Republic fans from all over are beginning to shake off the cold of the off-season and feel the warmth that a new season brings. Gone are many of the key members of seasons past, and the question of replacements is thrust into the foreground. Losing vital cogs such as Rodrigo Lopez, Justin Braun, Mickey Daly, Gabe Gissie, Patrick McLain and Nemanja Vuković has caused some warranted worry about the upcoming season. For an outsider looking in, it appears that the squad has been gutted and continued success going forward is far from a guarantee. The question of who will lead and produce for the Republic is certainly one worth evaluating given all the roster turnover.
Starting with the easiest transition, the Republic's acquisition of former OKC Energy Goalkeeper Evan Newton is a solid replacement, if not an upgrade. While McLain was a steady keeper for the team last season (though it could be very easily argued that he was outplayed by Dominik Jakubek) the addition of one of the USL's top goalkeepers is a huge get for the Republic. One of the finalists for the "USL Goalkeeper of the Year" award, Newton will tangibly help improve the backline play for Sacramento. He posted 10 clean sheets and had a stingy 1.22 GAA last season, which is obviously incredibly impressive. Defensive success starts with the last defender and the Republic just acquired a major upgrade in that area.
In the time since defensive regulars Daly and Vuković have been shipped out, the club has made two signings in the hopes of negating the substantial losses. Chris Christian and Mike da Fonte, most recently with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks and New York Red Bulls II respectively, hope to fill the Republic's cavernous defensive void.
Given how important both Daly and Vuković were to the successes of the team in the last two seasons, I find it hard to believe that the Republic's two new defender signings will completely replace the team's production at those positions, although I am certainly open to being pleasantly surprised. I will remain hopeful that the signing of Christian and Da Fonte will help solidify the walls of the Republic's castle.
The real elephant in the room is how the Republic are going to replace the legend known as "Roro." Replacing a star player is a daunting task for any club, and one that more often than not changes the whole composition of the squad. As Republic FC fans have known for a while now, Rodrigo Lopez has left the adoring arms of the passionate Sacramento fanbase to follow the allure of showcasing his talent at a higher level with Celaya FC.
As a 2014 All-USL First Team member as well as a five-time member of the USL Squad of the week in 2015, Lopez brought a dynamic style of play that other coaches simply had to tactically plan for. It is a rarity within the USL to see a player serve as a true "face of the franchise" and embody the competitive and passionate nature of a team and its fans.
With Roro's departure, the Republic have lost roughly 25% of its scoring, and the impact only increases if one considers the deft passing that he brought each night. Approximately 25% of the team's assists and countless other created chances will need to be filled by the remaining members of the squad. That isn't to say that scoring this season will fall by that same number, but it certainly begs the question of who will fill Roro's sizable shoes.
Thankfully, a possible replacement for his production exists thanks in the form of midfielder Danny Barrera, who on many occasions in 2015 emulated the catalytic influence that Lopez often brought. Reublic fans can continue to count on seeing strong possession skills and a knack for creative, precise passing from Barrera, with the hope that he will facilitate much like Lopez did, albeit with a few more question marks as to how he will fill the stat sheet.
The addition of locally-grown midfielder Matt LaGrassa is seemingly a move more for depth than immediate first team impact, but he is worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses. He did show fairly well in his 36 minutes during the first pre-season friendly against the Colorado Rapids.
In a broader view however, the pairing of Barrera with stud midfielder Ivan Mirković will certainly make for entertaining football and likely help a continuance of success that Republic fans have come to expect.
In my opinion, scoring will clearly be the biggest issue facing the club in this coming season. With second-leading scorer Braun heading to the Indy Eleven and promising young talent Gabe Gissie heading to the Steel, a very important question has presented itself: who exactly will do the scoring this season?
Braun was an established scorer who Republic fans could count on to cause havoc up top. Gissie, while very young, seems to be on the cusp of real greatness and possibly future roles within higher leagues. One can dream all day about the potential he flashed on occasion last season, which is why his loss could end up being one of the most painful of all for Republic fans, especially if he ends up striking it big in MLS or elsewhere.
Perhaps softening the aforementioned blows can be the re-signing of Adnan Gabeljic who may help the offense significantly if one believes in the praise that manager Paul Buckle recently passed his way. That is, if we ever nail down exactly where he is.
One of the Republic trialists, Mackenzie Pridham, had a very good showing in the first pre-season friendly and was very active throughout his time on the pitch. Unfortunately, he had a goal disallowed on an offside call that was dubious at best. He is a player to keep an eye on if his production and energy level continue at the level we saw in the first match.
Harry Williams, a striker from the English club Cheltenham Town, is a bit of a mystery at this point and was not overly impressive in his pre-season debut. He is, however, well known by Coach Buckle and my bets would be on him making a positive impact with the club before all is said and done.
Tommy Stewart and Jesuit alum Cameron Iwasa will certainly need to elevate their games and attempt to help fill the scoring void. Both have shown flashes of being proficient scorers and creators, but there is a lot of doubt about whether or not they will be able to bridge the gap. Personally, I expect a slight drop-off in production from Republic forwards this season, although I think the scoring will more or less be on par with 2014. The distribution of goals will almost assuredly be more spread out.
Going forward, it will be interesting which players take steps forward and whether or not any additional moves will be made to strengthen the club. The only thing for certain is Sacramento's love affair with the team will continue to grow and the club will certainly flourish with that support.