Long after the crowd had filed out of Papa Murphy’s Park last Saturday night, and a drum beat from the Tower Bridge Battalion could no longer be heard, I decided to hang around longer than I typically do post-match to reflect on another season covering the Sacramento Republic FC. It is something that I have done in one form or another since I started writing about the club in 2014.
This year was different though in that I didn’t want to leave. Was it because I felt like there was unfinished business on the field? Did I need more time to process eight months of footy? Was it my love and connection to the club and city? All likely contributing factors. However, looking over at my yawning eight year-old daughter, I knew we needed to get on our way, so off we went with only the fading glow of stadium lights behind us and memories of what was another wonderful season.
Admittedly, the delay in producing a season in review article has taken longer than I anticipated (or hoped). I literally started and stopped writing this on two separate occasions. Like many of you, the sting of last Saturday’s crushing 1-2 opening round playoff loss to Swope Park Rangers lingered for days.
I was simply not ready to write about it.
But here we are nearly a week removed from the loss, and I feel that the cloud has (mostly) lifted. While many are still understandably disappointed from being eliminated from the playoffs, it is time to reflect on the season that was and begin to look forward.
The 2018 campaign started out fast, with the Republic going unbeaten in their first seven matches. My memory of March and April was that the attacking style of play was refreshing and fun to watch under Manager Simon Elliott. We then weathered the stretch in the middle of June where they were winless over five matches and looked a tad flat. A lull in play is expected over the course of any season and was probably due in part to the Quails playing a high volume of matches to include league and U.S. Open Cup play.
Speaking of the U.S. Open Cup, Republic once again made it to the Round of 16 and faced off against LAFC where they put forward a tremendous effort, ultimately losing 2-3 and a tightly contested match.
As the final six weeks of the season played out, Republic showed tremendous form and continuity and went unbeaten in their final eight matches – seven of which were wins.
In the end though, it was apparent early on in the season that the club needed a second striker to pair with Cameron Iwasa. When coupled with sometimes inconsistent play from the back line (especially lapses in key moments), my feeling is that the Republic were a player or two away from making a deep run.
We know the players that made an impact for the Republic in 2018, and we will get to them shortly, but first year General Manager Todd Dunivant and Manager Simon Elliott deserve a lot credit for the success this season. Elliott specifically was brilliant considering that he took over the club the day before training camp started, and led the team to a second place finish in the Western Conference.
He instituted an exciting, attacking style of play that was fun to watch. He truly understood his team, believed in them, and challenged them to continually improve in wins or losses. Against any measuring stick, it was a successful first year for Elliott. Period. It is clear why the Republic were so high on him.
On the pitch, Josh Cohen was the club’s most valuable player. Second in the United Soccer League (USL) in saves with 120, and fifth in the league in clean sheets (12), Cohen was a force for the Republic. How many games did he either keep the team within striking distance to equalize, or make an extra time save to preserve a win? A half dozen matches is probably a good start. In my view, he was the top USL keeper of the 2018 season.
On the other side of the ball, there is an argument to be made that Cameron Iwasa was co-MVP with Cohen. I mean, where do you start with Iwasa? He led the club in goals with 17 (good for fifth in the USL) and also added six assists. He was the one consistent threat on offense, a handful for every opposing team, but also did the little things off the ball that contributed to the overall success of the team.
With both of their 2018 performances, my guess is they will get a look from a Major League Soccer club (especially Cohen). It is worth noting that the Republic have club options on both Cohen and Iwasa for the 2019 season, but as these things go, we will have to see how it plays out.
Other players that stood out for me include Villyan Bijev, Elliott Hord, Shannon Gomez and Jeremy Hall. I will remember Bijev as the ultimate play maker (especially in a 1v1 situation going towards the goal), Hord playing both sides of the ball with such fervor, Gomez making lighting quick runs up the flanks and Hall as the ultimate facilitator and calming presence at midfield. I also liked what I saw out Keven Alemán, Jaime Villarreal, although both were hampered by injuries at some point.
In the end, while it wasn’t quite enough to bring home a second USL Cup, the 2018 Republic were a fun group to watch and smashed every pre-season projection of where they would finish. Many had them in finishing in the middle of the pack and battling for an eighth seed in the playoffs.
Consider also for a moment that it was the fifth consecutive season the Republic made the playoffs (they have never missed a playoffs in their existence), they matched a franchise record with 17 wins set during the 2014 season (albeit with four more games played in 2018 compared to 2014) and had more USL Team of the Week/USL Goal of the Week/USL Save of the Week nominations than any other season.
Off the field, Republic continued to give back and connect with the community, which is often overlooked. Nothing was more special than seeing the Republic sign 15 year-old Matthew Harding to a professional contract through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and have him score a goal in the season finale against Las Vegas Lights FC. It was a tremendous moment for Matthew and his family, and a proud moment for the club, fans and our community that we could collectively lift this young man up.
Looking ahead to 2019, the future is bright for the Republic. Some players will move on and new ones will come in, but with Dunivant and Elliott at the helm, and with the support of ownership and front office, I believe the club is in a great position moving forward.
MLS is still very much in play, and I am excited to see how that will play out. Bottom line – there is a lot to look forward to.
But this season was a great one Republic fans. Here’s to the future.