- The stage is set for Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final: Sacramento Republic, from the United States’ second division USL Championship, are taking on Orlando City, from first division MLS
- With adversity on and off the field, Sacramento Republic have leaned on some key figures to help propel their unexpected run to the final
The stage is set for Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final in Orlando: Sacramento Republic, from the United States’ second division USL Championship, are taking on Orlando City, from first division Major League Soccer.
As you’ll be reminded almost constantly between now and the end of the match, no lower-division team has made it this far in the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that pits teams from across divisions, since 2008. And reaching back before that, no lower-division team has won the entire tournament since 1999.
Yet, here we are 23 years after American soccer’s greatest underdog story. Sacramento Republic, coming off one of the lowest points in club history, have a chance to add themselves to that lore and potentially upend the way we think about tiers in this country.
Their story is both unique and familiar.
REBUILDING THE HOUSE
As recently as a year ago, no one would have pegged Sacramento to be here. The 2021 season had been a difficult one on and off the field: the club’s plan to join MLS as an expansion team collapsedwhen a key investor backed out and, on the field, their squad had gone stale and missed the USL playoffs for the first time in team history.
The excitement that had once destined Sacramento for bigger things abruptly ended.
However, challenges that could sink other clubs ended up presenting an opportunity to do something new. In March 2021, former MLS Cup winner and Open Cup champion Todd Dunivant was elevated to club president after serving as general manager since 2018. One of his first decisions was to retain head coach Mark Briggs, who, despite the disappointing record, had steered the team through the worst of the pandemic.
This time, they didn’t have to worry about making the most of what they inherited. 20 players from last season’s team either departed or were not re-signed. The decks were cleared and they started to build a new team.
“The culture of the club was wrong, we knew it, and we had to fix it,” Briggs told Backheeled after a training session leading up to this week’s final.
With only five names on the depth chart, Republic signed 16 new players to their first-team in the 2022 offseason while contenders in their conference were able to carry over much of their spine.
Dunivant said that he and Briggs felt like the team lacked leadership, so seeking specific character traits was a priority.
“We did a lot of work using data and analytics to identify players who have been successful in our league,” Dunivant explained. “Those players might not jump off the screen if you’re just going by eye, but the numbers show that they’re an important piece to winning.”
“We really dug into the personality side,” Briggs added. “We wanted to know what motivated them, what they enjoy most about playing football, and what they like most about being part of a team.”
One of those signings who has emerged as a key contributor is 26-year-old center back Conor Donovan. The North Carolina native was drafted, coincidentally, by Orlando City in 2015 and brutally tore his ACL minutes into his top-flight debut. After that, he found himself bouncing from one USL team to another every year.
During Sacramento’s run to the final, he was at the heart of their stingy defense that held off three MLS opponents in a row.
“Having the right mix of confidence as a player and belief from coaches is a big thing and it varies every year,” Donovan said, reflecting on his breakout season. “I’ve had moments in my career where that wasn’t the case and my play suffered.”
“Credit to the front office for bringing in so many of the right guys with like-mindsets,” he added. “It can sometimes sound cliche talking about culture, but we’re a really close group on and off the field and genuinely care for each other.”
FORGED IN FIRE
When club talisman Rodrigo “RoRo” Lopez returned to Sacramento for the third time in his career, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Eight years ago, he led the team to a league championship in its first year of existence, racking up MVP honors as well. He then went on to play in Mexico before returning to the USL in 2020.
“You can see a lot and tell how you’re going to do in the season from day one (of preseason),” Lopez said. The creative midfielder recently turned 35 and said that he would like to end his storied playing career as a member of Republic.
Even at this stage of his career, he’s still Sacramento’s most decisive player. In the Open Cup, he scored goals against both the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy before converting the game-winning penalty against Sporting Kansas City.
“Everyone was buzzing that day,” Lopez recalled. “You could tell we had a lot of quality on the field, and the new guys were just good human beings to be around.”
But a new team is still a new team. Before the Cup upsets garnered them more attention, Republic were having a quiet start to their campaign right in the middle of the USL Western conference pack. Early injury bugs also meant that they couldn’t field their preferred starting lineup until May. Then, they got healthy and Briggs made a tactical switch that would help them find their best playing identity at just the right time.
“Fortunately for me, when we changed the system, we got results,” Briggs said of moving to his now preferred 3-4-3 formation. “That just created more buy-in that kept growing as we got more results.”
Lopez said that any lingering doubts the group had about what this new team could accomplish were put to rest in June when Sacramento upset the LA Galaxy 2-1 on the road in Carson.
“It’s very easy for a team of their quality to just put us away,” Lopez said. “But we showed a lot of character and proved that we could go anywhere and beat any team in this country.”
They might be in the lower-divisions but on their remarkable run to the final, Republic dispatched three MLS teams in a row. First, the San Jose Earthquakes at home in May. Then, the aforementioned Galaxy in June. But there was no performance that better encapsulated this team’s identity than their dramatic semifinal win over Sporting Kansas City in July.
All season, Sacramento ranked near the top of the USL’s defensive categories, becoming one of the league’s stingiest teams. Powered by their “Irish” back line, they delivered more of the same against their heavily favored MLS opponents. Against KC, they blocked 14 shots and held their opponents scoreless for 120 minutes.
In their 3-4-3, which turns into a compact 5-4-1 on defense, Republic players have found a systemthat accentuates their best attributes. They soak up large amounts of pressure as a collective and counter attack with intention, driven by a midfield of MLS alums still in their mid-20s: Luis Felipe and Matt LaGrassa, who is a bit of a hometown hero.
Sacramento’s savvy recruiting also includes young wingbacks Dami Viader and Jack Gurr, who have burst onto the scene the same way they sprint up and down the sidelines. Up top, keep an eye on Jamaican international Maalique Foster who has emerged as one of USL’s most dangerous forwards.
Like Osvaldo Alonso did after Charleston Battery’s run in 2008, this moment could propel them to a higher level.
“If the game turns into a scrap, it actually suits us,” another new signing Lee Desmond said. The 27-year-old Irishman joined Republic after winning his country’s version of this cup competition with his previous club, St. Patrick’s Athletic. “We’ll play like that all game if we have to because we know we have the players at the top-end of the pitch who can win games for us.”
Whenever a team with limited resources makes a run like Republic have, there’s a temptation to wonder if there is some sort of secret genius or alchemy behind it. But in reality, these things are an anomaly for a reason. After all, Sacramento aren’t the only well-run team in the USL with greater ambitions.
“Yes, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to do as a team, but in our game, you need a bit of luck too,” Briggs said. “There’s no denying that there have been certain moments where the balls have rolled our way.”
“Then, the club has to have the belief that it can achieve something greater. That’s what gets you through the difficult moments that you’ll face in a knockout competition.”
Wednesday’s match between Sacramento Republic and Orlando City at Exploria Stadium will kick off at 8 p.m. ET, streaming on ESPN+.