The Fate Team? Sacramento Republic FC close to dreamland after third MLS Cupset
Three less Major League Soccer teams, one remains.
Sacramento Republic FC are one game away from becoming the first lower division team to lift the US Open Cup trophy since the Rochester Rhinos (reborn as the MLS NEXT Pro Rochester New York FC) accomplished that feat in 1999. In fact, a non-MLS team hasn’t reached the tournament championship game since 2008, when Charleston’s battery fell to DC United.
The USL Championship side make history in the 2022 edition of the domestic competition, booking a Sept. 7 final at Orlando City SC after eliminating Sporting Kansas City on penalties following a 0-0 draw on Wednesday night .
The result at their Heart Health Park home ground was no accident either. Sacramento beat the San Jose Earthquakes in the Round of 16, 2-0 at home, and defeated the LA Galaxy in the quarterfinals, 2-1 on the road.
On the precipice of a 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot, the second division club are dreaming big and have large swathes of the American football public in their corner.
“It’s the biggest night of my coaching career and then going to Orlando to play a final with a Champions League spot on the line, you have to [go] like ‘Is this really happening?’ But lucky for us, that’s the reality,” said head coach Mark Briggs, who previously coached the Real Monarchs reserve team from Real Salt Lake.
“We are 90 minutes away from a trophy and a place in the Champions League. So it’s a huge reward, a huge night and something that will be remembered for a long time. But we are not done. We said in the last round that we weren’t in this competition just to make up the numbers. We are in this competition because we want to win it. Now we have put ourselves in a position to go and win it.
That confidence was on full display in the penalty shootout when Maalique Foster sank her fourth-round kick attempt with daring style. The Jamaican international striker dropped a Panenka past SKC goalkeeper John Pulskamp, then launched into a backflip routine, a move Sacramento keeper Danny Vitiello said required ‘massive balls’ to succeed.
Vitiello, who played for Nashville before the start of their MLS chapter in 2020, then played the hero in the fifth round by diving to his left to deny the shot from SKC right-back Graham Zusi. This allowed Rodrigo Lopez, the co-top scorer in this year’s Open Cup, to drop off the winning PK and send SKC packing their bags.
SKC left “disappointed, gutted”
As bitter as Sporting felt, manager and sporting director Peter Vermes was not shocked that Sacramento found success against top-flight groups.
“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.
“So, congratulations to Sacramento. They played hard, they fought for everything, they threw their bodies everywhere, they blocked shots. Listen, they’ve worked really hard in the game, so kudos to them.
Defeat keeps SKC on four Open Cup titles in its history and halts the potential for a run that harkens back to DC United’s 2013 season, when they finished bottom of the overall MLS standings while winning the tournament national against an RSL team that reached that year’s MLS Cup. final before losing, coincidentally, to SKC on penalties.
The visitors also beat Sacramento 31-13, but lacked sharpness in key moments. Amid a season where perennial MLS Audi Cup playoff contenders SKC are uncharacteristically bottom of the Western Conference table, captain Johnny Russell says it’s a particularly tough pill to take. swallow.
“Disappointed, drained. We did enough in the 90 minutes and overtime to win I think,” Russell said. “I created so many chances and we just weren’t good enough to take them, myself included. The longer it goes on and the longer you let it go on penalties, the more hope you give their team. We should have put it back and finished before there were even penalties.
The Scottish striker brought home the emotional toll of that outing for SKC, who crushed USL League One side Union Omaha 6-0 in the quarter-finals to reach this stage. In previous rounds, they beat fellow MLS Western Conference teams FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC.
“We really wanted this one. It hasn’t been a good season for us, we know that,” Russell said. “It was our chance to get to a final and try to win some silverware this year and we let ourselves down. We also let the fans go home, those who have traveled here. Just one night really, really disappointing, to be honest.
Up next: Orlando
As underdog as SKC has been left, Sacramento’s dream run continues nearly 18 months after it was announced they weren’t going to become an MLS expansion team after being revealed as a new came to the league in October 2019. They were originally scheduled to start play in 2022 before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed that timeline back a year, contributing to a potential course reversal.
Briggs downplayed that story as motivating the success of the Sacramento Open Cup.
“We have a group of players who represent this club, who represent this city, who represent this badge and they do it with pride and they do it with passion,” Briggs said. “Whatever the league, it’s irrelevant. That’s for other people to discuss. It’s about those players.
What is clear, without a doubt, is that Sacramento will enter the Orlando game in six weeks with boatloads of confidence. They’ve fielded three MLS teams and are close to securing a CCL spot, providing a task the Lions won’t take lightly.
“It’s going to be the biggest game for a number of our guys, coaching staff, players, when we get to Orlando,” Briggs said. “It’s a good place to be and we’re all happy.”