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Second-Division Sacramento Republic Is On A Magical Open Cup Run

The moment before the panenka.
Screenshot: Sacramento Republic/Twitter

At its best, an open cup tournament can be one of the most exciting forms of soccer competition. The Law of Large Numbers dictates that a tournament whose field spans the breadth of a given country's soccer ladder will tend to be dominated by those at the top of said ladder, and though expectation holds in the case of the U.S. Open Cup, soccer is a sport prone to wacky results and wild upsets, and the secondary importance of cup play relative to league play means tired versions of supposedly superior teams have to square up against minnows determined to take them down. It's a dynamic that fosters miracles, like the one a fifth-division side nearly pulled off against the LA Galaxy in 2016. This year, Sacramento Republic is on the cusp of winning the whole tournament.

This 2022 season was supposed to be the Republic's final campaign in the second division, though their MLS spot got pulled when lead investor Ron Burkle backed out in Feb. 2021. Instead, they are still in the USL, as they have been since the club was founded in 2014. The Republic is currently seventh in the 13-team USL Western Conference, though league competition has taken a clear backseat to their challenge on the U.S. Open Cup. The Republic qualified for the Round of 16 by defeating the Portland Timbers' U-23 team, and then a third-division side based in Fresno. They earned the chance to host Northern California's MLS side in Sacramento, and they spanked the Earthquakes, 2-0, establishing the rough pattern of their Open Cup run: cede possession, attack on the break when possible, and rely on Danny Vitiello's steady goalkeeping. The Earthquakes enjoyed 69 percent of the possession, yet were unable to score, or even manage a shot on target in the second half.

Their victory earned them a shot on the road at the L.A. Galaxy. Republic opened the scoring again, though L.A. quickly equalized. The Galaxy had the ball 64 percent of the time, and even brought on heavy hitters like Chicharito and Julian Araujo in the 60th minute to secure the win. Instead, Luis Felipe banged one in the get his side to the semifinals.

Beating one MLS team is a noteworthy, though not unheard of, feat for a second-division side. Several Republic players have meaningful experience at the MLS level or higher—Keko is a veteran of the Atletico Madrid academy and even earned a La Liga appearance for the club at age 17—and four of them are full internationals. Republic defeated Real Salt Lake in 2017 and the Seattle Sounders in 2018, though this year's run is orders of magnitude more significant. The Republic hosted Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday and held the MLS side scoreless for 120 minutes despite SKC taking 31 shots. The game had to be decided on penalty kicks in front a rabid crowd of Republic fans, who were treated to a show. With SKC holding a 4-3 edge, Jamaican international Maalique Foster needed to equalize. At one of the most important moments in the history of the club, Foster calmly stepped into a panenka then celebrated with a backflip and the Steph Curry night-night salute.

USMNT veteran Graham Zusi then stepped up to face Vitiello, and he sent his shot right, directly into Vitiello's palm. Club talisman Rodrigo Lopez buried his penalty, and the celebration started.

Republic became the first second-division side to reach the Open Cup final since the Charleston Battery made and lost the 2008 final. Only one non-MLS side has ever won the Cup, and the Republic will try to equal the Rochester Rhinos' run during the 1999 Cup when they travel to Orlando to play Orlando City SC in September. SKC coach Peter Vermes was bitterly disappointed in his team's performance, but even he had to acknowledge the magic of the cup. "It’s not the first time that a lower-division team has made it into a final. It’s normal. It happens around the world," Vermes said. "This is why this Cup is such a great competition. I think it’s an awesome competition, personally speaking. I loved playing in it as a player and I love coaching in it." If the Republic can beat their fourth consecutive MLS opponent, they will book their place in the CONCACAF Champions League, though more importantly, they will give their legion of fans, who thought they'd be cheering for an MLS team by now, an incredible moment.

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