SOCCER

Second Division Sacramento Republic are on a magical open cup run

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At its best, an open cup tournament can be one of the most exciting forms of football competition. The law of large numbers dictates that a tournament whose scope spans the span of a given country’s footballing ladder will tend to be dominated by those at the top of said ladder, and although the expectation is valid in the case of the US Open Cup, football is a sport prone to goofy results and wild upheavals, and the secondary importance of cup play to league play means that tired versions supposedly superior teams must face minnows determined to eliminate them. It’s a dynamic that favors miracles, like the one a Fifth Division team nearly pulled off against the LA Galaxy in 2016. This year, Sacramento Republic is on course to win the entire tournament.

This 2022 season was meant to be the Republic’s last campaign in the Second Division, although their place in MLS was stripped when lead investor Ron Burkle pulled out in February 2021. Instead, they are still in the game. ‘USL, as they have been since the club. was founded in 2014. The Republic are currently seventh in the 13-team USL Western Conference, although league competition has clearly trumped their challenge in the US Open Cup. The Republic advanced to the Round of 16 by defeating the U-23 side Portland Timbers and then a Fresno-based Third Division side. They won the chance to host MLS team Northern California in Sacramento, and they beat the Earthquakes, 2-0, setting the rough pattern of their Open Cup journey: giving up possession, attacking the break when possible and rely on regular goalkeeper Danny Vitiello. . Earthquakes enjoyed 69% of ball possession but failed to score or even get a shot on target in the second half.

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Their victory earned them a chance on the road to the LA Galaxy. Republic opened the scoring again, though LA quickly equalized. The Galaxy had the ball 64% of the time and even called on heavy hitters like Chicharito and Julian Araujo in the 60th minute to secure the win. Instead, Luis Felipe hit one to take his team to the semis.

Beating an MLS team is a remarkable, but not unheard of, feat for a second division team. Several Republic players have significant experience at MLS level or above – Keko is an Atletico Madrid academy veteran and even secured a La Liga appearance for the club aged 17 – and four of them are full internationals. Republic beat Real Salt Lake in 2017 and the Seattle Sounders in 2018, although this year’s run is an order of magnitude bigger. The Republic hosted Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday and held the MLS side scoreless for 120 minutes despite SKC taking 31 shots. The match was to be decided on penalties in front of an enraged crowd of Republic supporters, who were treated to a spectacle. With SKC holding a 4-3 advantage, Jamaican international Maalique Foster needed to equalise. In one of the most important moments in the club’s history, Foster calmly stepped into a panenka then celebrated with a backflip and Steph Curry’s night salute.

USMNT veteran Graham Zusi then stepped forward to face Vitiello, and he fired his shot right, directly in the palm of Vitiello. Club talisman Rodrigo Lopez buried his penalty and the party began.

The Republic became the first Second Division team to reach the Open Cup final since the Charleston Battery won and lost the 2008 final. Only one non-MLS team has won the Cup, and the Republic will attempt to match the Rochester Rhinos’ 1999 Cup haul when they travel to Orlando to face Orlando City SC in September. SKC coach Peter Vermes was bitterly disappointed with his team’s performance, but even he had to recognize the magic of the cup. “This is not the first time that a lower division team has qualified for a final. It’s normal. It happens all over the world,” Vermes said. “That’s why this Cup is such a great competition. I think it’s a great competition, personally. I loved playing there as a player and I love coaching there. If the Republic can beat their fourth opponent consecutive in MLS, she will book her place in the CONCACAF Champions League, but more importantly, she will give her legion of fans, who thought they would cheer for an MLS team now, an incredible moment.

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