For their final home match of the 2016 preseason, Sacramento Republic are welcoming their MLS affiliate and familiar foe, the San Jose Earthquakes, to Bonney Field.
While today's match is similar to last week's friendly in that it is mostly a preseason test against MLS opposition, there is also a bit of an extra incentive today that just wasn't there last week. The Rapids are just any old MLS team, but the Earthquakes are the closest thing the Republic has to a regional rival at the moment, and matches between the two teams tend to be pretty intense.
The Hella Cup continues tonight at 5pm. Let's take a look at some things to think about for tonight.
Fifth time's the charm
While all the past editions of the Hella Cup have been fairly intense, the results have been lopsided. The Earthquakes have won every single meeting between the two teams thus far, both in friendlies and in US Open Cup play. Sacramento have usually kept things fairly close, with the most recent meeting being an excruciating loss in penalties in last year's US Open Cup, but the Quakes have always managed to pull out the win.
The Republic will be looking to change that tonight in the first Hella Cup match of the Paul Buckle Era. There have been multiple changes to the Republic since the last time they lined up opposite the Earthquakes, so it will be interesting to see how this still-forming squad fares against what should be their most challenging match of the preseason. If the Republic can pull off their first ever win against the Quakes, it would send certainly send positive signals about the direction of the club.
A serious defensive test
On the of the main takeaways from last week's friendly against the Colorado Rapids was the fairly strong performance of the new Republic back line, who had never played together outside of training. While it is true that the defense did put in a good performance, they did so against a relatively weak offensive team. With respect to the Rapids, they just are not good at scoring goals. Last season they scored only 33 goals. The only team in the last two years to score fewer goals than that was the 2014 version of Chivas USA, which scored only 29 goals.
While the Earthquakes are not exactly MLS powerhouses, they do know how to put the ball in the back of the net and will likely be a tougher test for the Republic's new defense. If the back line can handle the considerable threat posed by Chris Wondolowski and Co, then that bodes well for the coming USL season.
Coach Buckle has stressed defensive integrity and balancing attack with defense since first taking the reigns in Sacramento. This weekend will be one of the tougher tests he and his team have faced so far.
More trialists, more experiments, more lessons learned
Although preseason friendlies are fun for fans like us to watch and somewhat alleviate the suffering brought on by a lack of live soccer that builds up during the offseason, at the end of the day they are primarily for letting the team settle in for the season to come. Preseason is when a coach trots out different lineups, makes tweaks to formations or more specific style of play instructions to see what will work best going forward. While we saw some of that last weekend, tonight's match against the Earthquakes should be when we see the team settle in to preseason and show us more of what we can expect when March rolls around and the points start to matter.
One thing I will be looking for tonight is a glimpse at what might be the current preferred starting XI. As mentioned above, this is the strongest test that Republic are going to get this preseason, so it is likely that Coach Buckle will want to send out his best XI out of the gate.
However, that does not mean we will not be seeing some usual substitutes or trialists make an appearance. Some players I am particularly interested in seeing are Agustin Cazarez, Mackenzie Pridham and Harry Williams.
Cazarez is interesting because with James Kiffe possibly healthy again, we might see him either start or come in as a sub in whichever spot Buckle views as his best, rather than just as cover at left back.
One of the many Republic trialists, Pridham is of particular interest because he had the best performance of any non-rostered player against the Rapids last weekend. The Cal Poly alum nearly tallied his first goal with the team and he generally looked dangerous. Hopefully we can see more of what he brings tonight.
Harry Williams was a bit of a victim of an uninspired first half last weekend. It would be nice to see him tonight so we can get a glimpse of why Buckle was so interested in bringing him to Sacramento.
What are your thoughts on how tonight's game will go? Have any alternative lineup predictions? Let us know in the comments below.