Rodrigo López was on the field the night Sacramento Republic FC debuted as a USL franchise nearly a decade ago, filling venerable, old Hughes Stadium. It was a memorable night and the start of a magical season that ended with a championship.
That was the first, and arguably most important, chapter to Sacramento’s professional soccer history. And it’s one that could be topped on Wednesday night when Sac Republic faces Major League Soccer club Orlando City in the final of the U.S. Open Cup, looking to become just the second lower-division club to win the championship in a quarter-century.
“This city has always been a soccer city. ... I don’t think they were as involved with the Republic the last few years, but I think now they’re starting to get back into it and I feel like the run has truly woken the city up again,” López said.
Sac Republic’s run to the final has been inspiring and revitalizing for a soccer-crazed region after a tough couple of years. Less than two years ago, Sacramento seemed set to join the MLS landscape, likely to become the 29th or 30th team to join the league.
That all changed 18 months ago when its MLS bid was derailed after lead investor Ron Burkle pulled out of the project. It was an unexpected decision that took Sacramento from appearing to be a lock to completely out of the conversation.
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“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, so to speak, and had a lot of disappointing things happen within the club,” Sacramento coach Mark Briggs said. “Obviously the biggest one that everybody knows about is losing the MLS spot. And then obviously COVID and a number of other things that hit us. So being able to get some positivity back into the club and this Cup run, kind of reignited that flame that burns in Sacramento. It’s been refreshing.”
Sac Republic is the first lower division side to reach the final since the Charleston Battery in 2008. A win would make it just the second non-MLS team to win the title since MLS came into existence in 1996. The Rochester Raging Rhinos won the title in 1999, knocking off the Colorado Rapids in the final. Rochester also reached the final in 1996, losing to D.C. United.
Unlike those previous times, there’s more at stake on Wednesday. The winner of the final will earn a spot in the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League.
The run to the final by Sacramento speaks to its resiliency both on the field and with how it responded to the news of its MLS hopes dissipating. Off the field, the club has worked to solidify its place as a top USL club. It’s moved ahead with a scaled-down version of the original plans for a stadium in downtown Sacramento. It devoted resources to become a playoff-caliber team in the USL Championship division and now holds a playoff spot.
“I think everyone who’s been involved in Sac Republic and been a part of it over the years knows what a special place it is,” team president and general manager Todd Dunivant said. “The ups and downs I think, the one thing we’ve always had is we’re about being indomitable. That’s our core identity. So when adversity comes our way, it’s in our nature to be able to step up in those moments and we’ve had to do that over the last 16-17 months especially.”
On the field, Sacramento has taken seriously every step of the Open Cup. Sac Republic knocked off three MLS sides to get to the final, starting with a home win over San Jose and followed up by eliminating the LA Galaxy on the road.
The capper was the semifinal upset of Sporting Kansas City, a tense, exhausting match that went scoreless for 120 minutes before Republic advanced on penalties. The final three kicks in the shootout were a “Panenka” by Sacramento’s Maalique Foster, U.S. national team veteran Graham Zusi having his shot saved by Danny Vitiello and Lopez drilling the winner to send Republic to the final.
The party after the semifinal win was memorable. Winning on the road in Orlando and capping this run with a championship might be unimaginable.
“It’s almost like there’s been a gray cloud hanging over everything we did,” Briggs said. “But this Cup run, the sun started coming through those clouds again. They’ve kind of dispersed and there’s a lot of positivity and now a lot of support is coming back around and the city getting behind us again. Sometimes that’s what it takes.”
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Tim Booth, The Associated Press