women’s soccer

We asked, he answered, animated and easily provoked, while breaking a soccer no-no with the liberal use of his hands.

“The sport is exploding here,” he said, “and there is a lot of talent. But we are far away from the Europeans. We are not putting enough attention into developing players. Fundamentally, we are not good enough. Technical ability. Awareness on the field. Tactical ability.

“The only way we can catch the Europeans is to pay attention to something other than the athletic part of the game, in my opinion. Athletic, athletic, athletic, and not enough football. People want to come watch good football, not just players running up and down the field.”

His criticisms and new job prospects notwithstanding, Preki says he retains a sense of responsibility for furthering soccer’s development in the country where he has spent much of his playing and coaching career. He and Smith are discussing plans for further involvement, with the two teams loaning players and participating in friendlies, including matches in Sacramento.

“It took a major challenge for me to go,” said the two-time MLS coach, who is expected to receive ownership shares with his new club. “Let me put it this way: It is like a D-League coach getting offered a job to coach in the NBA. You want to coach at the highest level. But this was an amazing, incredible experience, way better than anything I expected. We feel like we have made incredible strides. My only wish is for it to continue. Because one person leaves, it can’t stop.”

No, but elite coaches in any sport are prized assets. They teach, nurture, maximize their talent. Preki did all that, and more.

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