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Republic Stoppage Time: The Smoke Game

August 22, 2020

Sacramento Republic FC 2 - Portland Timbers 2 1

Papa Murphy's Park

Sacramento Goalscorers: Drew Skundrich (60), Cameron Iwasa (69)

Portland Goalscorers: Jorge Gonzalez (23)

Attendance: 0

California is on fire again. I sincerely hope that everyone out there is staying safe and has a roof over their heads.

These are trying times, even Sacramento Republic FC head coach Mark Briggs thinks so.

“I think what 2020 is throwing at everyone, it’s pushing everyone to be strong, it’s pushing everyone to adapt and try and stick together," he said. "I think we, as a community, we’re known as the Indomitable City, so right now, we have to be indomitable."

Well, his side has proved indomitable as the Republic picked up their fourth straight win to stay level with Reno at the top of the USL Championship Group A standings with 18 points.

A quick note before the storylines: last week I mentioned all of those who are providing good Republic coverage, but left out Rise of the Republic, a podcast recorded by Richard Ivanowski and Blake Marques. I had the chance to meet both of them last night and found out that they're former Sactown Royalty writers who started covering the Republic when the MLS announcement was made last year.

Give them a follow and look for an appearance by me on their podcast in the next few episodes. The more coverage of the team, the better -- probably the only thing that Jurgen Klinsmann ever said that I agreed with was the fact that in order for the standard of soccer in this country to grow, we need our media and fans to get a better understanding of the game and demand more from the players. Podcasts like Rise of the Republic help move the needle.

Onto the storylines. You can find a recap of the game from Cameron Salerno here and the match highlights here.

Lack of quality in the air

Much of the talk on social media leading up to Saturday's game surrounded the conditions that it would be played under. With California yet again suffering through forest fires, I wondered if the game would go on as scheduled given that all predictions pointed towards an "unhealthy" rating of air quality according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

At kickoff, according to the EPA, the Air Quality Index was 163. I'm not an environmental expert or a scientist of any kind, but the people who our government has paid to be tells us that this is unhealthy.

According to someone in the know, however, the guidelines set forth by the USL allow for a match to be played in anything below an AQI of 200, which is the same standard used by NFL. 201 is deemed "very unhealthy" by the EPA.

Both teams were in talks with each other and the league before the game and decided on playing and as a neutral observer it didn't seem to impact play that much, even if the stadium smelled like BBQ.

"For me, I didn't notice it too much," captain Drew Skundrich said when I asked him about it. "Maybe after the game you notice it a little bit, but both teams are playing in it, we're both in the same conditions, so I think both sides had to approach it as a normal game. It didn't really affect us that much."

This quote was, umm, not included in the team's transcript of the postgame interview on the team's website, but the game was played and no one seemed hurt too much by it.

I have no opinion on whether or not the game should have been played. I also feel like I had to include this section because that's all most of the media were talking about leading up to the game. I promise the rest of this column will contain storylines that you probably care more about.

The Return of Shannon Gomez

The last time Republic FC defender Shannon Gomez appeared in a Republic FC uniform, Simon Elliott was the club's coach, fans were still allowed in stadiums, and the only Corona that anyone was aware of was the kind that people usually pair with a lime.

The Trinidad and Tobago international proved a constant for Sacramento, playing in 51 regular season USL games in 53 opportunities before tearing his ACL and meniscus last June 27 in a scoreless draw against Orange County SC.

It may have taken a while -- 391 days exactly -- but Gomez is now back on the field almost exactly one year following his surgery.

I wish I could have screen grabbed the smile on his face when KHTK's Matt George asked him about his return to play because it was the priceless, ear-to-ear grin of a man finally returning to do the thing he loves most.

The image I was able to garner was still good, but it doesn't show the true jubilation of what I saw in that moment.

Gomez entered the match in the 84th minute for winger Kharlton Belmar and slotted in at left back to help the Republic take all three points.

According to Gomez, the substitution came as something of a surprise.

"It was a moment that shocked me," Gomez said. "I heard (Briggs) call my name and I was like he's definitely not talking to me, I'm gonna do more sprints, I'm just gonna mind my business. And he was like, yeah, I'm talking to you yeah get ready you’re going in and I was like, Oh my God my heart started beating really fast, the moments here. I got to be ready and right away I went into defensive mode, I was ready, just to tackle somebody and I'm thankful that he trusted me in that moment to return to the pitch and give all I can, even if it's a couple of minutes just him believing in me again is something amazing and I am very thankful to the club for that."

Added Briggs following the match: "Shannon's been through hell for the past year, and it's a mental challenge when you go through what Shannon has gone through. To stay focused and stay strong and still continue to try to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Shannon’s done that."

Playoffs a foregone conclusion?

This tweet from my guy GT Battle came after the Tacoma Defiance fell midweek to Las Vegas. Following that tweet, the Group A standings looked like this:

Following Saturday's game, they look like this:

There are seven regular season games left in the season for the Republic and eight for Tacoma, who will have to make up an 11-point deficit to catch Sacramento.

After beating Tacoma 3-1 last week, Republic forward Cameron Iwasa said this: “I think, even prior to the restart, and just in general, whenever we play we’re a team that has a target on our back. I think given the fact that we’ve been pretty consistent, never missed the playoffs, we’re a team that people circle on their calendars and look forward to playing and they’re going to bring it so that demands more out of us, but I think we’re definitely up to the challenge.”

It looks like, for the seventh time in seven tries, the Republic will qualify for the playoffs. For context, the Sacramento Kings have made the playoffs 10 times in 35 tries since moving here in 1985.

Anatomy of a low cross

I don't remember the full context of the conversation, but in Argentina's 2-1 victory over Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, I found myself in the press box of what was an exciting match, with both teams seemingly taking copious amounts of uppers prior to the match.

The play I'm thinking of didn't result in a goal and I can't remember if it was Argentina or Chile attacking, but someone on one of those teams sent in a low cross that really tested their opponent's defense.

Because I randomly blurt out things in press boxes (Ailene Voisin yelled at me for this in the first Sacramento game at Hughes), I uttered loudly: "I don't understand why teams don't cross it on the ground more."

Mike Woitalla of Soccer America immediately turned to me as I expected another berating from a more-experienced journalist.

Instead, he threw up his hands and said, "I've been saying this for years!"

Anyway, I think Mike, 916 Republic, and myself are all correct on this -- not only are low crosses easier to direct towards a target, but they're easier to finish as well as Drew Skundrich showed in the 60th minute Saturday.

Here's a screen grab of the moment that Skundrich made contact with Ash Apollon's excellent drive across the box.

Conservatively, that cross beat five players while never rising more than three feet above the ground.

I know that Kingsley Coman literally just scored the only goal in the Champions League final on a header from a high cross, but the USL Championship is not the Champions League and people are much less accurate at crossing the ball.

So let's see more low crosses, even if they don't find their mark, with defenders running towards their own goal, a low cross puts them in a tough position where they either have to knock it out for a corner kick if the ball is in front of them or back towards the top of the box if it's behind.

Six points, struggles against Portland

The Republic have now played Portland Timbers 2 twice this season and picked up six points during those two matches.

But Sacramento haven't been particularly convincing in either game, the first a 1-0 victory via an own goal.

Even though the Republic have garnered maximum points against the Timbers, fans probably were expecting easier games against T2 given that Saturday's away side are currently the only team in the USL to have collected zero points on the season.

Following the match, I asked Briggs why the Timbers have given them so much trouble this year. Here's what he said: "Obviously everybody turned up tonight and they’re expecting to see four or five goals and a great performance and everything to go swimmingly well. Unfortunately in football that rarely happens. And at the moment we make things a little bit difficult, we do things the hard way. If you watch every game that they’ve played, they’ve been in every game, even the games where they’ve conceded a number of goals."

A win is a win, but if Sacramento are going to make any noise in the postseason, you'll feel that their form has to be better in games like this.

A few extra tidbits

- In the 78th minute, the Republic PA system announced that a certain "Mamadou Danso" was leaving the game for the Timbers and I just stopped for a second...did they mean Futty Danso, the former captain of the Timbers first team? Yes, apparently he signed with the team this year and is now playing in the USL as a 37-year-old. Good for him.

- After the Timbers took the lead in 24th minute of the game, Skundrich had some...choice words for his team:

Following the game, Skundrich was asked about those choice words in the press conference. “I was kind of in that holding midfield role, just for that play, and I saw in front of me some guys that, in my opinion, weren't working hard enough," the captain said. "Defensively we weren’t shifting side to side, we weren’t on the same page, we weren’t connected, so that was frustrating for me. I put that on myself as well because I wasn’t talking to them at that moment, telling them to shift, to keep working, so that’s something that I need to improve on and something that we need to improve on as a group. Once they scored I was furious. I don’t like conceding. I just try to hold people accountable. It got better from there.”

- Cameron Iwasa grabbed the winning goal in the 69th minute. Shortly thereafter, this was heard from the T2 bench:

Here's what the broadcast showed when Jordan McCrary made the pass to Iwasa:

The more astute readers of this column may notice that Iwasa is not, in fact, in frame when the ball was played. Unless anyone has a Zapruder film-like angle, I guess we'll never know.

- Good bit of info from Rise of the Republic here:

- Our friend Daniel Tyree with a Republic history lesson:

- Speaking of friends, the center referee for this game (and the 1-0 home win vs. Reno) is a high school friend of mine, Nick Marin-Kumko, and a rising star in the refereeing world. I wrote my last-ever Davis Enterprise feature on him, which you can read here.

- I ran into Sacramento broadcaster Kevin Goldthwaite before the match and spoke to him for a few minutes. Apparently he'll be splitting color duties for the rest of the season on the Republic broadcast with former midfielder Adam Moffat.

- And finally, starting Tuesday, I'm going to post about important games in Sacramento's history, going back to the inaugural 2014 season. The posts will feature photos, video, and player quotes from those games so that fans can re-live some of the most important moments in this area's soccer history. If people read it, I will write more of them. If they don't, that's fine, I have a sick garden to tend to now anyway.

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