With a pristine blue sky at kickoff, last Saturday night at Bonney Field may have appeared like your typical beautiful spring evening in Sacramento to watch soccer (and it was), but for supporters of Liverpool FC (LFC) of the English Premier League (EPL), it was a tremendous opportunity to see their U21 club face off against the Sacramento Republic FC (Republic) in a first-ever friendly between the two. It was also a chance for LFC supporters to see some faces up-close that have first team experience and those that could be called up to the first team in the near future.
For Republic fans, it was a chance to observe top-flight international talent and to see how the Republic stack up against the caliber of a club like LFC and their U21s. For those that are not aware, a U21 team basically consists of players that are in the pipeline for the first team, so the significance of this friendly from a competition and experience standpoint for the Republic was invaluable.
The match was the fourth friendly the Republic have played against an EPL club. With the 2-1 win, thanks in part to a brilliant late goal by left back James Kiffe in the 86 minute, the Republic are now 2-3-0 all-time against EPL clubs, with their other victory coming last season against Sunderland AFC 1-0.
Coming into the match, a lot of the talk surrounded American Brooks Lennon, who joined the LFC academy last summer. While there is clearly a lot to like about his game, I was really impressed with the play of Ryan Kent who has first team experience. He made fantastic runs, is really skillful and crafty with the the ball and notched LFCs lone goal in the 75 minute.
The game aside, the biggest takeaway was that the Republic, a third-tier division U.S. soccer club in the United Soccer League (USL), continues to schedule fixtures with top-flight international soccer clubs and demonstrate that they can succeed at a higher-level of soccer. Raise your hand if you had LFC U21 coming out to Sacramento to play a friendly three years ago. I’m going to go ahead and say that very few outside the Republic front office had this friendly penciled in.
Even in the likelihood the Republic had to pay some sort of “fee” for LFC to travel out and play the matches in Sacramento and in Reno (this Wednesday), you can’t help but be impressed with how they continue to operate like an Major League Soccer (MLS) club and push boundaries on their way to the ultimate goal of joining MLS. The Republic are creating excitement for the game, fans and players.
“I’d like to thank Liverpool for arranging this, and our people for arranging this, because I thought it was an incredible game of football”, said Republic Manager Paul Buckle. “I thought it was brilliant, and it was wonderful yesterday to see Liverpool training here. Our players needed this, we all needed this game, and I thought it was a thoroughly entertaining.”
Beyond the fact that the Republic are operating MLS-like, the relationships that Buckle and Graham Smith (Director of Football) have in the soccer circles has really benefited the Republic. From scheduling EPL matches, to signing international players to come to Sacramento (such as Daniel Trickett-Smith who just arrived from LFC U21 and signed with Sacramento last week), what these two bring to the Republic can not be overestimated.
It would be easy to dismiss Saturday’s 2-1 win for the Republic. Yes, LFC arrived in Sacramento late Thursday, were jet-lagged, fielded a younger team, are at the end of their season, and it was a friendly. However, when you start adding up how the Republic have faired in big matches over the last several years including the win over Sunderland, a narrow loss to New Castle United 0-1, and the heartbreaking loss last year to the San Jose Earthquakes in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (where the Republic were up 2-0 late and lost in shootout), they make a pretty strong case that they have no problems playing up to the competition. MLS is undoubtably taking notice.
Next up for the Republic is a rematch with LFC U21s on May 25 in Reno. And you better believe LFC U21s will be looking to even the score.
When I asked left back James Kiffe on what the Republic needed to work on ahead of the next match, he joked, “hopefully some rest….a day off.” The Republic will have played four matches in 11 days when May 25 rolls around. Kiffe went on to say…”I think like Paul said, we lost three games in-a-row, but it doesn’t really change anything…it’s continuing what we’ve been working on all season. We just need to fine-tune things. To Paul’s credit, we lost three games and continued to do the same thing. We obviously made minor tweaks, but a good coach sticks with the same thing if he believes in it, and it’s starting to pay off.”
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