Only four teams remain from a modern era-record original field of 103. One of those, the Sacramento Republic of the USL Championship, are keeping alive the dream of lower-division strivers everywhere. They’ll have their hands full as they host a Sporting Kansas City side trying to salvage a rocky season by becoming the first club from Major League Soccer (MLS) to win five Open Cup crowns.
Out on the East Coast, in the night’s early game, both the New York Red Bulls and Orlando City hunt a first-ever Cup (either MLS or Open) when they face off at Exploria Stadium in steamy Central Florida.
- READ: Semifinal Schedule
Dreams and History in California’s Capital
Sacramento Republic’s Quarterfinal win on the road against LA Galaxy was their second against MLS opposition in 2022 Open Cup play. It also saw the second-division side from California’s often overlooked capital city become the first non-Major League Soccer team to reach a Semifinal since FC Cincinnati did so while playing in the USL in 2017.
Sacramento, led by reigning USL Championship coach of the month for June, Mark Briggs, will want to go one more and become the first team from outside MLS’ rare air to reach a Final since 2008.
“Why not us?” asked the 40-year old coach, a former USL Championship coach of the year during his time with Real Monarchs, ahead of the club’s debut Cup Semifinal. “We’ll be up against it, sure, but we have nothing to lose. We’ll prepare our guys for what they’ll see and the atmosphere and give it our best shot. Hopefully it will be enough to get into the Final.”
Todd Dunivant, the Republic’s GM and President (and a five-time MLS Cup-winning defender in his playing days) is looking forward to hosting four-time champs Sporting Kansas City at a Heart Health Park which will be enveloped by the annual California State Fair. The ferris wheel, carnival aromas and bright lights will surely create a unique backdrop for this Open Cup occasion.
“It’s fun for us – being the underdogs,” said Dunivant, always whip-smart and understated, with a glint in his eye. “It’ll be a night to remember.”
There will be no taking Sporting Kansas City by surprise. Coach Peter Vermes has been at the helm since 2009 and he’s looking to spin some gold from the hay of a rough 2022 in league play. The Kansans, the only side left in the Final Four who’ve won an Open Cup trophy, are rock-bottom of MLS’ Western Conference with just five wins from 23 games in league play.
“I see them [Sacramento] playing very much as the home team. I see them coming out and being incredibly aggressive – and not having any fear. And just going after the game,” said Vermes, the former U.S. international fullback who hopes to see his side become the first MLS club to win five Open Cups (thus joining heroes of yesteryear Bethlehem Steel and Maccabee LA).
“Where we have to be really good is being focussed and concentrated in the game,” added Vermes. “It’s the little details in games like this that win out.”
It’s a second-straight lower-league opponent in the Cup for Sporting KC as Vermes’ men routed third-division darlings Union Omaha 6-0 in the Quarterfinals. And while Kansans founder in league play and are coming off another goalless loss at the weekend (to LAFC), Sacramento, who’ve scored 14 goals and conceded two in this year’s Cup, are in the midst of a mini barren stretch of their own in USL Championship play. They’ve failed to score in their last two games and haven't won since late June.
Chasing a First Out East
Central Florida will be the venue for the other Semifinal, no less interesting for being an all-MLS clash without an obvious favorite. Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls are touch-close in MLS’ Eastern Conference standings (fifth and fourth respectively with only three points between them). But the hosts could possibly benefit from an extra day of rest after their last league game (a 0-1 loss to Philadelphia Union on Saturday).
It’s a second consecutive Semifinal hosted at Exploria Stadium as Orlando City lost out there to eventual champions Atlanta United in 2019 (the last time the Open Cup was contested before a two-year hiatus caused by COVID-19).
The Red Bulls, founding MLS members in 1996 as the MetroStars, are – like opponents Orlando City – chasing a first-ever Open Cup crown. But they have the edge of having been to the Final as recently as 2017. Two members of the current squad, Captain Aaron Long and backup goalkeeper Ryan Meara, still remember the sting of that 2-1 loss in Kansas City five years ago.
One of Long’s strongest memories of that 2017 tournament is, predictably, a bitter one. “I remember watching those guys [Sporting Kansas City] holding the Cup and celebrating on the podium and us walking back into the locker room with our silver medals,” he said.
“But we’ve had the Open Cup on our list of goals from very early on this year,” added Long, the U.S. international central defender just back from an extended stretch out with a ruptured achilles tendon. “We made it a group goal and we’ve slowly been chipping away at it.”
Orlando City will be feeling right at home once again (they’ve yet to play a 2022 Open Cup game away from their comfortable confines in Florida). But they’re coming off a disappointing and punishing run of two games in six days and have failed to record a win in the space of four games.
They’ll need to rely on their creative schemer Alexandre Pato. The Brazilian has been instrumental since the start of this Cup run – as has goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. The Peruvian shot-stopper, known as El Pulpo, or the octopus, was outstanding in regular and extra-time before becoming the hero in a tense post-game penalty kick shootout with Nashville SC in the previous round.
The Red Bulls, who’ve earned a reputation as road-warriors with eight victories on the road in all competitions this year, won’t be fearing another away day. Their midfield ace Luquinhas has been finding his rhythm in the Cup and can be more than a handful on his day.
Who will go through to the dreamland of an Open Cup Final? Only time will tell. So make sure to watch LIVE between on July 27 on ESPN+ – your streaming home of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.