Sacramento Republic’s run to US Open Cup title abounds with destiny
When the timing, the toss, the rebounds and the breaks start to fall in a competition that lacks rhythm, rhyme or reason by design, Britons traditionally ask if it means ‘your name is on the cup’. Maybe only fate can bring some order out of chaos. It provides a narrative basis for the chaos that unfolds during a season-long multi-league knockout tournament.
The snap didn’t migrate across the Atlantic like so many other footballing Brits, but the sentiment did. How else to explain what is happening in the Californian capital, a city so often overshadowed by its cosmopolitan neighbors to the west and south? Sacramento Republic, a nine-year-old USL Championship club whose bid for MLS membership disintegrated during the pandemic, is now 90 minutes away from the most unlikely trophy burn in the club’s 109-year history. ‘U.S. Open Cup.
After missing the USL playoffs in 2021, Sacramento has reorganized and recharged. This year, as the Open Cup returned from a two-season hiatus, Republic beat the San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City in a six-game run to Wednesday’s final. There he will host Orlando City for the trophy, the title and a place in the Concacaf Champions League next season. Only two lower-tier teams had beaten three MLS opponents in an Open Cup campaign before Sacramento, the most recent in 2005. No lower-division team has reached the final since 2008, and none have. has won since the 1999 Rochester Rhinos.
But those were very different times. The Republic race is arguably the only one. To put the changing landscape in some perspective, when the Charleston Battery ousted two MLS teams and made the 2008 Finals, there were only eight MLS players, including Designated Players, who won at least $439,000. That’s now the average non-DP senior salary in the 28-team league. The rift between MLS and the others has widened considerably. Sacramento’s success is already remarkable. Club chairman and chief executive Todd Dunivant estimated that on average MLS clubs spend 20 times more on their first team than their USL Championship counterparts.
Maybe the only way to explain this is that the Republic name is on the mug.
Dunivant, 41, is a serial winner, five-time MLS champion with LA and San Jose, then a slate of NASL titles as an executive with the short-lived San Francisco Deltas. He knows a bit about championship formulas and so tried to explain how Republic managed to beat the Open Cup odds so completely.
“Just to see what we’ve been through, what the city has been through, what the front office has been through, what our fan base has been through – the ups and downs. That’s really what it’s all about and overcoming those obstacles is the heart and soul of who we are,” he says. “Word indomitable…you’ll hear it over and over again, but that’s what we are. For me, there is nothing better in sport than being able to see an obstacle, expect adversity and be able to face it.
The Republic club logo includes the city’s motto: “Urbs Indomita”. It was a prophetic design choice and became the backbone of the team’s identity. The notion of the Open Cup’s fate gains a little more traction when you consider that 2022 was originally set to be Sacramento’s first year as an MLS city. He was supposed to face the big boys every weekend. Instead, Republic’s trip was postponed by the pandemic, then derailed when investor Ron Burkle pulled out on February 21. It was a shocking and demoralizing turn of events, and there were concerns about in the future of the club. Would supporters and sponsors stay if MLS was not on the table? Would owner Kevin Nagle, who retained control once Burkle retired, continue to bet?
“When something like this happens, it’s so shocking, it shakes everyone to their hearts,” Dunivant recalled. “What happened right away was Kevin’s commitment was huge, to be able to come and see our staff, and I think we were on Zoom at the time… and Kevin came over and said : ‘Hey, I have this. We have this. We are not going anywhere and we will continue. And I think just hearing that reassured everyone.
Nagle doubled down, continuing to invest in a robust academy by USL standards (she’s already produced multiple pros, plus three MLS Next semi-finalists over the past two seasons) as well as the roster revamp that has shaped an Open Cup finalist and a likely return to the USLC playoffs. Dunivant and manager Mark Briggs have added at least 16 new players to the Republic roster as the club moved from the middle to the top quartile of league spending. Key new faces include goalkeeper Danny Vitiello – the 2020 USLC Golden Glove winner – Irish defensive stalwart Lee Desmond and co-top scorer Douglas Martínez, a former Real Salt Lake forward who was selected four times by Honduras.
And then there’s Rodrigo López, the Mexican American veteran who is enjoying a career resurgence on his third stint in Sacramento. The 35-year-old attacking midfielder is tied for the Open Cup lead with four goals and has been a true talisman for a side that desperately needed an injection of leadership, confidence and character. The Republic has become a clutch, hard to score and hard to beat, and that’s how you navigate a group that includes bigger and more skilled opponents.
“He loves Sacramento. We have reached an agreement with [Rio Grande Valley Toros in January] and were able to bring him back, and honestly he’s playing the best he’s ever played in his career,” Dunivant said of López. “Quickly in pre-season, he got the captaincy and Mark gave him the reins to lead the team. And he’s been great all year.
When the club commissions the first statue outside the new 12,000-15,000 seater downtown Sacramento football stadium that Nagle has promised to build, it will be of López. The only question that remains is whether he will hold a bronze version of the Open Cup trophy.
Sacramento isn’t Hollywood, of course, and Republic’s name might not be on the cut, just like Charleston wasn’t 14 years ago. Orlando has no interest in being just the final boss or foil to Cinderella’s story in Sacramento. Leos can tell a similar story, actually. Orlando used to be a soccer city few expected to come out on top, but the club attracted record support and won two USL championships before moving to MLS in 2015. As far as a team can ‘win’ its place in MLS, Orlando City did.
Adversity followed, however. Orlando failed to qualify for the playoffs in its first five seasons in MLS as three head coaches came and went. Finally, Óscar Pareja arrived ahead of the 2020 campaign. City’s fortunes reversed under the former architect of FC Dallas’ player development juggernaut. The Lions finished second in the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament, won two straight regular seasons and are in good shape for a third straight playoff berth. But there hasn’t been a meaningful trophy since the 2013 USL Championship, and the club and its fans, who like those in Sacramento have endured their share of frustration, will be desperate for success on Wednesday.
After Open Cup victories over rival Tampa Bay Rowdies and MLS Eastern Conference leader Philadelphia Union, Orlando survived penalty shootouts against Inter Miami and Nashville SC, then blasted the Reds New York Bulls, 5-1, in the July semifinals. After all that and the last eight years, City must believe their name is on the cup.
“It’s going to be hostile inside the stadium. We know that. We know that Óscar has already participated in this tournament and won the trophy. He’s a fierce competitor,” Dunivant said. “There’s no doubt that we’re going to have a huge challenge against Orlando at their house. What’s cool for us is that our guys have stepped up every time those challenges have been thrown at them.
The indomitable ethos will remain, win or lose. The USL Championship is growing, standing on its own as an independent national league as MLS reserve teams make their way to MLS Next Pro. Stadiums and brands are being built, games are on ESPN and further expansion is imminent. It’s a channel in which Republic, which is the 26th largest market in the country, can thrive. A move up to MLS would require a billionaire backer, not to mention a Premier League commitment to expand beyond 30 members (St. Louis City will be the No. 29 team next year , and Las Vegas remains the clear favorite for 30). And although Dunivant said the club remained interested in talking to potential investors, their focus is “squarely on the here and now”.
He said: “We think that’s why we’ve had success again, because we’ve kind of refocused and brought the attention of all our players, our staff and our fans to this team, this city and this moment. We think good things happen from there. Now you see what Sacramento is capable of once again.
It could have happened differently. The current form of the Republic – let alone its very existence – was not fatal. But the club weathered its recession, returned to its roots and then rose to a different height. He couldn’t join MLS, so he beats him.
“The excitement around the team – everyone who’s gone is back now, and more. It speaks to the market and that, hey, it doesn’t matter what league we’re in,” Dunivant said. pretty crazy how big this has gotten and how many people identify with it and are excited about it. I think for us what has been most satisfying has been the people within these walls, within the club and with our fans who have suffered, who have gone through the pain of the last year, to be able to enjoy it.
The future looks certain, regardless of Wednesday’s result. The Republic will remain. Now he can focus on the story.
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