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Why Republic FC’s defense is the best in the USL Championship

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 11/03/23, 12:00PM EDT


Trio of Donovan, Wiedt, and Timmer have been consistent presence on field, but extended group’s chemistry has proven key

With a league-fewest 27 goals conceded in 36 regular season and playoff games, Sacramento Republic FC has boasted the best defensive unit in the USL Championship this season. | Photo courtesy Irina Filenko / Sacramento Republic FC

When it comes to a defensive unit, there’s always something to be said for consistency.

So, the fact Sacramento Republic FC’s back line trio of Conor Donovan, Shane Wiedt and Jared Timmer have started together in 22 of the club’s 36 league games so far this season – each while individually accruing 32 starts and more than 2,750 minutes of action – accounts for part of the reason why Republic FC has had the best defensive record in the league this season.

Ask the players and Head Coach Mark Briggs, though, and you’ll find the bond that’s been shared by all five members of the center back corps – including 2022 holdover Lee Desmond and 2023 arrival Johnny Fenwick – has been as important as the continuity the side has featured game-in and game-out.

“As individuals, we support each other so much,” said Desmond, who was a key part of the club’s run to the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final but has been in and out of the lineup this season due to minor injuries. “I mean, only three of us can play at any given time, but it’s important to mention Johnny Fenwick

“Johnny hasn’t played this year and he’s been such a good teammate. He comes in every day with the best attitude and trains properly, encourages us and pushes us on. That’s a reason the team has been successful, because there’s people like that in every position. People from the outside don't see that, but I say it quite often. I think the most important people on the squad can be the guys who aren’t playing, because they push everybody in training every week and set the standard to give us a platform to be the best on a Saturday evening.”

If there is a leader in the group, Donovan fits the bill. Now in his second season with the club, he leads the team in minutes played, has taken the captain’s armband 12 times this season, and by the numbers has been rated as arguably the best center back in the league over the campaign.

According to American Soccer Analysis, Donovan’s grade of +2.29 Goals Added Above Replacement in the regular season is the best among center backs in the league and ranks 14th overall.

While the 28-year-old isn’t among the league-leaders in categories like clearances, interceptions or recoveries, his all-around consistency defensively and on the ball has made him an ideal centerpiece for Sacramento’s back three.

“I love his composure,” said Briggs. “He’s always calm and if you speak to him, he’s very calm. And that’s how he is when he’s on the field. He never loses his composure. He rarely loses his temper. And I think you need that in that position in the middle of the three. You need somebody with those attributes that can organize that can lead but also remain composed and calm, even when you’re uncomfortable.”

Sacramento Republic FC's Conor Donovan has been arguably the best center back in the USL Championship this season, leading the best defensive unit in the league. | Photo courtesy Irina Filenko / Sacramento Republic FC

“There’s a lot of pressure in the modern game for defenders to play out from the back,” added Desmond. “They’re the demands that Mark puts on us. We try to play from the back as much as possible, so you have to be good on the ball. So, of course, [Conor’s] good at that too. But, he enjoys defending. There is a part of it that you can’t teach. It’s just how much you want to keep the ball out of the net and anticipate the ball coming in and finding yourself in the right positions. He does that very well.”

Alongside Donovan, the left-sided Wiedt and right-sided Timmer have brought similar attributes. Both offseason arrivals from Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Indy Eleven respectively, the two slotted into the starting lineup immediately due to an injury to Desmond and helped the side reel off seven shutouts in its first eight league outings.

The trio has also started each of the past five games to close the regular season and help Sacramento reach the Western Conference Final of the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs, the club’s first appearance among the final four teams standing in the postseason since its inaugural season in 2014.

Wiedt’s competitiveness in the air has seen him record 55 headed clearances of 100 overall and win 71 of 109 aerial duels this season. Timmer, meanwhile, has been difficult to break down one-on-one for opponents, being dribbled past only 17 times in 2,872 minutes – an average of just 0.53 times per 90. A prior free agent target for Briggs in Sacramento before he signed with Indy in 2021, Timmer also leads the group with 197 recoveries.

Offseason signing Shane Wiedt has added another strong aerial presence to Sacramento's back line this season. | Photo courtesy Irina Filenko / Sacramento Republic FC

“First of all, they’re really good defenders,” said Donovan. “I think when you’re playing a system that we’re playing, you have to be confident in one another, because you’re going to be one-on-one defending a lot of the game and you’re going to be going against some of the best players in the league in this position.

“For me, just being able to trust them I think has been the biggest part. They came in right away and made an impact and they work really hard. And like Lee said, the competition in this group, we all are very competitive with each other. But we also want each other to do well, and I think they are great teammates.”

That willingness to work, rotate and do what it takes to succeed defensively has been appreciated by goalkeeper Danny Vitiello. While the shot-stopper has had a standout season himself with 87 saves, 12 shutouts and a save percentage of 76.6 percent, Vitiello was quick to pass on credit to his teammates when he claimed the Championship’s Golden Glove this season.

“Not often are they out of position, and it makes my job easy,” said Vitiello. “I mean, I pride myself on covering the backline and coming for crosses, and when all you really were dealing with is teams trying to drive balls into the box because they can’t break us down through breaking lines, I think that’s where my best qualities come as a goalkeeper.”

Originally sought as a free agent in 2021 by Sacramento's Mark Briggs, center back Jared Timmer has had a stellar first season for Republic FC since signing last offseason. | Photo courtesy Irina Filenko / Sacramento Republic FC

The on-field chemistry the group has shown is mirrored off the field. There are weekly family get togethers where the players get together socially, and a regular golf game – according to Donovan, at a recent charity event Fenwick’s putter caught fire as he posted a good round.

As good as each player has proven to be, that closeness might be what has brought it all to another level.

“They push one another, they help one another,” said Briggs. “They talk through things. And I think that closeness and that bond allows them to have a platform to then perform at the levels that they have. And, obviously, they have the individual qualities they have. All of them have unique individual qualities that together form a good basis for us as a group to keep the ball out of that goal.”

Saturday night’s Western Conference Final against Phoenix Rising FC (10 p.m. ET | ESPN+ | Preview) will provide another test of that defensive strength. In Danny Trejo, the visitors have the league’s leader in combined goals and assists with 26 across the regular season and playoffs. His supporting cast in attack – including former Republic FC players Dariusz Formella and Emil Cuello, as well as Panos Armenakas and Manuel Arteaga – has already helped earn two road upsets this postseason.

As much as the side has accomplished this season, particularly defensively, Republic FC’s players are only looking ahead. Achieving the preseason benchmark of the best defensive record in the league was nice, but for Briggs it will mean nothing if the primary goal of winning the USL Championship title isn’t accomplished.

His players are in full agreement.

“I think what’s good about this group and also the whole team is we’re not satisfied with just individual awards or certain awards from the team,” said Donovan. “We have one common goal and that’s to win the West this game and then ultimately win a championship. For us it would mean everything, it would mean all the hard work that we put in an offseason and preseason and then throughout the year it’s paid off.”

“I would second that,” added Timmer. “One of the main reasons I signed here was because I saw that Sacramento was building something special. And I think like Mark’s talked about, [it’s] just kind of like checking a box off. When we won the Western regular season, that was just a box that we checked off. The next box is to win the Western Conference Final. Then, obviously, the ultimate goal is to win it all.”

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