Kieran Phillips ‘Going for It’ as Sacramento Republic Target More Cup Magic

Sacramento Republic’s two-goal hero from the Round of 16 talks about the importance of Cup competition and the USL Championship side’s high hopes ahead of this year’s Quarterfinals
By: William Hodges
Kieran Phillips battles for the ball during a Sacramento Republic match
Kieran Phillips battles for the ball during a Sacramento Republic match

Soccer was everything for Kieran Phillips growing up.

The Sacramento Republic FC forward was born and raised in England and all he wanted to do was chase a ball around in search of that feeling only the game gave him. His father described him as “football-mad” – and it was that very madness that fuelled his passion to succeed in the game.

Phillips was raised in Huddersfield, which if you don't have a map handy, is located in the borough of Kirklees in West Yorkshire in England’s North. “It’s working-class there, not many people have a lot of money, and everyone has to work for what they [get],” said Phillips of the place that made him into the hard-grafting, never-say-die striker he is today.

“That’s probably the message I got growing up from my family,” added the 24-year-old with a commitment to the cause that’s beyond reproach. “Whatever you get, you must get yourself. You’re not going to get anything handed to you on a plate.”

Whether he was taking shots against his dad in the back garden, or running around the block with a ball at his feet, Phillips was captivated by the game and all it offered. And it didn’t take long for his passion to blossom into something bigger – as a road to a future in the game opened up at his feet.

Academy Days at Huddersfield Town and Everton

Phillips joined the academy at his local club, Huddersfield Town, at the tender age of eight. It offered him the chance to train at a high level and compete against the best players from the other academy teams in England, including the likes of the Manchesters (United and City), Newcastle and Liverpool too.

Success with Huddersfield’s academy led Phillips to take the next step and join the Everton academy when he was 13. There he continued to develop and grow as a player. He eventually earned his first professional contract with the Toffees in 2019 and would later return to Huddersfield on loan in 2020, where he continues to be under contract to this day.

Phillips celebrates with his Republic teammates against the Quakes
Phillips celebrates with his Republic teammates against the Quakes
Phillips celebrates with his Republic teammates against the Quakes

Phillips credits his academy experience at both clubs as instrumental in his development into a sturdy striker, tireless and with a keen eye for goal. “It was two of the best clubs I could have been at,” said Phillips.

“The academy [at Huddersfield] was really good,” he added. “Everton was renowned for having a good youth system, so it was a good move for me. I learned a lot there…the training, facilities and coaching was unbelievable. I grew a lot as a player. [It’s] life experience you keep with you forever.”

California Calling (Unexpectedly)

After missing the European loan window this past January, Phillips found himself at home training and working on his own – fighting back from injury. It was in that time of doubt when the phone rang. On the line was his agent, sharing news of an opportunity to join Sacramento Republic FC, in the USA’s second division, on a loan deal in faraway California.

He was aware that the Republic was owned by Kevin Nagle, who’s also the owner of his Huddersfield Town. But Phillips – always eager to get his hands dirty and do his own heavy lifting – wanted to do some research and chat to Republic Manager Mark Briggs first before making a decision

Sacramento Republic Starting 11 at midfield prior to their US Open Cup Matchup against San Jose Earthquakes
Sacramento Republic Starting 11 at midfield prior to their US Open Cup Matchup against San Jose Earthquakes
Republic FC before the big Cupset over MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes

With that due diligence done, and having had a frank conversation with Briggs, also a native of England and a former youth player with West Brom and Shrewsbury Town, Phillips said the decision became a no-brainer. “Obviously, I’m really happy [I made the move] because it’s gone really well.

“I [came into the situation] open-minded and that has helped me adjust well,” he added. “To be honest, the lads are great, the staff is great, and they really have helped me settle in, so a lot of [the success] starts with them really.”

Feeling the U.S. Open Cup Magic

Phillips had only been training with Republic FC for a few weeks when he made his 2024 Open Cup debut for the Quails against Monterey Bay FC. It wasn’t his first experience playing in a domestic cup tournament, as he has five total FA Cup appearances with Huddersfield Town. He also played in England’s most beloved cup while on loan with Walsall FC and Morecambe FC – both in Football League 2.

Phillips’ first half goal helped lift Republic FC to a 2-0 win over the fellow USL Championship side from Monterey on May 7 in the Round of 32. Two weeks later, in the Round of 16, Phillips recorded a first-half brace against the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS in a thrilling 4-3 Cupset win in extra-time.

This prolific Round of 16 performance earned Phillips ‘Player of the Round’ honors from, the well-respected Open Cup-focussed media outlet, by an overwhelming margin. He’s tied for second in the tournament’s Golden Boot Race (three goals) with LAFCs Christian Olivera.

The striker’s pace and creativity around the 18-yard box have proven difficult for opposition defenders to get to grips with. His presence has also been a shot in the arm for a Republic side decimated by injuries to key attacking players like club legend and captain Rodrigo ‘RoRo’ Lopez. But don’t look to Phillips to soak up much of the credit. He points to the guys around him.

“I think it’s the team mentality,” said Phillips, who has three additional goals in league play, when asked about the secret to his success. “We played the Earthquakes and there wasn’t one person in that changing room that didn’t believe we could win. [But] in terms of myself, scoring goals is my job, so if the lads are providing good opportunities like that night, it’s my job to put them in – and thankfully I did.”

Importance of the Open Cup

With sweeping changes to the Open Cup format this year, most notably only eight MLS first teams participating and starting in the Round of 32, Phillips has his own thoughts and feelings about the importance of a robust domestic tournament.

“Back home, you grow up watching the FA Cup,” said Phillips, who’s hoping his Republic FC can match their heroics of 2022 by reaching another Final this year. “You dream about playing in a final and winning it [all]. It’s just got that little extra bit of pressure and excitement.

Republic coach Mark Briggs addresses the players after the Round of 16 win
Republic coach Mark Briggs addresses the players after the Round of 16 win
Republic coach Mark Briggs addresses the players after the Round of 16 win

“The [Open Cup] is the American version of that for me, and it carries those same emotions over,” added Phillips of the U.S.’ historic knockout competition. “You’re willing to push a little more and give a little more to make sure you win. Cup competitions are ruthless really…you have to just go for it 100 percent.”

Sounders Test in the Quarterfinals

While Phillips wasn’t around in 2022 when Republic FC made a historic run all the way to the Open Cup Final, beating three Major League Soccer teams along the way, he’s well aware of this being another golden opportunity to advance.

Up next is a meeting with four-time champion Seattle Sounders FC on July 9 (streamed LIVE on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV).

The game will take place at home at a packed Heart Health Park with the fans hoping for another big win over a team from the big leagues. It’s a challenge he and his teammates – many of whom still remember the stinging 3-1 loss in the Final to Orlando City in 2024 – fully embrace.

“We know we’re playing really tough opposition, but we also know if we turn up and play and turn up the intensity, we have a really good chance,” said Phillips, who grew up dreaming of opportunities like these. “When the time comes, we’ll be ready and hopefully put on a good show too.”

Hodges is a contributor at theCup.US / @usopencup. He was formerly the editor of Indomitable City Soccer and you can follow him on Twitter @william_hodges