The traveling San Jose Earthquakes fans hadn’t spent much time on their taunting banner. It was crude, slashed black letters on a white tarp, but its sentiment cut bone-deep in Sacramento.
Welcome to MLS. Oh…Nevermind.
“One of our guys in the front office took it down and kept it as a little memento,” chuckled Mark Briggs, head coach of the second-division Sacramento Republic, who’ve become the toast of the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup since beating San Jose (2-0) that late May day in the Round of 16. “It added a little bit of spice for our players – put maybe a little more bite in the tackle.”
The club, founded in 2014 to record-breaking attendances and an inaugural-year USL title, was fast-tracked for a place among the top-tier of MLS. League commissioner Don Garber announced the Republic would become MLS’ 30th team in 2019. But that was before 2021, when he said something else entirely: “Sacramento is no longer a primary location for us [MLS expansion].”
There are factors and there are reasons. Some are complex. But a simple fact remains: Sacramento were in line for life in Major League Soccer until they weren’t.
Forging Right Ahead
Instead of getting lost in understandable grievance, Briggs and his players have sharpened disappointment into weaponry. Since the 2-0 win over San Jose that sent the visiting fans home with their banner crumpled underfoot, Republic FC have beaten twice-champions LA Galaxy on the road in Southern California and become the first second-division side to reach the Semifinals since 2017.
“MLS is out of our control at this point,” said GM Todd Donivant, who took over as the club’s president after the MLS bid fell through. He’s a five-time MLS champion and an Open Cup winner (2005) and the club’s soft-spoken guiding light through a turbulent time – but one filled, still, with possibility.
“Let’s not be stuck in neutral,” said Dunivant, a Stanford graduate who cut his front-office teeth with the now defunct San Francisco Deltas. “Let’s turn the page and move forward. The focus is winning games [in the USL Championship and the Open Cup] and only good things can come from that.”
In the ecosystem of American professional soccer, where top-flight status is bestowed and based – at least in part – on balance sheets, it’s no wonder the Sacramento Republic of 2022 would focus on the Open Cup. They’re a team with a dream from California’s unfashionable capital and America’s oldest soccer tournament is a stage where winning is the only currency. It’s a dream incubator.
Snub Serves as a Spur
“For people on the outside [of the team], the supporters and people watching, there’s a little bit of a look-what-we-can-do-here feeling [to this Cup run],” said England-born Briggs in the run-up to the Semifinal against four-time Open Cup champions Sporting Kansas City on July 27th.
The game will be played in front of a sellout crowd at Hearth Health Stadium and in the shadow of the State Fair – an annual showpiece for the state of California hosted in Sacramento. A carnival atmosphere is guaranteed.
“For the guys and myself it’s about trying to put on a performance and be prepared as best we can,” added Dunivant, who worked with Briggs to schedule strategic byes in league play to set the Republic up for the best possible chance of success in the Cup. “It’s about putting on a show so people know who we are.”
The Republic have even transcended the squabbles of local rivalries in the USL Championship to become, for all but the most die-hard Sporting KC fans, nationwide sentimental favorites to reach the Final. They’re America’s team now and they’re one game away from becoming the first non-MLS club to reach a Final since 2008.
“It’s refreshing,” said Briggs about the support his team’s getting from direct rivals in second-division play each week. “The first thing players and coaches say [before or after] league games is: ‘Hey, great Cup run. We’re behind you and hope you go all the way.’
“Everybody loves a good Cup story,” added the USL Championship’s coach of the month for June. “And we’re writing it at the moment.”
The momentum built over the course of the team’s five wins in the Cup can’t be denied. They opened with a 6-0 rout of the Portland Timbers U23s, a game which could have easily turned into a “banana skin” according to Briggs. Sacramento have also beaten MLS sides (San Jose and LA), a hungry local outfit from the third division with something to prove (Central Valley Fuego) and direct rivals from the USL Championship (Phoenix Rising) to reach the rare air of this Last Four.
Smashing form in 2022 Cup
It’s worth noting that they’ve scored 14 goals en route to the Semis – and conceded just twice (with one, against the Galaxy, an own-goal). They’ve won at home and they’ve won on the road. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, sure, but they do have much to say.
“I’m sure MLS didn’t want us to win today; and I’m sure the commissioner was watching too,” said Rodrigo ‘RoRo’ Lopez, the club’s 35-year-old captain, after the Quarterfinal win over the Galaxy.
He’s a player of uncommon talent and currently tied in the race for the 2022 Open Cup’s top-scorer crown with four goals – including a world-class hit from distance late against San Jose. “This is a chance for us to make history,” added Lopez, who was moved to tears after the Galaxy victory.
“All we can do is show that we’re on a level where we can compete with anyone right now,” said 26-year-old Luis Felipe, the San Jose Earthquake cast-off and scorer of three game-winning goals for the Republic in the 2022 Cup. “Sacramento is a city that should be put on the map.”
Proving it on the Field
The nature of professional sports is rarely as romantic as we’d like it to be. But for the moment, the Sacramento Republic are in with a chance of showing their worth where it counts. And there’s an opportunity to make the kind of history so rare that it can’t be forgotten.
Only once since 1996, the year of Major League Soccer’s founding, has a team not from that premier division lifted the U.S. Open Cup. The Rochester Rhinos of 1999 remain a fairytale for the ages. Fittingly, that side – of the then USL A-League – were motivated by their own MLS snub. Rochester then, like Sacramento now, was not considered a primary location for a Major League Soccer team.
That grievance gave way to a slogan, one that suffused the entirety of that magical ‘99 run”: If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.
The second-division cub from Sacramento, still indomitable and facing an historic Semifinal showdown, have harnessed this very essence. “The Republic has worked its way into people’s hearts,” said Dunivant about the team’s place in the City of Sacramento and in an even larger way in the whole of the American game. “I’m not just proud of our team but of our whole city. Everyone.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.