By CAITLIN MURRAY
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — All Sacramento Republic FC had to do to cap off a dream start for the first-year franchise was win a championship.
In front of a rowdy sellout crowd Saturday, it hardly felt like any other outcome was possible, despite the Harrisburg City Islanders’ best efforts. Led by Rodrigo Lopez, the difference-maker who has been on fire all season, the Republic pushed out a win, 2-0, to become 2014 USL Pro champions in their inaugural season.
“I believed in this group and I think they believed in themselves,” said coach Preki. “For the first ten games of the season, we were still figuring it out, trying to get to know each other and figure out our weaknesses and strengths. But after that, I thought we were just pretty good. I would say damn good. Good with the ball and creating chances.”
In the 36th minute, with the Republic already looking a bit overdue for a goal, Lopez floated a lovely through ball to Octavio Guzman, running into the 18-yard box, who calmly chipped it past goalkeeper Nicholas Noble.
Antoine Hoppenot nearly equalized for the City Islanders in stoppage time but goalkeeper Jake Gleeson came off his line to make a huge, point-blank range save to preserve the lead. Less than a minute later, the Republic delivered the final blow to go up 2-0 as second-half substitute Thomas Stewart fired one from the outside edge of the 18-yard box on a tough angle past Noble.
The match was an uneven affair, with the scoreline not doing justice to the Republic’s dominance. The No. 2-seeded Republic were relentless, pummeling away at the defense of No. 8-seeded City Islanders, a franchise that has played in USL Pro since 2004.
The City Islanders committed numbers behind the ball to hunker down early, turning dangerous at times on the counter, but were out-possessed all night and out-shot, 6-to-21. The Republic had six shots on goal to the City Islanders’ three.
Though Gleeson, on loan from the Portland Timbers, saw far less action on his end, he made a couple key saves and had one of the shining performances for the Republic.
Lopez nearly gave the Republic the early lead in the 15th minute, finding Justin Braun with an opening inside the 18-yard box, but Braun’s shot bounced off the near post. Lopez, formerly a player for Chivas USA and the Timbers, was named match MVP.
“The first day of preseason, you could see the quality,” Lopez said after being asked when he knew the Republic had a chance at the league title. “It’s hard getting a group together so quick, but it was just a matter of time.”
For the Republic, the championship may have been a chance to showcase that they deserve to become Major League Soccer’s last expansion franchise under a current plan to stop at 24 teams. At one point during the awards ceremony, the 8,000-capacity stadium’s crowd chanted “MLS” in unison.
“This is the first step for us to send a message around the country that we’re ready for big time soccer,” Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson told reporters afterward.
The championship, like all their games at Bonney Field this season, was a sellout for the Republic. The club set a new USL Pro single-season attendance record in July, with five weeks left in the regular season, and finished the season with 158,107 total attendance.
The previous record-holder for the USL Pro single-season attendance record? Orlando City SC, a franchise that makes its entrance into MLS next year. The Republic are also the second USL Pro team to win a championship in its inaugural season. The first? Orlando City SC.
If the Republic saw Orlando City SC as having cleared a direct path to MLS, the Republic have certainly followed it. Sacramento has pushed hard for the attention of MLS executives, who made a site visit last week to a potential MLS stadium location near downtown, but the league has said there is no deadline to decide the fate of the 24th expansion slot.
“I’m extremely excited for the city of Sacramento because I believe the city of Sacramento has proven they deserve an MLS team,” Preki said of winning a title with a first-year franchise. “Look at the excitement, look at the support, look at the team we have on the field playing attractive football. It would be a shame if we don’t go to MLS very fast.”