When Emrah Klimenta went down with an injury only nine minutes into Republic’s July 2nd matchup against the Seattle Sounders 2, Sacramento fans feared the worst. They feared for the health of a promising player who had just earned his first international cap only two months prior, and they feared for Republic’s season, a ship that seemed to have finally steadied its course after the US Open Cup debacle.
Sure enough, the news was dire: Klimenta’s season was over with a torn ACL and Republic suffered for it. Gone was the team’s dynamism down the right flank, and to an extent, the backline’s cohesion, as Head Coach Paul Buckle was forced to make game-to-game improvisations to fill the void left by one of Republic’s few remaining championship-winning players.
The effects of all this were disastrous. In the following match, Republic capitulated to a 2-3 loss at home at the hands of Real Monarchs, despite being up 2-0 with 20 minutes left in the game. That loss kicked off a five-game winless streak (a club record) that included a grueling away stretch extending from July 10th to August 2nd. By the time Republic won another match, they had dropped from third in the Western Conference to the fifth position.
There’s a Spanish proverb that says, no hay mal que por bien no venga—there is no misfortune from which good doesn’t come—and it would eventually hold true for the boys in Old Glory Red.
While Republic was going through its slump, there was an experienced MLS veteran nearly 3,000 miles away in Florida that was growing increasingly frustrated by his lack of playing opportunities. Jeremy Hall, who had arrived to the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies on a one-year contract from the New England Revolution, had yet to play a single minute for his new club this season.
His omission from the field was curious considering the Rowdie’s languishing table position and Hall’s background—a professional career that began with the New York Red Bulls in 2009 and included stints with the Portland Timbers, FC Dallas, Toronto FC, and more recently, the Revolution.
“It was one of those things where I was like, ‘well, if I’m not going to get a chance to help out [the Rowdies], then I’d like to get an opportunity to help somewhere [else],’” recounted Hall.
Excited to be in Sacramento! The fan base here is amazing⚽️ pic.twitter.com/QgtBptVzgt— Jeremy Hall (@JeremyHall17) July 28, 2016
That opportunity came as Republic scrambled to find a replacement for Klimenta and heard that Hall was, to their surprise, available. The club officially announced Hall’s loan on July 21st, less than three weeks after Klimenta’s injury. Three days later, Hall was starting his first match for Republic, away at Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2. That part was expected, but when fans tuned into the match back home, many were surprised to see Hall deployed as a holding midfielder instead of filling in, as many assumed, at right-back.
“A lot of people think I’m a right-back,” mused Hall. “This is my eighth year [as a professional player] and I’ve played everywhere. I understand the game [and] I can play a lot of different positions, which I have in my career.”
Since joining the club in July, Hall has played and started all but one of Republic’s games (he was out on September 10th against LA Galaxy II due to a minor ankle injury), and with the exception of a few in-game tactical adjustments, it’s been predominantly as a holding midfielder, a role that he relishes.
“When I was in Toronto, I played a lot in midfield, so I love playing in the middle,” said Hall with gusto. “I love being able to dictate the tempo. I’m very vocal when I’m on the field, so I like being able to talk and get on the ball. I feel like I have more of an influence on [the game].”
Buckle loves it, too. For a team with a possession-based playing philosophy like Republic, unexpectedly signing a player of Hall’s quality who can play in that position was the quintessential “come-up.”
The holding midfielder role is named as such because it requires the player to hold his position—the space between the defense and midfield—in order to shield the backline and intercept the opposition’s service from getting to their forwards. In teams like Republic that prefer to play out of the back when they have the ball (rather than send long, direct balls forward), the holding mid also sets the team’s tone of play and initiates the attack. The key to this role is having great awareness to read the opposition’s play, as well as the tactical discipline to press space instead of players, traits that an experienced player is more likely to possess. Unsurprisingly, Buckle opted to play the MLS veteran in this vital role rather than having him cover at right-back.
“It’s one of those things where I knew that they knew I played right-back and holding mid and [Buckle] put me in there and it was good,” said Hall of his role on the team. “I feel like I’m still getting better and better when I understand exactly what Coach wants from me and expects from me as far as how far to drop back and how he wants me on the ball, so I’m getting more comfortable with the guys.”
Hall’s versatility and experience have been pivotal to Republic’s current form. Although neither USL nor Republic keep statistics on things like the number of passes, tackles or touches a player makes, Hall’s influence has been visible: Republic has only lost one game since the club signed him (that first match against Vancouver, a game they lost in stoppage time to a last-gasp header). The 1-1 draw against LA Galaxy II last weekend set a new undefeated record at 10—all of those games have come since Hall joined the club.
His presence has largely stabilized a midfield that would previously alternate each week. Some nights, you’d see JJ Koval and Danny Barrera paired in the center; other times, it was Octavio Guzman or Alfonso Motagalvan that would feature. It’s unclear whether this was a tactical decision based on each week’s opponent or simply tinkering on Buckle’s part to find the right midfield recipe. Perhaps it was a bit of both, but now, you can usually expect to see Hall alongside Koval in the center of the field. This newfound lineup consistency has improved Republic’s defensive performances, leading to five shutouts out of the ten games Hall has featured in. With Elliott Hord’s arrival finally solving the right-back problem, Republic suddenly looks like a team with a lot of depth that’s hitting its stride at the right time.
When asked about Republic’s title aspirations this year, Hall was bullish on the club’s chances of making it far in the playoffs.
“[They’re] good, man,” said Hall with the optimism of a player going through a personal renaissance. “I think playoffs are so exciting. First of all, it’s really hard to get into [them] because it’s a long season, it goes up and down, you get hot and cold. We’re in a good position right now. I know we have to win these last two games to put ourselves in that first position because Rio Grande’s in a good spot as well. But once you get into the playoffs, I feel like none of that matters.”
He also recognized the influence Bonney Field can play in their potential matchups, both positive and negative.
“When people come to Bonney [Field], I feel like we get everybody’s best game because of the atmosphere, because of the field conditions and everything, so it makes it a lot harder on ourselves,” explained Hall. “I’ve gone from playing at Bonney to going to OC where there’s like three people in the stands… I feel like when teams come here, they love the atmosphere, they love the fans, they get hyped a little bit more, naturally.”
“Once you get into playoffs, you have to bring it. You can’t take any plays off. Those are the teams that win the championship,” he added. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen lot of depth [in positions], which in certain teams you don’t really see that… We have a lot of guys, who when their number is called, are able to step in and do a shift, so I’m excited about our chances. I think if we finish in the top spot and we have home field advantage, I think that, like I said, it’s our advantage and we have to expect a battle, but I like our odds in that.”
Can't wait for the energy at Bonney field tonight. Let's get it!! ⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/SDu6hBR7mg— Jeremy Hall (@JeremyHall17) September 3, 2016
Beyond the team’s performance since his arrival, Hall is happy with the way he has settled into Republic and Sacramento. Part of that stems from the fact that he was already familiar with several members of the team.
“I knew a couple of guys who had played here—[Rodrigo] “Roro” [Lopez] and Justin Braun—so I kind of followed [Republic] a little bit, and when they told me this was a possibility, I did my research and I was a really excited about it,” Hall recounted. “I worked with [Assistant Head Coach] Adam [Smith] in Portland when I was there in 2011. I knew Evan [Newton] and Danny [Barrera] from residency program, so I knew there [would be] a lot of familiarity. I was really excited about it and am glad it worked out because the group has been awesome, the coaching staff’s been great, the front office, the fans, it’s amazing. It’s a perfect fit so I’m really happy about that.”
Unfortunately, Republic fans won’t know if Hall will be around next season until the end of the year. Being a player on loan, the decision will ultimately rest with his parent club with whom he is contracted.
“When I signed with Tampa, I signed a one-year and an option, so I’m on loan here until the end of the year,” Hall explained. “I guess it’s one of those things where I have to go back [to Tampa] and see what that is going to be if I don’t get my option picked up, which we’ll have to talk to them about.”
Hall hopes that Republic and the Rowdies can reach an agreement to see him return to Bonney Field next season.
“I’d love to come back here,” said Hall. “I feel like this is just a top place to be. The facilities are great, fan-wise it’s amazing—the whole living is great. It’s amazing just walking Downtown and seeing people in Sac Republic gear and getting recognized. I feel like [Sacramento is] just a proper place to play.”
“I mean, this is our job and just to be able to have that on the weekends and playing in front of these fans and just the hype around the city, it’s amazing. I’ve played in a bunch of different clubs and you don’t see that everywhere, so this is a special place and I think it’s only going to go up once MLS comes. I think’s going to be another notch up, which is scary to see because I think it’s going to be really fun, but yeah, we’ll have to see what happens with me and Tampa at the end of the season.”
What are your thoughts on the impact Hall has had on the team? Would you like to see him around come next season? Let us know in the comments below.