Before Republic FC began play in 2014, few soccer fans in Newcastle, England or Guadalajara, Mexico likely knew where Sacramento was located on a map.
Now they do.
So, too, do the fans of the Glasgow Rangers F.C. (Scotland) and Liverpool FC (England).
Hosting international friendlies has always been a priority for Republic FC and this season is no exception. Republic FC will play the reigning CONCACAF Champions League champs CF Pachuca, when they come to Papa Murphy’s Park on July 15.
Founded in 1892, CF Pachuca is the oldest professional soccer club in Mexico. Los Tuzos have also been one of the most successful professional soccer clubs in Mexico, winning six national championships, five CONCACAF Champions League Cups, a SuperLiga championship and a Copa Sudamericana. Los Tuzos most recently won the CONCACAF Champions League earlier this year with a 2-1 aggregate victory over Tigres UANL.
“There are several reasons why these international friendlies are important for our club and the first is that these games build our brand awareness,” said Republic FC Director of Football Graham Smith. “When you play teams from other parts of the world it puts your name out there. Second, it’s great for our fans to see these international teams with world-renowned players and lastly, it’s great for our players to play at a higher level than the USL.”
Here’s a look at some of the most notable international friendlies over the last four Republic FC seasons:
Republic FC striker Chad Bartlomé sent a through ball in the air to a streaking Max Alvarez who wrapped a left-footed curling shot past the keeper to give Republic FC a 1-0 lead over the Liga MX club. Republic FC would carry that lead into halftime of the first international friendly in franchise history. But two goals, in the 80th and 84th minutes, proved to be Republic FC’s downfall in a soldout game at the brand new facility at Cal Expo that was then known as Bonney Field.
Paul Buckle’s debut as Republic FC’s head coach and technical director was a win when the boys in Old Glory Red took the victory from the Premier League club.
Republic FC got on the scoreboard early in the second half. In the 58th minute substitute forward Cameron Iwasa sent a ball out wide to Thomas Stewart with his first touch of the match. Stewart sent a cross into the edge of box where midfielder Max Alvarez laid off a pass for Iwasa. With his second touch of the match Iwasa sent a left-footed strike past Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone and into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
Iwasa had a chance to add a second goal in the 85th minute after receiving a layoff pass from James Kiffe. After using a shot fake to juke his defender, Iwasa sent the shot up and over the crossbar and out of play. The match would end with the one goal for Republic FC, but a major victory for the team and Coach Buckle.
Club Deportivo Guadalajara, popularly known as Chivas, scored the first goal in the 18th minute and had the fans of the Liga MX squad dancing in the aisles. But Republic FC would get the equalizer in the 36th minute as midfielder Danny Barrera ripped a one-timer past Chivas keeper Miguel Jimenez. Sacramento nearly won it late when Mackenzie Pridham, Christian Chaney and Agustin Cazarez had successive shots on goal but each was turned away. The game featured many first team Chivas players, including Carlos Peña, Jair Pereira and José Vazquez.
“Most of our guys will never forget that game,” said Cazarez, a midfielder who is having a breakout season for Republic FC. “We were the home team, but looking at the grandstands and seeing all that red, blue and white, we felt like the visitors. It was a great experience for us.”
Smith was impressed with the Chivas fan base that showed that day, too.
“With the Mexican teams, it’s always vital for us to create a good relationship and atmosphere for the visiting fans, many of which are part of our local Hispanic community,” Smith said. “When we played Chivas, they sent their first team and it was a wonderful game. Chivas fans know the sport of football and are a match for any home crowd. For Republic FC fans, the best in USL and even beyond, it was great to see that mix between the two fan bases.”
Of the 10 international friendlies in Sacramento, five have been against teams from the UK. This includes Premier League clubs West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United FC, Sunderland AFC along with Liverpool FC’s Under 21s and perhaps Scotland’s most popular squad from its capital city, the Rangers. Of those games against UK opponents, Republic FC’s record is 2-4-1, losing only to West Bromwich Albion 3-1 in 2014.
One of the first international opponents Republic FC faced was the Premier League’s West Bromwich Albion. Smith was torn in those matches against West Brom. On one hand, he wanted his Sacramento side to win. On the other, the native of Great Britain has deep ties to the Baggies.
“From a personal standpoint, my favorite match was our first season when we played West Bromwich Albion because I played for that club and I’m friends with their head coach,” Smith said. “When we played Newcastle that was an incredible experience because we brought in a popular English Premier League team helmed by the former English National team coach in Steve McClaren.”
In that match, James Kiffe sent a Newcastle cross into the Republic FC net for an own goal in the 47th minute. Sacramento gave Newcastle fits all night while looking for the equalizer and played with a man advantage after the 65th minute when Newcastle defender Massadio Haïdara was sent off with a red card for a dangerous tackle on Republic FC midfielder Danny Barrera.
“I am proud of everyone, of our players, staff and fans,” Buckle said after the match. “It was a proper Premiership performance from them, but we still caused them a lot of problems.”
The broader point of the international friendlies is to expose the Republic FC players and their fans to another brand of the beautiful game, to see how it’s played outside of the United States and, of course, how Sacramento stacks up.
“When you see these (international teams) come into Sacramento and compete against our players, I take great personal satisfaction,” Smith said. “It’s really a vindication of the people in place at Sacramento Republic FC – from the owners on down. It convinces me, no, it reinforces for me that Sacramento deserves the highest level of football.”