By EVAN REAM
Sacramento Republic FC have enjoyed a fairy tale inaugural season heading into Saturday’s USL Pro championship, which the No. 2 seeded Republic host in front of an expected sellout crowd of 8,000 at Bonney Field.
But the real fairy tale might be the play of the unfancied No. 8 seed Harrisburg City Islanders, who caught fire at the right time and knocked off the No. 1 seed Orlando City SC and the No. 4 seed Richmond Kickers en route to a berth in the championship match.
Led by Bill Becher, the only head coach in the 11-year history of the franchise, the City Islanders went from league afterthought to title contender by picking up important wins at the right time.
“It’s easy to point to the end of the season where we had a (losing record) but I think if you dig a little deeper into it, we started the season poorly, we have a young team and we have a lot of new players this year, so we started 2-6-2,” Becher said as his team was preparing to board the long flight to Sacramento. “If you throw out the first 10 (games) and look at our record the last 18 games, it’s pretty good actually.”
“And to top that off with, we had beaten Orlando during the regular season, we beat Sacramento, we beat LA Galaxy, on top of the fact that we beat New York Red Bulls Reserves, so we have gotten some quality wins,” Becher added. “We had a bad start, we had a little hiccup at the end, but in all, we’ve been pretty solid in the last two-and-a half months.”
That 2-1 win against Sacramento — the Republic’s home opener in front of a record crowd 20,231 fans at Hughes Stadium — seems to be on the mind of everyone these days.
Well, everyone except both coaches.
“We are aware of everything that’s happened, but at the end of the day it’s going to be all about us and how we play so we can focus on what we always try to do: focus on ourselves,” said Republic head coach Preki when asked about the upset. “That’s always been our goal, our strength and, hopefully, it will be the same this time around.”
When asked if Harrisburg players were using that win as motivation heading into the final, Becher gave a similar response.
“No, I don’t think so, that was so long ago. That was late April. I think it was a game, we were 0-3-1 at the time, a game that we had to have,” Becher said. “It was a good result, but I think the other thing you have to look at is both teams are extremely different than they were that game.”
Different may be an understatement as both teams were still looking to gel, as is common in USL Pro where players are frequently brought in right before the season starts and sometimes lack a proper preseason.
After the Republic’s loss to the City Islanders, the team’s third loss of the season, USL Pro MVP candidate Rodrigo Lopez had scored just one goal in six games.
In the remaining 22 games, Lopez scored nine goals, and Sacramento lost just four more times the entire season.
While the play of Lopez, especially his semifinal hat trick, has powered the Republic to the final, the City Islanders have received contributions from a variety of players, such as Antoine Hoppenot, Morgan Langley and Jamiel Hardware.
Langley is the only remaining member of the 2011 City Islanders team that finished as the runners-up in USL Pro. Hoppenot is a recent Philadelphia Union loanee who scored the winning goal against Orlando in the playoffs, personifying the Pennsylvania side that has been fighting for its life since stumbling out of the gate to start the season.
“The one thing we have going for us a little bit is that we’ve been playing playoff games for about six weeks now,” Becher said. “For us, it started well before the playoffs. We had to get hot at the end. We had a lot of games we had to win. Last game of the regular season, if we lost, we were out.”
If the City Islanders are going to continue knocking off teams on the road, they’re going to have to do it in the most hostile environment that they’ve faced thus far.
“(We need to) stay composed and not let the atmosphere get to us,” Becher said. “We just have to keep our composure and play and not get caught up in the fact that it’s a championship game and not get caught up in the fact that they’re going to have 8,000 fans rocking that place. If we can keep those distractions away from us, we give ourselves a chance.”
Sacramento’s journey to the final may have been expected, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t any less dramatic.
The Republic were 20 minutes away from elimination last Saturday against LA Galaxy II when Lopez led the charge with a hat trick for a comeback 3-2 win which has now been labeled the “Miracle at Bonney.”
Much has been said about Sacramento in the media, especially with MLS officials in town last week to examine the feasibility of a future franchise in the state capital.
A win would assuredly help generate good will for a potential downtown MLS stadium. But for now, the favorites just want Saturday to come.
“First year as a franchise, to win a championship? I think that would be amazing and something special,” Lopez said. “Obviously the fans want it, but the players have been working so hard since February and since the first day we got here.
“Everything we’ve done this year has been from hard work,” Lopez added. “Nothing has been given to us. Saturday is the last day to let it all out and all that hard work throughout the year, to just release it and enjoy it. (There are) a lot of young players here and guys like me who haven’t played in a championship in a while.
“I just want to win. We want to win.”
Expecting Sacramento to take care of business at home? Think Harrisburg can pull of the upset, or is midnight near for this Cinderella? Where will you be watching the final?
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