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Andy Furillo: Coach Paul Buckle leading Republic FC toward MLS

Republic FC coach Paul Buckle before a friendly against Atlas FC at Bonney Field on Wednesday, July 8, 2015 in Sacramento.
Republic FC coach Paul Buckle before a friendly against Atlas FC at Bonney Field on Wednesday, July 8, 2015 in Sacramento. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Paul Buckle came out of the council houses of Welwyn Garden City with a football on his instep. As with most boys in the United Kingdom, breathing came first, then walking, kicking, controlling and contesting the ball. He played in the street, where they chalked up targets on garage walls – those were the goals. Now he’s in America, in Sacramento, and he’s got himself a good seat to watch the coming soccer explosion in a new and different country.

The Republic FC coach and his wife, Rebecca Lowe, the famous NBC soccer studio host, have a baby on the way, and he will be born here, meaning he’ll be American enough to run for president. The geography of the baby’s birth will add to Buckle’s interest as world football grows into the fabric of the States. Who knows, in another 25 years, his son might be the captain of the U.S. men’s national team.

It’s that unit, Buckle said, that holds the key to pushing the sport in this country into the same kind of crazed adulation it enjoys elsewhere around the globe. All the United States has to do, Buckle said, is win the World Cup.

“Why not?” Buckle asked. “I mean, we can, and I can say ‘we’ because we live here now, and my son’s going to be an American. Why not? The size of the country, the way football’s going now – I think there were doubts a few years back: Is it going to fall over again like it did way back? Or, are we going to see a trend where players just come here for the wrong reasons?”

The answer, Buckle said, is “No.”

Why not? I mean, we can, and I can say ‘we’ because we live here now, and my son’s going to be an American.

Republic FC coach Paul Buckle on the prospect of the United States winning the men’s World Cup

Buckle coaches a team in the third-division USL, in a fifth-tier sport on the spectrum of our spectator games. But that soon may change, when Republic FC goes top-drawer, moving up to Major League Soccer. And the game is on the verge of critical mass, drawing numbers on occasion that surpass those from the deepest traditions of our sports culture. Five million more people, for instance, watched the American women win the World Cup last year than the decisive fifth game of the World Series.

The coach works out of a second-floor office on 17th Street at Republic FC’s brick headquarters, next door to a gun shop and across the way from a pot clinic. He spends non-practice time watching film of his squad’s practice time. He’s working to get it ready for Saturday’s 5 p.m. friendly at Bonney Field against the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS.

English football culture seeps out of Buckle’s pores. Buckle, 45, rough-housed his way from Welwyn Garden City to the English national youth team and on through 500 matches in the middle tiers of the country’s soccer pyramid. He has managed another 300 or so matches at the same levels. He’s been hired and fired, loved and booed, admired and abused, in the media and by the fans. In the U.K., football passion runs just as hot in the middle levels – places like Luton, Cheltenham, Torquay and Colchester where Buckle has played and coached – as it does around the elite pitches in Manchester or Tottenham.

In Sacramento, he is feeling the love without having to worry about the heat. The town’s soccer nuts are satisfied with having a team that has a shot of making it into MLS. Assuming catastrophe does not do us all in by the end of the decade, Buckle, who bought a home in El Dorado Hills, likely will hold the city’s hand when it moves to the top of this country’s soccer pyramid. He has a three-year contract.

But Buckle is not thinking in MLS terms right now. Where he comes from, they’ll run you out of a first-division town as well as a third. We may be a nice people in Sacramento, but Buckle takes no chances. He aims to keep the team entertaining, on the attack, and in contention for another USL championship.

Five million more people watched the American women win the World Cup last year than the decisive fifth game of the World Series.

“These are exciting times – fantastic,” Buckle said of Republic FC being on the verge of MLS, “but I can’t affect that. What I can affect,” he nodded at the training film, “is this.”

He likes what he sees, on the tape and in his team, and around his league. Last weekend, Republic FC lost 1-0 in a friendly against the Colorado Rapids of MLS. The Sacramento lads extended the big leaguers to the 86th minute before Colorado clicked on a free kick from just outside the 18-yard box. Last year, Republic FC beat Sunderland AFC of the English Premier League in a midseason friendly. The local club also hung in with Newcastle United FC, another EPL side.

Buckle sees an improving quality to the American game.

“You see great players in the USL,” Buckle said. “The standard is going up. It’s serious stuff, and it’s global. American coaches, British coaches, European, whatever it is. It’s an absolute mixture of cultures, coming together in every city.

“I’m learning loads about the American game, and I’m learning loads about Sacramento, about who we are as a people. But I’ve got lots to give, especially with the experience I’ve had.”

From Welwyn Garden City to 17th Street, he sure has lots of it.

Saturday’s game

San Jose Earthquakes at Republic FC, friendly, Bonney Field, 5 p.m.

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