Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Sawatzky, Kickers are set for next step

Team was on cusp of title game in first year under coach

- BY WAYNE EPPS JR.

From the beginning of his tenure as the Richmond Kickers’ coach and sporting director, which began in fall 2019, Darren Sawatzky viewed the constructi­on process ahead of him as a three-year road.

The club had gone a combined 23-54-17 the previous three years.

Still, even with the threeyear process, Sawatzky also spoke from the start about chasing trophies. Darren Sawatzky believes the Kickers are ahead of schedule in his three-year plan. And, as it turned out, in a shortened 2020 season Sawatzky piloted the Kickers ever so close to a spot in the USL League One title game — one win away. Richmond

finished the year with its first winning record since 2016, 8-6-2.

“To come in and change the culture and try to do that, it takes three years,” Sawatzky said Thursday. “We’re going to try to win every game, there’s no question. I think that we jumped the gun last year and did really well. But I think that our lack of depth and a couple of injuries really cost us.”

Sawatzky on Thursday analogized the three-year process as a set of stairs. And he views the roster progress the organizati­on was able to make over the offseason — fortifying a group that includes key returners like forward Emiliano Terzaghi and goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald — as a step up the stairwell.

As the Kickers prepare to begin a full, 28-game schedule at New England Revolution II at 5 p.m. on Saturday, they’ll hope the step brings them closer to a trophy.

“I think the next step for us is we want to fill the trophy cabinet with trophies,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what’s most important for us here, is adding silverware. I think last year we were very close. … But, ultimately, this is a profession­al business and you’re judged on wins and filing trophy cabinets.”

Last year, powered by Terzaghi’s league-high 10 goals, the Kickers went from second-to-last in the standings in 2019 to near the top last year. A win in their regular-season finale against Chattanoog­a Red Wolves SC last October would’ve put them in the league final, their first since 2010, by virtue of a playoff format shortened from its usual four-team configurat­ion.

But that opportunit­y slipped with a 2-1 loss. Terzaghi was banged up, with an ankle injury suffered late in the year, and didn’t come on until the 78th minute of the finale. But he was the league’s Golden Boot winner as its top goal scorer, and he was the league’s MVP.

Sawatzky has lauded not only Terzaghi’s talent, but also his character — an apt building block for the club. The 28-year-old Buenos Aires, Argentina, native re-signed for the 2021 and 2022 seasons in a deal that was announced in December.

Terzaghi said when the re-signing was announced that it was always his wish to return to the Kickers.

“I do believe that we have a lot to do here,” Terzaghi said Thursday, through a translator. “And I feel that, internally, I have a lot of roles to accomplish here. And I believe that we can make that happen.”

Fitzgerald, 33, is a great leader, Sawatzky said. His acrobatics in goal last season netted him a leaguehigh-tying 50 saves, and three shutouts.

Sawatzky also said Fitzgerald is a good educator. And, with that, Fitzgerald is taking on a dual role this year, as not just player, but also the Kickers’ goalkeeper coach, replacing Adrian Clewlow.

Fitzgerald said it was a no-brainer for him to take on the extra role, and said he’s enjoyed the work so far.

“Out training sessions have been so good and so sharp … I really think guys are flying and buzzing and ready for the season to start,” Fitzgerald said. “And

I’m really excited to see what everyone can do.”

Bolstering a core of players from last year, Richmond added to its defense with the signings of Esteban Calvo, Nathan Aune, Jalen Crisler and Juan Pablo Monticelli, fortified its midfield with the additions of Nil Vinyals, Zaca Morán and Cameron Vickers, and added another frontline goal scoring threat in forward Hernan Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, who’s nickname is “El Tanque,” or “The Tank,” has scored 35 goals in 106 games for teams in Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and his native Argentina.

In a season that’ll be more of a marathon compared to last year’s 16game sprint, Sawatzky said he believes more players will get more minutes, and that his team is more much more balanced now.

He characteri­zed the team’s progress compared to last year as “night and day.”

And if Year 1 nearly put the Kickers in position to compete for a championsh­ip, what will Year 2 yield?

“I see that as step one of three,” Sawatzky said of last year. “And … step two, I think you’ll like the shiny paint on that step.”

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 ?? FILE, JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH ?? Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, now 33 years old, has served as a leader for the Kickers since joining the club in 2019. He re-signed for the 2021 season as a player and coach.
FILE, JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, now 33 years old, has served as a leader for the Kickers since joining the club in 2019. He re-signed for the 2021 season as a player and coach.

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