As Republic FC hit the home stretch of the 2019 season, we sat down with the club’s general manager, Todd Dunivant, to get his thoughts on how the year has shaped out so far, what he thinks of the league’s growth and how the SRFC Academy is progressing as it enters its fifth season.
Let’s start off with the current status of the team. How do you see the team now relative to the expectations you may have had in preseason?
I’d say, the story hasn’t finished yet on this season. Certainly at this point in the year to be where we’re at, none of us are content. I don’t think the staff is, I don’t think the players are and it’s something that we have to use to make us better.
I think our advantage can be that we’ve gone through a lot this year. We’ve had to figure out who we are, we’ve had to really look in the mirror, we don’t have the luxury of brushing things under the rug. We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity, and for us, moving into this final stretch of the last 10 games, playoffs, that can be an advantage for us and we have to use that as an advantage.
Obviously, we have to get the job done, but we think there’s been a little bit of a turning point after the Reno, Fresno losses. We got eight points out of the next four games, stumbled a little bit in Phoenix, but I think we walked away from that game with a lot of confidence and that is really what this is all about is how do we build the rest of the season into playoffs and make the run when we need to make it, because ultimately the end result is what we’ll be remembered for this year.
Obviously, winning silverware is the ultimate goal, but on a short-term basis heading into the playoffs, what’s the main focus for the team right now?
I think short-term goal is consistency. This year, consistency has been an issue. We’ve shown flashes of absolute brilliance. There’s a lot of belief within the group, a lot of belief within the team, within the club as a whole and I think we need to show that week-in and week-out, and not one week positive, one week negative and keep kind of going back and forth.
I think it’s been a little bit of a journey, and again, you have seasons like that, and I’ve never had a perfect season. This is the 15th, 16th professional season for me and never had a perfect one yet. So really, the important thing is how we’re building and that we keep taking steps forward and progressing. Consistency is without a doubt what we need to find and we are trending in the right direction there.
New forward Thomas Enevoldsen kicked off his SRFC career with a bang, scoring a brace in his debut with the club..
There’s been a lot of player movement this year, especially compared to last season where the roster stayed relatively fixed. We’ve had new guys come in, some guys head out, whether permanently or on loan. Walk us through signings like Thomas Enevoldsen. He’s a big name in the league—how does something like that come about so late in the year?
The player movement, there has been more this year and sometimes you can’t plan for that. Things come up, things happen. We certainly never planned to transfer Josh Cohen or to lose Josh Cohen. An opportunity arose for him, and ultimately for the club, and it ended up being a win-win-win for everyone involved, but that meant that we had to add another goalkeeper. We were able to find a great one in Bobby Shuttleworth, an MLS starter for a long, long time. Adding veteran leadership to our team in that position was really important, so you kind of have to adapt a little bit.
A few players went out in [Roberto] Hategan, in [Tyler] Blackwood, Elliott [Hord] is on loan. We’ve had a really deep squad this year, and so it made sense to get Elliott some minutes elsewhere to keep him going. It’s good for us, good for him, and ultimately good for his career.
And then somebody like Thomas, and even Dariusz [Formella], there’s no secret what our Achilles Heel has been this year, and that’s scoring goals. We haven’t scored goals and initially in the year, we weren’t creating a ton of chances. That’s changed. We are creating a lot of chances now and then during a difficult stretch, we weren’t finishing as a team. We have attacking players that can finish and have proven that they can score goals, but sometimes that gets into your head and it becomes something that it doesn’t need to be.
New goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, on loan from Minnesota United FC, brings 11 years of MLS experience to the club.
I think we’ve broken out of that and certainly in adding somebody like Thomas who’s runner-up to the Golden Boot last year and has a history of scoring goals. You add that to offensive weapons, like Cam Iwasa who’s our all-time leading scorer; Villyan Bijev can put the ball in the back of the net; Stefano [Bonomo] can score goals in a lot of different ways; Keven Aleman is such a dynamic player and is now really starting to find his form; Dariusz is a great finisher; Sam Werner has arguably been our most consistent player all season long and has scored big goals in big moments. You have attacking options like that, you’ve got a young player like Mario Penagos, there are a lot of weapons there and we’re going to score goals and we need to put those guys in positions to do that. And when you have an opportunity to get somebody like Thomas on your roster, you have to look hard at it and the cards fell right, and he really wanted to come, as did Bobby, which was important. We want guys who want to be here and both those guys did in a big way because they see what this club is now and where it’s going.
For fans who aren’t familiar with the behind-the-scenes actions of these player transactions, would you say that it is unusual or common for this much activity at this level, USL, versus what they might see at MLS or other professional sports?
I’m not sure if it’s common or not. I think it depends. You don’t go into the season saying ‘hey, we’re going to do a bunch of moves or we’re not going to do moves’. I think ultimately consistency is important. Stability, are things that I believe heavily in. Even going from last year to this year we’ve planned to have a little bit more continuity in the roster. It didn’t work out that way for various reasons, but we feel like those decisions were made in the best interests of the club and I think that’s the first and foremost thought process and so maybe it varies from year to year.
We really like our roster, we believe in it strongly. We think it’s a great group of guys, not just on the field, but off the field and what they do in our community and all of those things. We think that they represent Sacramento and the club in the best possible way and we believe they’re primed for big things over the next ten games and playoffs. I think there’s a lot of belief within the group of how special this team is and can be. It’s our job now to show that and that’s always the trick. But ultimately, we like kind of being the underdog at this point. A lot of folks counted us out, said ‘well, this isn’t your year, you’re kind of a middle-of-the-pack team.’ We don’t feel that way. We have to show it, we have to show that we’re not and prove that we’re not.
Dunivant believes opposing teams look forward to playing at Papa Murphy's Park and up their level against Republic FC.
Do you think that the success of this club in prior seasons, the consistency of making the playoffs, has inspired that feeling of ‘we want to take down Sacramento’ amongst other teams? Do you sense any of that?
Without a doubt. We are a game that clubs circle on the calendar, and rightly so. You come into our stadium and there’s 10,000 fans. You don’t see that every week in the USL, so it’s a great environment to play in for visiting players and we’re going to get their best. And again, I love that because it means we’re getting everyone’s bestand that makes us better. New Mexico has a great environment, there are other clubs that have great environments and good fan bases, but Sacramento’s is the best in the league and that ultimately makes us a better team come playoffs.
Sam Werner has impressed in his rookie season with Republic FC.
On the player side, who’s been your stand-out guy or guys this year so far?
We’ve had several. You talk about a consistent season from start to finish, Sam Werner has had a great year. He shows up every day, he works hard, he’s dangerous. Even on his “off days,” he contributes something and creates a moment of magic. We’ve had trouble scoring goals, he’s come up big in those big moments, whether it was Open Cup, whether it was playing against the Earthquakes, whatever it is, he steps up in the big moments. He won three national championships at Stanford, he scored the winning goal in his last touch as a senior to win the college cup. He’s got that in his DNA and he’s shown it with us. He’s been as consistent as anybody on the team.
Juan Barahona and SRFC's full backs have been key to the club's success on the field, according to Dunivant.
Let’s flip that a little bit and ask you, who do you think has been the most underrated player of the season? That player who may not be getting all the accolades because he’s not scoring goals every week, but is nonetheless making a big impact on the field?
Usually when I think underrated, I think outside backs and I think our outside backs have been very good this year. Talking specifically about Shannon Gomez, Jordan McCrary and Juan Barahona. I think Juan coming in, doing what he’s done, just having a naturally left-footed option over there has really opened up our offensive play. Funnily enough, adding a defender kind of helped our attack and the reason is because Juan is able to play-make from there. He can cross the ball, he can get in good positions and deliver the ball to where it needs to be delivered, and he loves to get forward. It’s been great to have Juan. He’s in his sixth season as a pro now so he’s been in the game for a long time at a high level and he’s only 23 years old. It’s a great profile for us because as we’re building toward MLS, you can see a lot of potential there.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our State of the Republic with GM Todd Dunivant.
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