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Opinion: Overseas publicity on Preki departure enhances Sacramento’s soccer reputation

Preki, right, chats with fans before coaching his final match for Republic FC at Bonney Field on Saturday.
Preki, right, chats with fans before coaching his final match for Republic FC at Bonney Field on Saturday. rbenton@sacbee.com

One day you’re the favorite to become the coach of a club in the best soccer league in the world. The next, you lose 4-0 to L.A. Galaxy II.

Such were the whirlwind days of last week for the man known as Preki, who used to coach Republic FC.

“Sometimes, I guess it’s not your night,” Preki told reporters on an evening that was supposed to be his.

It began with the Tower Bridge Battalion unfurling a huge banner in the end zone rooting section depicting a likeness of the coach who won the city a USL championship last year, the team’s first in existence.

“Preki! Preki!” the Bonney Field mob cheered as Republic FC took the field.

“Preki! Preki!” they cheered some more about two hours later, when the rout was over.

On Sunday, Preki was scheduled to fly to Chicago, on his way at some point to England, where he will be the front man for a mystery group seeking to buy a team in the upper reaches of English soccer.

In the middle of last week, when Preki announced he was leaving for the United Kingdom, bookmakers there listed him as the favorite to be the next coach of Leicester City in the English Premier League. By Saturday afternoon, the Sky Bet gaming web site dropped him to third favorite at 8-1.

Such momentum suggested Greek banks as a better bet. But Preki doesn’t need a bailout. Maybe he won’t wind up in Leicester, but he still is the central and only identified figure for the moneyed folk shopping for a team in England.

Saturday night’s match was a lousy finish to a big week of media attention for Preki, 52.

First came Wednesday’s announcement. Several news cycles later, well into the weekend, Preki remained No. 1 as the most commented-upon story on the Soccer America website. Readers mostly favored his parting remarks that the United States needs to develop home-grown soccer with a focus more on technique than pure athleticism. His opinion generated more discussion than Friday’s parade in New York for the U.S. women’s World Cup champs.

Now, Sacramento faces its soccer future without Preki. He leaves a huge hole, regardless of the ability of his successor, Paul Buckle, who took over Sunday to lead a club that this week plays friendlies against English Premier League visitors Sunderland AFC on Tuesday and Newcastle United FC on Saturday, both at Bonney Field.

Preki brought an attacking, wide-open style of play to Sacramento that made the game fun to watch. Preki always will be the guy who lit the fuse on the soccer explosion in Sacramento. Remember to lift a pint in his honor if and when Major League Soccer wises up and expands to Sacramento.

If Preki was the best thing that has happened to soccer in Sacramento, don’t be surprised if it is surpassed by his leaving, with the publicity it’s getting, especially in the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, Republic FC was just the champion of a third-division league in a former colony. Today, at least in Leicester and probably among hard-core U.K. football fans everywhere, the team is the best-known thing to come out of Sacramento since Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor who never could have beaten Preki for a contested ball.

“If you look at the worldwide press that happened that day, it’s just been amazing,” Republic FC president Warren Smith said. “The phone calls, the emails we’ve gotten from around the world – I think Sacramento is looked at, because of what we’ve been able to accomplish on and off the field, as the emerging franchise, and there’s some legitimacy behind that.

“To have a coach who ends up in the EPL, or even in the (second-division) Championship league, all of a sudden we have helped produce a relationship that could be very, very important to us in the long term.”

Smith said Preki “has shared some things in confidence” about the people in his group. Sworn to secrecy on the details of the associates, Smith did share that “it’s a big group,” that Preki is a partner and that “he’ll be heading it up, in the beginning.”

In winning a USL championship his first year and coaching his team to the upper ranks of its division well into its second season, Preki “helped us establish a standard that we will hold ourselves to,” Smith said.

The coach’s move has enhanced Sacramento’s reputation as a soccer town.

“It’s a great thing for Sacramento and the Sacramento Republic FC,” USL President Jake Edwards said. “They’ve really made the country sit up and take notice of Sacramento as a soccer market. Now their coach has gotten the opportunity to move to one of the top leagues in the world. They’re going to be talked about not just in America, but across the world.”

Preki signed off with the media Saturday night by saying the Republic FC “is in great position.”

“I just feel it’s going to get better and better and better,” he said. “Just give it time. Once we get the green light for MLS, nobody’s stopping this franchise.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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