“This is one-off football. If you win, you go on. If you lose, well that’s that,” said Paul Buckle, head coach of second-tier side Sacramento Republic who are currently on an Open Cup run for the ages. “And if I say so myself, this is something I know a little bit about.”
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He won’t brag – he’s not the kind – but Buckle was making a point of inciting Cup chaos long before his United Soccer League (USL) side laid a 4-1 rout on Real Salt Lake in the Fourth Round of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. He was the brains behind one of the biggest FA Cup upsets in the English competition’s long history. On a frosty January day in 2013, the kind that turns your breath to clouds, he took his Conference dwellers Luton Town to then Premier Leaguers Norwich City and left Carrow Road on cloud nine. The game ended 1-0 to his intrepid underdogs and was the first time in the Premier League era that a non-league side beat a club from the top-flight. The gap between the two teams – not just financially, but in every conceivable category of measure – was immense.
“You just asking me about it makes my hair stand on end,” Buckle said, after a meaningful pause, thinking back on a day that will live long in the lore of the FA Cup. “You can fancy your chances at home. There’s comfort there, even for small teams, and you think maybe it can go your way. But away, that’s not very realistic,” the coach added, caught up in the moment, speaking slowly and deliberately. “You know, Harry Kane was on the pitch that day for Norwich,” he chuckled, drawn into the memory of that special day not long ago but many miles away. “He was on loan from Spurs and I was delighted when he went off at the half.”
“We got our goal and hung on,” Added Buckle, who set his side up to hang back and counter-attack. “When the final whistle went, there was this moment where we all knew we’d done something that had never been done, that many thought couldn’t be done.”
New Life, New Land, New Cup
Fast forward a few years and Buckle is a long, long way from home. Six thousand miles away give or take, in California’s capital, he’s far from the rutted pitches of England’s lower tiers where he spent nearly 20 years as a player. The sun shines most days in Sacramento and rain is a novelty. But the coach is still entangled in a love affair with a Cup – this time the 104-year-old U.S. Open Cup – and he’s brought the lessons learned on the other side of the Atlantic with him. His expertise was crucial in orchestrating the Fourth Round upset of Real Salt Lake, one of the biggest shocks of the competition so far. With a CV like Buckle’s, no one should be surprised and upcoming opponents, LA Galaxy, would do well to take note.
“You can’t deny the connection between the FA Cup and the Open Cup,” said the coach, just 46, who ended up in the States when his wife Rebecca Lowe – familiar to anyone who watches Premier League TV coverage in America – took a job with NBC. “We’re not afraid of going up against teams from MLS.”
Sacramento Republic want to be an MLS team. The front office makes no bones about it. In three years of life as a club, they’ve had precious little hardship. They’ve won a league title, finished runners-up after topping the Western Conference and earned more points than any other team in the division. They boast former top-tier talent in Puerto Rico international Jeremy Hall and Scottish-born midfielder Adam Moffat.
With a cumulative 10-1 win from their three 2017 Open Cup games so far, Buckle’s men are now among the potential outside favorites for a deep run. They're not just hanging on; they're setting the pace. Standing in between them and a place in the Quarterfinal is a date with LA Galaxy, MLS founding members bloated with talent, depth, silverware and history. It’s another chance for the club’s devoted fan base that sprang to life practically over night and have the power to “suck the ball into the net,” according to Buckle.
It could be another special day, too, for young striker Harry Williams, who Buckle brought over from his last English club, Cheltenham Town. “He [Buckle] gave me my first start in the FA Cup and then he gave me my first start in the U.S. Open Cup over here,” said Williams, a soft-spoken 21-year-old striver from Gloucestershire who’s scored three goals in the 2017 Open Cup and started all three games. “Coach has proved that fairytales can happen and we want to make more of our own.”
Big Day for Sacramento
June 28 will be another big day for an ambitious, young club. A big day for the city of Sacramento and the fans who’ve taken a new team to their hearts. For Buckle, it’s a chance to go to LA and make another mark on a Cup in his new country the same way he did back home.
He didn’t just come over and lazily take the first job on offer, riding his exploits and charming GMs with his accent. He became a student of the game in America, where football is soccer. “I spent a lot of time traveling around and focusing on the whole structure of American soccer, which couldn’t be more different than England,” said Buckle, who coached in the USL combines in Florida and the folkloric Metropolitan Oval on the edges of New York City. “I focused on high school and college and all the way up. I worked hard to get my feet under me.”
When Sacramento came calling, Buckle knew it was right. He’s a man who knows the value of a moment. “I fell in love with the place,” he said. Now Buckle and his wife Rebecca – the face of the Premier League on American TV – are living a soccer-charmed life in a new land. “She travels east for her work on the weekends and then we get to spend the week together here with our new son Edward in the most beautiful place in the world.”
Buckle’s voice cuts an enthusiastic beat when he tells of his wife, an avowed Crystal Palace fan, attending her first Sacramento Republic game. It all sounds a bit like a fairytale. And for the sake of the Cup, and everything worth loving about it, Buckle’s hoping there’s more magic to come. “No one’s expecting us to win,” said the coach, knowing full well the power of the improbable. “And we’re perfectly OK with that.”