Republic Stoppage Time: Regular Season in the Books
October 3, 2020
Sacramento Republic FC 4 - Portland Timbers 2 0
Papa Murphy's Park
Sacramento Goalscorers: Dariusz Formella (2, 4), Jaime Villareal (9), Villyan Bijev (25)
While Sacramento Republic FC had another solid regular season in the USL, including a 10-game unbeaten streak, the club appeared trending in the wrong direction as the postseason approached.
A Wednesday night loss to Tacoma Defiance was the first loss for the club in two months and with three draws previously, all of a sudden, the Republic hadn't won a game in nearly a month.
But all that was seemingly erased in just a few minutes as Sacramento scored three goals in the first nine minutes to defeat Portland Timbers 2 4-0 Saturday night at Papa Murphy's Park to wrap up the regular season.
Before the game, Cameron Salerno told me that he thought that the Republic needed a big win to give them momentum heading into the playoffs. Sacramento got that, and then some, and will now head to Arizona to take on Phoenix Rising FC next Saturday at 7:00 p.m. in an elimination game.
"I was happy with the intensity we showed in the first half in general, especially the first 30 minutes," head coach Mark Briggs said following the game. "We moved the ball quickly, we scored four good good goals, and the other thing is we didn’t concede, we didn’t concede inside the first few minutes, we actually scored, and we didn’t concede in the whole game over 90 minutes. It puts the guys in a confident mood, it puts everyone in a good frame of mind going into a massive game next weekend against Phoenix.”
Match highlights can be found here. Salerno's gamer can be found here. All the photos that don't suck are courtesy of Sacramento Republic FC.
Onto the storylines:
A season-by-season look at the Republic
I want to start this section with a long quote from Rodrigo Lopez. He was asked by Salerno if the 4-0 win gave them confidence and momentum heading into the playoffs. He was not asked about Reno. Here was his response:
“We spoke before the game that we wanted to make a statement not only for the league, but for ourselves. I think in a lot of these games, we’ve deserved more. Like I said, another thing that people need to understand that when teams come to play Sacramento, it’s different than playing against Reno, it’s different than playing against other teams. Sacramento should be in the playoffs every year, Sacramento should be contending for the championship every single season, so if I’m a player for LA II, Tacoma, Portland, for them it’s playing the best team in the league and Sacramento has shown that, not just by stats, but they’ve showed it as a franchise, as a front office, ownership...everything is always done right. It’s one of those things, we go through it during preseason when we play MLS teams, we’re fired up, we want to show up and impress those MLS clubs. This is the way they play against us. All respect to Reno, but Sacramento is Sacramento, and Reno is Reno. They’re not up there yet. Once they win a championship, once they have eleven, twelve thousand fans every game, then maybe teams will show them a little more respect, but teams come to play us like it’s a final. That’s the truth. We gotta be a little better at times, yes, we do. We have to be focused at times, a little more, yes we do. At the end of the day we have to do our jobs and try to win games and today the boys showed a statement and proved that we could do it.”
As the only remaining player from Sacramento's championship season, Lopez knows what it's like to play for perhaps the USL's most high-profile club better than anyone. I'm not 100 percent sure what everyone expected from the Republic in 2014, but as soon as the club sold out the first game at Hughes Stadium, constructed Papa Murphy's Park, and won the title in their inaugural year, everyone started to pay attention nationally.
And for good reason -- for the seventh straight year, the Republic have been one of the best lower division teams in the country and qualified for the playoffs. Since that first year, Preki talked about every team coming to Sacramento and wanting to prove themselves. Paul Buckle talked about it. I don't know if Simon Elliott talked about it because I wasn't there. Now Lopez is back talking about it.
Here is how the Republic have fared in each season:
2014: 17-7-4, 55 points (1.96 ppg), 2nd in USL, playoffs: won title
2015: 13-8-7, 46 points (1.64 ppg), 4th in Western Conference, playoffs: lost in first round
2016: 14-6-10, 52 points (1.73 ppg), 1st in Western Conference, playoffs: lost in first round
2017: 13-12-7, 46 points (1.44 ppg), 8th in Western Conference, playoffs: lost in conference semifinals
2018: 19-7-8, 65 points (1.91 ppg), 2nd in Western Conference, playoffs: lost in first round
2019: 14-14-6, 48 points (1.41 ppg), 7th in Western Conference, playoffs: lost in conference semifinals
2020: 8-2-6, 30 points (1.875 ppg), 2nd in Group A, playoffs: TBA
Yes, the playoffs have been disappointing since 2014. The Republic are 4-6 in the postseason since going 3-0 in 2014, but overall they've been excellent in the regular season. In USL play, the club is 98-56-48. That's 1.69 points per game in the club's history. No matter what happens in these playoffs, the Republic are still the marquee franchise in the USL.
Standout performers in 2020
The above image is Dariusz Formella celebrating either his first or second goal of the night. With eight goals on the season in just 14 matches played, Formella was a revelation for the Republic. His absence in the midweek game at Tacoma really showed as Sacramento had few ideas in the attack and really missed the Polish national's creativity.
If you were giving out a team MVP award, most people would probably vote for Formella because people like to just look at stats and obviously the most important stat in soccer is goals. That being said, Formella's goals came in bunches and mostly against MLS reserve teams -- he scored six of his goals in just three games against Tacoma and Portland.
However, you can only score against who you play and the winger also had tallies against Reno 1868 FC and Orange County SC.
If I had to choose a standout performer, though, it would be right back Jordan McCrary. McCrary was second on the team in minutes played behind Hayden Sargis, provided two assists, and was constantly a threat to overlap on the right side. Probably no player was more consistent than McCrary and for that, he gets my fictitious 2020 Sacramento Republic FC MVP award.
2020 was more of a year where it felt like a different player stood out each week. For his part, Rodrigo Lopez thought that someone else was the team's MVP: goalkeeper Rafa Diaz.
“He’s definitely our MVP this season, in my opinion. He’s a guy who came in as a No. 2 and was just waiting, waiting for his time. He had a brilliant, brilliant preseason. If you guys would have seen him out here when we were doing individual training in small groups, all we would do was shoot on goal, shoot on goal and he would be out here for an hour and a half, maybe more, saving everything," Lopez said. "Rafa has shown what he’s made of. He came in and he won the job over to be honest. It’s his for a while until he lets it go. But he’s a type of guy who works hard and is always mentally strong. He’s always positive, he brings a lot to the locker room as well, he’s a fun guy to be around. For me it’s great to see because he’s been No. 2 for a while and sometimes he’s been unlucky, but Rafa deserves every credit he’s gotten this year. Like I said, he’s our MVP. He’s kept us in a lot of games and kept us in crucial games.”
Diaz did have a very good season and made eight saves Saturday against Portland. Overall, the Dominican played in 10 games and allowed eight goals with four clean sheets. He made 28 total saves.
Other standout performers are obviously Sargis, who was a revelation in his first year, and Lopez himself. Though Lopez didn't put up the gaudy numbers he used to (just a solitary goal and three assists), he played a variety of different positions and excelled at all of them. Wherever the club needed him, he played. Villyan Bijev was second on the club in goals scored with four.
Early goals...for the Republic?
On a night in which a blood moon watched over the game, the Republic did something unthinkable: take a lead in the first five minutes of the game as Formella bagged goals in the second and fourth minutes.
Formella didn't complete his hat trick, but he did score the two earliest goals in the season for Sacramento.
Coming into the match, the question surrounding the Republic was whether or not they'd allow a goal in the first five, not score.
In four of the 16 regular season games, Sacramento spotted their opponents a goal in the first five minutes. Their first five minute goal differential was minus three -3. And though the Republic went just 1-1-1 in the final three games of the regular season, they didn't allow a goal earlier than the 44th minute.
"We didn’t concede, we didn’t concede inside the first few minutes, we actually scored," Briggs said. I ran that quote as part of a longer quote at the start of this column, but I wanted to put it here again because this was Briggs' opening statement. No one asked him about not conceding early, but he wanted to make sure to point it out.
Sadly for Republic fans, no, the club cannot play Portland, who finished with the second worst record in the league, again.
Instead Sacramento will travel to Arizona to play Phoenix Rising FC, a club they haven't faced all season.
Since rebranding from Arizona United in the 2017 season, Phoenix Rising have been one of the best clubs in the league, making the playoffs each year and setting a North American win streak record by winning 20 straight games in 2019. That being said, their performance in the playoffs has been slightly underwhelming.
Rising are again good in 2019. The club finished at the top of a tough Group B by going 11-3-2 despite regularly facing top Western Conference competition like LA Galaxy II (8-6-2), Orange County SC (7-6-3), and the San Diego Loyal (6-5-5).
However, it's not their record that has the club drawing headlines right now, it's their conduct on the field.
Unless you're living under a rock, you've heard about what happened mid-week. I won't go into great detail here, but midfielder Junior Flemmings and coach Rick Schantz are currently on administrative leave while the USL investigates their actions in a game in which the Loyal walked off of the field after a homophobic slur was uttered towards the only openly gay player in American men's professional sports.
The status of Flemmings and Schantz is currently up in the air. We don't know at this time if either will take part against the Republic. So even though Rising ended their season with a 4-1 victory over the Galaxy, the club is in turmoil. All eyes will be on this Republic - Rising matchup this weekend nationally, not just for what happens on the field, but off it too.
Eradicating racism and homophobia is way more important than anything that will take place in Phoenix Saturday night, but the Republic will have to like their chances. Not only are they they underdog, but they're coming off of their best performance of the season, and are facing a club in turmoil.
I like their chances.