The Real Monarchs popped Champagne and tossed beer in the plastic-lined locker room. They passed around the silver shield with the large USL engraved in the center.
“It was so exciting to see the guys celebrate as a team, see the coach actually have a smile on his face for once,” veteran midfielder Sebastian Velasquez joked. “It was a great feeling.”
The Real Monarchs claimed the club’s first piece of hardware in its three-year history two weeks ago with the best regular-season record in the league. The Monarchs begin their first playoff run with a home match against Sacramento Republic FC on Friday after clinching the USL shield and No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The Monarchs (20-5-7) clinched the regular-season championship with a 1-1 draw against Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 on Oct. 7. The team already had set a USL record with nine consecutive wins earlier in the season. It finished with a five-point lead over two other teams.
Monarchs scoring leader Chandler Hoffman strengthened his MVP candidacy with 16 goals and seven assists to become the only USL player to finish in the top 10 in both categories. Coach Mark Briggs, who took a team that went 10-14-6 last season and led it to a league-best record this year, is in the running for coach of the year.
“It’s been an incredible season so far,” Velasquez said, “but in the end we haven’t achieved anything until we win the USL Cup.”
The Monarchs, with a mixture of veteran leadership and young talent, cruised through the first five months of the season. Then they hit September and went on a four-game winless streak.
But the Monarchs rebounded with back-to-back road wins, 2-0 at Sacramento and 3-0 at Reno 1868 FC.
“I think it showed a lot of character and a lot of heart,” Hoffman said. “And now going into the playoffs we need to carry that same character and heart to get the results at home.”
The Monarchs won the right to home-field advantage through their playoff run by posting the best record. The team went 12-1-3 at home in the regular season.
“We have a bull’s-eye on our back,” Briggs said, “and it’s a coup for anybody to beat us and end our season. So we have to be even more focused, even more dialed in, on every single little detail.”
The playoffs take the form of a 16-team single-elimination tournament. The team that wins four straight matches wins the USL Cup.
It’s a familiar format for the former college players who went to the NCAA tournament. Nick Besler and Max Lachoweki won the 2014 title with Notre Dame, and both Hoffman (UCLA 2011) and Karsten Hanlin (Denver 2016) claimed third place in the tournament with their respective colleges.
Briggs met with his players who have MLS playoff experience — Hoffman (LA Galaxy 2013, 2014), Velasquez (Real Salt Lake 2012, 2013, 2014), Danny Cruz (Houston Dynamo 2009, 2011) and Taylor Peay (Timbers 2015) — as the Monarchs approached their first playoff match.
“[I] told them that they have to use their experiences and help the younger boys,” he said, “whether that be in communication, or whether that be how they carry themselves. But they have to figure out their own way to affect the group going into the playoff game tomorrow night, and hopefully the next three or four games after that.”
One Champagne-filled locker room celebration wasn’t enough. The Monarchs want a second.
SACRAMENTO REPUBLIC FC AT REAL MONARCHS SLC
At Rio Tinto Stadium
Kickoff • 8 p.m.
Streaming • RSL.com
Radio • 700 AM
Records • SAC 13-12-7, Monarchs 20-5-7
Last meeting • Monarchs won 2-0 (Sept. 27 at Papa Murphy’s Park)
About SAC • Sacramento finished the regular season eighth in the West. … Sacramento Republic enters the match on a three-game winless streak. … Midfielder Jeremy Hall completed 1,890 of 2,148 to record the most passes of any USL player in the regular season.
About Monarchs • The Monarchs have beaten Sacramento Republic 2-0 in both games between the teams this season. … The Monarchs went 12-1-3 at home this season. … The Monarchs recorded the most home wins of any team in the league this season.