Sacramento Republic FC headed to Vancouver last Sunday with the momentum of an unbeaten start. By the time the final whistle blew at Thunderbird Stadium they had earned a draw and improved on their best start ever. Now with seven points in three games, the Republic are tied for second place in the USL Western Conference.
Here are three things we learned from the Republic's scoreless draw in Vancouver.
1. The defense is for real.
Defensive strength has been a big talking point so far this season, and with good reason. The Republic defense has been the most impressive part of the team through the first three games and have limited opponents to only two shots on goal.
What was particularly impressive about last week's defensive performance was that it came against a strong offensive team. As I said in the match preview for last Sunday's match, the Whitecaps 2 attack was going to be a bigger test for the Republic defense than that of Seattle Sounders 2 and Arizona United.
Even after taking Sunday's scoreless draw into account, the Whitecaps are fourth in the Western Conference in both goals scored (four) and shots on goal recorded (14). To compare, AZU is 11th in goals and 10th in shots on goal, while S2 is dead last in goals (zero) and 14th in shots on goal (eight). Not exactly offensive powerhouses.
The fact that the Republic was able to earn a shutout against Whitecaps 2 and limit them to just a single shot on goal is a testament to the defensive strength that we might see from the team throughout the season.
More challenging opponents lie in the future, but it is safe to say that the Republic pretty much aced the test offered by Vancouver.
2. The offense is still finding itself.
Defense is only one part of the game, however, and despite their strength at keeping the ball out of their own net, the Republic have had trouble scoring goals of their own. Through the first three games of the season Sacramento have scored just two goals, putting them in a solid ninth place in the Western Conference goals scored rankings. The team is also ranked 12th among Western Conference teams in shots on goal with nine.
Basically, the Republic is largely in the same boat that it found itself in at the end of last season. The team does a great job of keeping the ball out of their own net, but they have not quite figured out things on the other end of the field.
There could be any number of reasons for this offensive struggle, but one of the most noticeable issues is a possible over reliance on ineffective long balls out of the back. In USL we do not have the opportunity to use Opta stats to track minute stats like passes attempted and completed, but going by memory it seems as though there were a whole lot of balls lumped forward from the back line.
It should be said that a direct style of play and sending long balls out of the back is not a bad thing in and of itself. It is an effective club to have in the bag and can be quite dangerous when used effectively. The problem right now is that the Republic is largely not being effective with those types of balls forward.
On paper it should work. Derek Foran or Chris Christian gets possession, boots the ball to Mark Sherrod, Sherrod either flicks it on or holds it up with his back to goal and passes, Thomas Stewart collects the pass in the box and scores. Only it largely hasn't worked that way for Sacramento so far. It could, but it hasn't.
It should also be said that balls out of the back is not the only club that the Republic has in the bag, it is just the one I chose to highlight today.
3. Dominik Jakubek is pretty great.
With the aforementioned defensive strength, Jakubek has not had to make many saves so far this season. However, he has still played well and made good contributions to the Republic's best ever start, most notably in his willingness to come off his line and break up dangerous plays.
This tendency to come off his line is not anything new to Jakubek's game. He was charging off his line even in the 2014 season. However, at that time he would sometimes choose to come out at bad times and put the team in danger of conceding a goal. So far this season when he has been called to play the part of sweeper keeper he has not been reckless in choosing when to leave his line.
Oh, and he does stuff like this too. It's not every day you see a keeper attempt a scorpion kick save, even after the whistle has blown.
What are your thoughts on last Sunday's scoreless draw in Vancouver? Sound off in the comments below.