By EVAN REAM
SACRAMENTO – Down two goals to rivals LA Galaxy II with 20 minutes left to play in their USL Pro semifinal playoff series, Sacramento Republic FC’s dream inaugural season was in jeopardy.
But as he had done all year, midfielder and MVP candidate Rodrigo Lopez made sure that the dream continued, scoring a hat trick to lead the Republic to an improbable 3-2 comeback victory in front of a fired-up sellout crowd of 8,000 at Bonney Field on Saturday night.
The victory propels the Republic into the USL Pro championship game which they will host Saturday night against the Harrisburg City Islanders, which pulled off another upset to secure an improbable place in the final.
The Republic looked unlikely to be in the final either as they trailed 2-0 in the second half. Lopez changed all that, scoring all three goals in the final 21 minutes of the match.
Tied at 2-2 in stoppage time, the game looked to be headed to overtime until Lopez bent a 20-yard free kick into the upper right hand corner, bringing the house down and leaving Republic FC color commentator Kevin Goldthwaite to proclaim, “Rodrigo Lopez is a legend.”
“If I were to write a story about how my career went and close it out with something like that, I don’t think I’d ever imagine doing that. It’s a dream come true,” the diminutive Lopez said after the game. “It’s just unreal, to have a hat trick in a game like this, it’s unreal. I still can’t believe it, but all the credit to my team.”
After a lackadaisical first half from the Republic that saw Galaxy II forward Charlie Rugg power home a brace, Sacramento looked like a completely different team coming out of the break, but they weren’t rewarded for their efforts until the 69th minute when midfielder Ivan Mirković was pulled down in the box, giving the Republic a penalty.
Lopez, who converted the only penalty Sacramento Republic took in the regular season, stepped up and slotted the ball past goalkeeper Brian Perk to revitalize the crowd.
Thirteen minutes later, the Republic equalized as a cross into the box from Emrah Klimenta hit the elbow of Galaxy II defender Joe Franco, forcing the referee to controversially point to the spot a second time.
Lopez made no mistake from the spot, hitting his penalty directly down the middle to set up his dramatic winner.
RICHMOND 2, HARRISBURG 3
The Harrisburg City Islanders are looking more and more like they could end up being the USL Pro version of the 2009 Real Salt Lake team.
Like that RSL team, Harrisburg was the lowest seeded team and had a losing record entering the postseason.
But the City Islanders have now knocked off No. 1 seed Orlando and No. 4 seed Richmond to advance to the USL Pro championship game.
Harrisburg moved closer to earning some hardware thanks to Jamiel Hardware’s goal just before halftime that put the City Islanders up 2-1 and gave the visitors the momentum they needed to carry them to a second straight upset.
Danny DiPrima then scored to make it 3-1 in the second half for the winning goal of the game, handing the out-of-form Kickers just their fourth loss of the season, but one that would see them miss out on the big dance in Sacramento.
Morgan Langley opened the scoring for the City Islanders while Jason Yeisley and DC United loanee Conor Shanosky scored for the Kickers.