This is a man who knows about the Cups.
Way back, at the tender age of 17, Mark Briggs captained West Bromwich Albion’s youngsters to a 2000 FA Youth Cup crown at Wembley Stadium. That competition, a first showpiece for some of the game’s top players through history, the likes of George Best, Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham, was supposed to be a springboard for the Albion starlet.
But things don’t always go to plan.
“You’re highly rated and you sign a long-term pro contract with West Brom and you think you’ve made it,” remembered the 40-year-old coach of Sacramento Republic, the second-division Cinderella side threatening the established order of the American game in the rare air of the 2022 U.S. Open Cup Semifinals. “Then, all of a sudden, it falls away really quickly.”
Rather than bounding from one level to the next toward eventual stardom, Briggs marched headlong into the cruel realities of the professional game. Indifferent managers. Hard luck. Flagging confidence.
“A coach doesn’t like you; and a new coach comes in and you’re lost. You don’t know what’s expected,” added Briggs, who found himself shipped off to Denmark at the age of 21 with the bloom of youth fading. “I’m on my own, living away from home for the first time. I had to grow up really quick.”
Briggs credits this experience, and the following plunge into a tangle of non-league sides like Hednesford Town and Northwitch Victoria, even a stint in Malta where he won a Maltese FA Trophy, with shaping him as a coach. “I’m hard on my youngsters, but I also make sure they know I’m here for them and what’s expected,” said the USL Championship’s coach of the month for June.
“I struggled with coaches who stayed at a distance when I was young,” said Briggs. “And it can send your head in all sorts of directions.”
Non-League Wanderer to American Explorer
Briggs – a squad member of the first West Brom side to reach the English Premiership in 2022 – played with 11 teams in England and Wales’ non-league ecosphere before, eventually, trying his luck in America. In 2009 he joined the Wilmington Hammerheads of North Carolina and the old PDL summer league.
“We went on a little run there,” said Briggs about that year’s Open Cup, when his amateur side knocked out the Carolina RailHawks and Charlotte Eagles before stunning MLS’ Chicago Fire in the Third Round.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said of the charge that rekindled what he calls a “love affair” with cup competitions. “The buzz it created – playing the Chicago Fire and beating them at Legion Stadium in the tiny little seaside town of Wilmington. You could feel the excitement out there.”
That was only the beginning for Briggs in the Open Cup. As coach of those same Hammerheads in 2016, he returned to the Third Round and knocked out Miami FC of the now-defunct NASL. It was a team loaded with cash, built for winning, and coached by Italian World Cup winner Alessandro Nesta.
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“I’ll never forget it,” Briggs chuckled about one of the key games that sent him out on the path toward his stint in Sacramento, where he’s emerged among the best coaches in the U.S. second division. “I remember after 15 minutes, Nesta was just looking down the sideline and gesturing something like who are these guys? I knew then that we had a chance.”
Symbol for a City, Second Division
There’s something about Briggs' attitude, and his quiet way of making strong points, that make him a perfect fit for Sacramento. It’s a city often overlooked and living in the shadow of its glitzier neighbors, but the coach, born in Wolverhampton, feels right at home there. “It reminds me a bit of home,” said Briggs of the so-called Indomitable City. There’s a humility to the people here that’s refreshing. We’re known as the underdog. We don’t have the bright lights – we’re a little more humble.”
Briggs and his team have also become standard-bearers for the no-frills world of American lower-league soccer. There, you carry your own bags. You’re paid much less than the stars of Major League Soccer and most contracts don’t offer security beyond a single year. It’s a struggle, a grind, every day.
But this is a coach who knows the lows of dashed expectations and stalled progress. He’s learned the hard lessons that can help fill a talented second-division team with resolve and belief enough to best two MLS clubs and stand now on the cusp of a place in the Final. He fills empty spaces with optimism and experience and humility. And his players love him for it.
“He’s a really good coach and a really good person,” said Luis Felipe, the massive midfield force and a cast-off from the San Jose Earthquakes who has three game-winning goals so far in the 2022 Open Cup. “He’s close to us and always talking to us and making sure we’re OK on and off the pitch. And he pushes us to the limit.”
The affection cuts both ways. “This is the best group I’ve ever coached – on the field and off of it,” said Briggs, who points to a pre-season trip that “wasn’t perfect” in terms of organization as galvanizing for his team. “We say Family all the Time here and you can see it and you can feel it. That camaraderie helps you when you’re under the cosh. And when you play an MLS team, you’re always going to be.”
A Cup run is more art than science. Briggs knows it. It’s clicked so far, with wins against a hungry third-division outfit looking to make a name (Central Valley Fuego), a direct USL Championship rival (Phoenix Rising) and a pair of Major League Soccer sides (San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy). And even though they’ve scored 14 goals and conceded just two en route to the Semifinals, they’ve had to dig deep and rely on all the belief and hunger that comes with being the underdog.
Another Cupset on the Cards?
“It’s why you play the game and it’s why I coach the game,” said Briggs about the opportunity to, once again, show up an MLS team when Sporting Kansas City come to town on the 27th.
“We’re up against it,” the coach said of the test against the four-time Open Cup champions from Kansas, who, while having a rocky league campaign in MLS, are taking dead-aim at another Cup that would make them the first MLS team to win five. “They’re not having the kind of season they normally do, but I think that makes it more difficult for us.”
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” he added, a steel in his voice.
Peter Vermes, coach of Sporting Kansas City for more than a decade, has heard that line many times before. He heard before the Quarterfinal when his side smashed third-division strivers Union Omaha 6-0. But this time, from the lips of Coach Briggs, it sounds different. The Republic are a team with a dream, out for respect and with a man in charge who knows the ups, downs and in-betweens of the Cups.
“I love the Cup competitions so much,” said Briggs, channeling the same enthusiasm as that boy who stepped out onto hallowed Wembley ground all those years ago with the whole world in front of him. “My career, the way it went and how it didn’t pan out, makes me really appreciate where I’m at right now.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.