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Rebuilding the Republic: 3 takeaways from the season-ending loss

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If Sacramento Republic FC wants to reach the heights of previous seasons, the club will have to address three key weaknesses.

Alex Leguizamo

As anyone who has followed the beautiful game long enough knows, the soccer gods can be quite cruel at times. Just ask this season’s number-one-seeded Real Monarchs or last year’s equally ranked Republic FC side, both of whom lost in dramatic fashion to teams that scraped into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.

But on other occasions, the soccer gods can be perfectly reasonable. Though it may sting to hear, Republic FC’s defeat at the hands of Swope Park Rangers on Saturday was a fair result given the team’s play, not just at Children’s Mercy Park, but also throughout the 2017 season.

Unlike the Kansas City side—which is now undefeated through five straight Western Conference playoff home games as the fourth seed—Sacramento failed to reach the level of consistency of years past. In a dynamic environment like USL, this isn’t surprising nor necessarily a mark of failure. Nonetheless, teams like the Rangers, Louisville City FC and Red Bulls II have shown it is possible to achieve constancy in results and make it something to strive for.

This offseason will no doubt give Republic Head Coach Paul Buckle and his technical staff much to analyze in order to progress toward this goal. Below are three areas they’ll need to address given what we saw against Swope Park Rangers on Saturday.

1. Lack of a true playmaker.
It’s been a recurring theme since the club lost Danny Barrera to injury early in the season. In the captain’s absence, no one has been able to step into the midfield and add the creative spark this team sorely needs.

Augustin Cazarez and Jeremy Hall have been tasked with manning the midfield without Barrera, but the two are better suited for defensive duties and getting the ball over to this proverbial playmaker(s), rather than orchestrating the offense themselves. In an ideal world, the two would anchor the midfield of a 4-2-3-1 or similar formation with defined defensive midfielder roles.

Against the Rangers, Villyan Bijev was deployed in that “10” role behind strikers Sammy Ochoa and Wilson Kneeshaw and showed some promise in the position. The Bulgarian actually had three of Republic’s four best chances to score and had he put one of those away, we may not be having this conversation. Finishing aside, Bijev didn’t have the interplay with Ochoa and Kneeshaw that Buckle probably hoped for, and even if he’d like to build the offense around Bijev as the creative focal point, there’s no guarantee the midfielder will be around next season given that he is on loan.

2. An over-reliance on fullbacks to generate chances.
In the right tactical scheme, fullbacks can be a phenomenal tool to stretch defenses and add another dimension to a team’s attack. Just ask Pep Guardiola. That said, if you’re going to rely on them to provide width for your team, then you also need a central midfield that contributes to the offense. Otherwise, as was the case for Republic FC on Saturday, you become very predictable moving forward. Swope Park Rangers recognized this and focused on shutting down the wings, knowing full well that the visitors were unable to generate much down the middle (see number 1 above).

The other obvious issue with relying too heavily on your fullbacks is that when they have an off day or face opposition that keeps them in their own half (see James Kiffe during the first 45 minutes on Saturday), you lose your main source of chances.

One final note: if fullbacks pushing forward is a big component of your offensive master plan, then their crosses really need to reach the intended targets. Republic FC put in 19 crosses against the Rangers and only three connected with a teammate (15.8% crossing accuracy).

3. Bad finishing.
Despite Sacramento’s insipid play for most of the match, the team had four clear-cut chances to score against the Rangers. One was literally served to them on a golden platter when Ochoa intercepted a bad back pass to Rangers goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas. Yet, as has been the case before, Republic FC was unable to capitalize on any of its opportunities. Against weaker opponents where there are chances aplenty, this can usually be peppered over. But when you’re evenly matched away from home with the season on the line, you need to convert the one chance you get (or in this case, four). This is a problem as old as time and one that isn’t unique to Republic FC, but one that needs to be addressed nonetheless. Outside of getting new players, the way to tackle this issue is by putting your players in better positions to score more often. Addressing the first two points above can go a long way toward accomplishing this.

Do you agree with our analysis? What areas for improvement do you think Republic FC needs to focus during the offseason? Let us know in the comments below.