SANDY — The Real Monarchs felt like they had a team that could compete for a championship as the USL playoffs kicked off Friday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
They had one of the top goal scorers in the league in Chandler Hoffman. A top-notch RSL goalkeeper in Connor Sparrow. The USL Champions Shield, given to the squad with the best overall record in the regular season.
Even when visiting Sacramento Republic FC took a 1-0 lead early in the second half, the Monarchs kept believing they could make a run, salvage a comeback, and bring another trophy back to Rio Tinto Stadium.
In one game, though, the season ended.
Goalkeeper Evan Newton made two shootout saves, and Sacramento Republic FC stunned top-seeded Real Monarchs 3-1 on penalty kicks Friday night in the first-ever USL playoff game at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“It’s disappointing. It can be a really cruel game, and it’s obviously tough,” Monarchs forward Chandler Hoffman said. “But I’m incredibly proud of this group, and what we did this year. Even tonight, going down 1-0 and fighting back. I thought for 60 minutes, with extra time, that we were going to win the game.”
Hayden Partain, James Kiffe and Jeremy Hall each converted a penalty in the shootout for the Republic (14-12-7), and Daniel Haber made one for the Monarchs. But the team that had to come from behind against a Sacramento squad that narrowly made the postseason ran out of gas, missing its first two penalties of the shootout.
Hoffman scored his team-high 17th goal of the season for the Monarchs (20-6-7), who fell in the first postseason match of their third season in franchise history.
But even Hoffman admits to seeing both sides of the cruelty displayed in the world’s most popular game. The 6-foot goal-scorer converted a penalty kick that ultimately forced extra time, and then penalty kicks against the Republic — but he also watched as Newton saved his final PK to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.
“Football is a cruel game at times,” Monarchs coach Mark Briggs said. “It was cruel there, but that’s the game we love; there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser. Unfortunately tonight, it wasn’t us, and I wish Sacramento the best of luck in the rest of the playoffs.”
The Monarchs (20-6-7) forced just three off-target shots against the visiting Republic in the first half. But the hosts kept the scoreless draw through 45 minutes thanks to a pair of saves by goalkeeper Sparrow, who was making his 20th appearance of the season with 11 wins and seven shutouts.
“I think Connor’s done that for us all year,” Briggs said of Sparrow, who had five saves. “He’s part of the team, and you have to rely on him to pull out big saves. He’s pulled out big saves for us throughout the 32 games prior to tonight. Connor’s been a different class.
“He’s a player who I think RSL fans will see a lot of in the future.”
Despite Sparrow’s Herculean effort, Sacramento — an expansion candidate of Major League Soccer that lost 2-0 twice to the Monarchs in the regular season — struck first.
Just four minutes into the second half, Luis Espino raced into the box to redirect a cross from Wilson Kneeshaw into the top shelf that gave the Republic a 1-0 lead.
Danny Cruz nearly equalized moments later, but his rebound attempt caught Sacramento goalkeeper Evan Newton off his line as he deftly cleared off the line.
Still, the chances came.
Hoffman’s well-timed header in the box skimmed the top of the crossbar in the 81st minute. But it looked to be too little as time began rapidly draining off the clock on the Monarchs’ maiden postseason voyage.
But in the 84th minute, an olive branch was extended.
Max Lachowecki earned a penalty kick for a hard foul against him in the box, and Hoffman buried his 17th goal of the year, a left-footed rip from the spot, to level the match 1-1 and force two 15-minute extra-time sessions.
It’s not all bad for the Monarchs; the club set a franchise record in wins and brought a trophy in the formal of the regular-season title to Rio Tinto Stadium.
But there will also be regret — thinking of what could’ve been in a special year for the second-division side.
“I think in a few weeks we’ll be able to see what a tremendous run we had this year,” Hoffman said. “But it’s going to take a bit of time. It sucks that the season is over tonight. We felt like we deserved more.”