Goal oriented: Scoring spree makes Sacramento Republic’s Russell Cicerone an MVP candidate

Russell Cicerone has reshaped Sacramento Republic FC since arriving as a free agent in the offseason.

The scoring forward is tied for the USL Championship lead in goals (nine) while his new club is in first place and leading the league in scoring. Cicerone has been described as “a missing piece” for a team that reached the playoffs last year despite finishing 10th in scoring among the 13 sides in the Western Conference.

But he hasn’t always been a top goal scorer during his professional career.

Cicerone was a draft pick of the Portland Timbers in the MLS SuperDraft in 2017, and thought he was close to landing a contract to play for America’s top soccer league soon after.

“I played really well for Portland (Timbers) 2 that I was almost working myself to an MLS contract,” Cicerone said this week. “But I only scored one goal that year.”

Timbers 2 was a USL club designed to be a developmental team for the A-side Portland MLS team. Cicerone appeared in 29 games and logged more than 1,700 minutes, but one goal wasn’t enough. And when the MLS nod never came, Cicerone moved on to FC Cincinnati — also a USL side that was getting promoted to the MLS the following season. The University of Buffalo alum thought it could serve as an entree point.

But like his first year, Cicerone netted just one goal that season in 2018. The difference was Cincinnati finished as a first-place team, and Cicerone got a chance to experience winning in a way he didn’t with Timbers 2, which finished 30th the year prior.

Cicerone switched teams again, going to Saint Louis before the pandemic shortened 2020 season. He scored 10 goals in 51 matches over two years before a 2021 breakout with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, where he scored a career-best 16 goals before logging 13 in 2022.

“Those early years, even though I was playing well, I was still a little bit more of a role player,” Cicerone said. “I’ve blossomed into a little bit more of one of the main guys and (with one of the main) teams, and I think that’s a credit to my work ethic. I’ve always wanted it really badly. It’s really good to see.”

Republic FC would agree.

The team is in first place and a leading contender to win its second championship while Cicerone is among the favorites for league MVP, should he remain in his current form. He was recently named to his fourth USL Championship team of the week. And with 40 regular-season and playoff goals over the last three seasons, he is one of two players to score 40 or more during that span. The other, 2021 USL MVP Hadji Barry, has 41.

Sacramento Republic FC forward Russell Cicerone (11), left, evades Louisville City FC defender Joshua Wynder (66) and crosses the ball for teammate Jack Gurr (2) to score during the first half of the USL soccer game Saturday, April 1, 2023, at Heart Health Park. Sac Republic shut out Louisville 5-0.

Sacramento manager Mark Briggs said he followed Cicerone back to his college days, but wanted him for Republic FC for far more than his scoring. Cicerone played for Stu Riddle at the University of Buffalo, who Briggs played under on a developmental team in Michigan and tapped for background information on his recently-acquired star.

“Obviously, I knew he scored goals and I knew he has a fantastic ability,” Briggs said of Cicerone. “But I needed his mentality. I wanted his mentality and attitude, and I think you see that on a daily basis. ... Every little detail is focused on and you see his dedication to his profession in his performances. And I think his dedication and how he carries himself off the field has rubbed off on our group.”

Republic FC this weekend will travel for its second consecutive road match in the Eastern time zone. The team last week went to Hartford, Connecticut, and got three points with a 4-1 victory over Hartfold Athletic. This week the opponent is the Tampa Bay Rowdies, winners of five straight and one of three teams tied for second in the Eastern Conference with 20 points.

“East Coast trips, back-to-back, make life very difficult,” defender Lee Desmond said. “The travel, the humidity, it’s going to be a different type of challenge for us.”

It’s the second of three straight road games for Sacramento. After Saturday’s match is an easier jaunt down to San Diego to play Loyal SC on June 9.

“I think last week, this week and next week is the biggest block in our season,” Desmond said. “It’s a big for test us that we’re looking forward to. We just have to keep the momentum going and keep positive and keep believing the way we have been.”

Republic FC at Tampa Bay Rowdies

When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

Where: Al Lang Stadium

TV/Streaming: ESPN+, and FOX40 News mobile app

Watch Party: Nitty’s Cider (3201 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento)