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USL Playoff Preview: Swope Park Rangers v Sacramento Republic

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Eight teams remain in the chase for the USL Cup.

Thad Bell

When: Saturday, October 28th at 4:00 PM CT

Where: Children’s Mercy Park

Who: Swope Park Rangers (#4) vs. Sacramento Republic FC (#8)

What: Second Round of the Playoffs

If you look at the rankings above, it seems obvious who should be hosting this game. But earlier this week the USL tried to pull a fast one and pull the game from Kansas City, where the Swope Park Rangers draw some of the leagues smallest crowds, and move it to Papa Murphy’s Park in Sacramento where the Republic average the leagues second highest amount of attendance.

After a strong effort on twitter by SPR Supporters and the #DontRobTheRangers campaign, the game was moved to Sporting KC’s stadium, Children’s Mercy Park. If the Rangers keep advancing, all their home games will be played in CMP. Sporting Kansas City seem to be pushing the game pretty hard on social media, so let’s hope their sales office doesn’t make that stadium look empty. Tickets appear to be general admission and only $15 (though I’ve seen them for as little as $10). So with SKC out of the playoffs, let’s hope fans come out and support the Rangers.

Before we talk about the Rangers, we need to learn about their opponent. I had the chance to ask some questions of our sister blog, Indomitable City Soccer. Evan Eyster was nice enough to answer them.

Three Questions on the Republic

TBT: The Sacramento Republic have made the playoffs all four years of their existence. What is the key to their success in a league like USL with so much roster turnover?

ICS: The secret to the success of Sacramento is an ownership and front office that pays attention to the needs of a team in the offseason leaving them without any major holes in the lineup year after year. When Rodrigo Lopez left the club after the 2015 season, the team was confident in the abilities of Danny Barrera and he has emerged as a key forced in the Sacramento midfield.

When the Republic lost Cameron Iwasa [to Sporting KC] after the 2016 season, they made moves by signing prolific offensive scorers from other teams such as Tyler Blackwood, Trevin Caesar and Sammy Ochoa. Each season the team has responded to the USL turnover, and has been routinely rewarded with playoff appearances. If they continue to correctly adjust for the roster turnover that plagues most USL teams, Sacramento will continue to be a team you think about when it comes to the playoffs as an ever present threat.

TBT: Despite four straight playoff trips it appeared that fans were calling for coach Paul Buckle to be fired earlier in the season. Will getting into the playoffs and upsetting the #1 seeded Real Monarchs stop the calls for a coaching change?

ICS: The 2017 campaign, despite ending in a playoff appearance, has been a disappointment to many fans as the team failed to live up to expectations that has been set by a championship in the inaugural season [2014]. Getting into the playoffs was viewed as a bare minimum for nearly all fans for a coach in Sacramento keeping their job, and it came down to getting help from other clubs in the final weeks to lock up the 8th seed this year. While the victory, especially if followed up by a strong showing against Swope Park, will help quell the push for his job by the “Un-Buckle Adjacent” crowd, the people who are aggressively calling for his job would likely need a Championship for to be happy.

TBT: What formation is SRFC likely to play and who do you suspect would start?

ICS: I expect to see the same 4-4-2 type lineup that we saw against Real Monarchs, which Sacramento has used a variant of through the entire season. One question will be if Trinidad and Tobago international striker Trevin Caesar is available or not, as he was out due to injury for the regular season finale and the first round playoff game. He is a dynamic player who if healthy, would likely see the pitch as a starter or a substitution. There is a large amount of volatility in who starts each week for Sacramento based on who the opponent is and who has been performing well in practice, but the typical formation tends to remain the same week to week. Coming off of a win however, look for Buckle to roll out the same lineup as last week if possible.

[For reference, here is their lineup against Real Salt Lake’s USL team, the Real Monarchs and their last injury report.]

TBT: Bonus question. Does it anger you that Sporting KC signed Cameron Iwasa, loaned him to the Swope Park Rangers, and they barely use him?

ICS: It is frustrating from a fan perspective that someone with as much potential as Iwasa went to a MLS team and is not even able to get much playing time on their USL side. It must be equally frustrating to him however that when he does get to play, the home support isn’t even a tenth of what it used to be though.

Gotta love the dig at SPR’s attendance. As for my take on Iwasa. He’s on Sporting KC but didn’t make a single appearance. He played for Swope but never really found his rhythm. The fact that he can’t get on the field but was one of Sacramento’s best players last year really says something about how good SPR are.

Statistics (Regular Season)

Goals

Swope Park: Kharlton Belmar (14), Nansel Selbol (9), Lebo Moloto (7), Mark Anthony Gonzalez (5), Kevin Oliveira (3)

Sacramento: Villyan Bijev (9), Samuel Ochoa (8), Trevin Caesar (7), Tyler Blackwood (6), Wilson Kneeshaw (5)

Assists

Swope Park: Christian Duke (7), Kevin Oliveira (5), Lebo Moloto (4), Felipe Hernandez, Pasher, Colton Storm (3)

Sacramento: James Kiffe, Samuel Ochoa (6), Wilson Kneeshaw (5), Danny Barrea (4)

Goals Conceded

Swope Park: 37

Sacramento: 44

SPR Starting XI

The easy thing would be to look at the Starting XI from last week’s game against Phoenix Rising.

The problem is, all those players won’t be available. Erik Palmer-Brown, who started at center back last week, sat on the bench Thursday night for SKC. That game was in Houston and the team will likely fly home on Friday, but his availability has to be questioned. If he can’t go then Oumar Ballo or Liam Doyle would likely start opposite of Amer Didic. My money is on Ballo who had an incredible playoff run with Didic in 2016.

One player who wasn’t on the bench with SKC that should return to the starting lineup is holding midfielder James Musa. He’s been the regular starter for Swope all season and seems likely to return to the lineup.

The other Sporting KC players who weren’t on loan last week are Adrian Zendejas and Kevin Oliveira. Kevin actually came on as a sub so he seems unlikely to be available, but Zendejas went unused on the bench. They may not be available this weekend but if SPR keep advancing, they should be available next weekend. It seems like Darrin MacLeod and Felipe Hernandez should start.

The other positions in question are at left back and forward. Tyler Pasher has played most games at left back this year but he moved to the wing and allowed Parker Maher to start. While they didn’t generate any goals, Pasher consistently looks better as a winger. If he were to start again, Kharlton Belmar seems like the obvious choice opposite him and Lebo Moloto has the center forward role locked up.

This lineup really just comes down to the SPR players who have signed with SKC being available or not.

Prediction

SPR haven’t played in Children’s Mercy Park since their debut game way back at the beginning of 2016. Kevin Oliveira scored the first goal in club history on a PK that night.

And there is just something about playing at home. It’s likely the fan support will be much greater at CMP than at Swope Soccer Village and that could be just the boost SPR needs.

Add to that Sacramento is just OK on the road. They went 5-8-3 in the regular season but upset the #1 seeded Monarchs last week in an empty Rio Tinto Stadium. CMP shouldn’t be empty, but with this single elimination format anything can happen.

These teams have already met twice this year with the Rangers winning their home match 1-0 and earning a draw against Sacramento in California 2-2. Sacramento come into the playoffs pretty cold going 2-3-1 down the stretch. They needed extra time and penalties to advance last week (as did SPR).

Winner: Swope Park Rangers 2-1

It just feels like SPR are going to keep finding a way.