Over the course of a season, all teams are faced with players lost to injury, players shipped out and added, and the typical ups and downs. In the end, only the strong survive while the rest are left wondering what might have been. With just a handful of games remaining on the schedule, the 2016 Sacramento Republic FC appear to be one of the teams that has survived.
And let’s be honest. It wasn’t that long ago that few believed that the Republic would be in the position they are today sitting on top of the USL Western Conference Table with 44 points. The club was struggling to score goals, there were all these new faces, fan-favorite Tommy Stewart was released, and Emrah Klimenta went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Yet here the Republic are playing some of the most inspired soccer they’ve played all year at the most critical juncture of the season. So how have they been able to do it? Well, Cameron Iwasa has had a breakout year for the Republic leading the team with 11 goals (tied for fourth in the USL), Danny Barrea has been a force all over the field setting up teammate after teammate (team-high eight assists), and defensively they have been solid, to name a few. But behind it all, it’s second-year manager Paul Buckle who has quietly done an exceptional job pulling it all together.
Buckle, with Director of Football Graham Smith, have been able to bring in quality players to the Republic and quickly unite new and existing players to buy into his system. The players believe in one another, play unselfishly and guinnuely like one another. Buckle deserves loads of credit for creating this dynamic and has proven he’s exactly what the Republic needed when they signed him mid-season last year following the departure of Preki.
I asked Buckle following the Republic’s 0-0 draw versus the visiting third place Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 last Saturday night how in the face of so much change, the team has been able to rise above it all and be sitting on top of the standings.
“Belief…belief in what we’re doing at the Club,” said Buckle. “At the end of last season, we lost players and we allowed players to move on because it’s Club policy. If a player can get a higher caliber of football, we’ve allowed it. So, we can all be proud of the way we’ve glued it together. We’ve brought in people like Chris Christian in and [Mike] da Fonte when we lost the two center [backs]. I’m very pleased and believe our recruitment was right. Letting Tommy Stewart go I believe was correct. It was nothing against Tom. I loved him as a player. Sometimes you have to allow players to move on to allow other players to come through. Cameron Iwasa now is the one [who has benefited from Stewart moving on], where as before he was sort of in the background. I don’t think we’ve got any superstar players, [but] I think we’ve put together a team that is very functional, very much together as a group, fights to the very end, and is also now showing great quality. Graham must take a lot of credit for recruitment…he puts a lot of players in front of me and the policy has been to not allow anyone into the Club that doesn’t share our core values, which is being a good person and working hard.”
In typical Buckle fashion (at least since I’ve been covering him), he took the opportunity to answer the question by praising the players, Graham and the organization, but not really himself. You might be thinking…well, of course he did. That’s what a coach should do. But I believe Buckle goes out of his way to not be the one taking the credit. It’s what makes him so effective in my opinion and epitomizes everything you want in a leader.
I’m not going to say Buckle has come a long way, because that’s simply not accurate or fair. I do believe though when he arrived in Sacramento (especially because it came in mid-season), Buckle and his style of play was immediately compared to Preki, whose up-tempo style of play and Championship season set the bar high. When goals weren’t immediately flying into the back of the net under Buckle and fan favorites were being moved, fans and media started to question the identity of the Republic under his tenure. I think that bell has been answered soundly.
The bottom line is this. The Republic may be a better overall team now than they were during their 2014 Championship season. Whether that translates into a deep playoff run is yet to be determined, but with Buckle at the helm, the horizon looks bright now and into the future.
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