Sacramento, as a city, has always had a chip on its shoulder. Despite the 2.5 million residents in its greater metropolitan area and its status as the capital of California, it has long been overshadowed by the likes of the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley and Los Angeles.
That dynamic inevitably spills over to sports, where its soccer team, Sacramento Republic of the second-tier USL, was infamously spurned last year by Major League Soccer only 17 months after it was very publicly awarded an expansion slot.
Off the field, there wasn’t much the organization could do about it. But on it, the players are still hoping to have the last say.
“I’m sure (the MLS) didn’t want us to win,” Republic captain Rodrigo Lopez said in June after Sacramento beat the biggest team in MLS, the LA Galaxy, in the quarter-final of the US Open Cup, the nation’s oldest single-elimination tournament.
On Wednesday, he and his teammates travel to Florida to take on another MLS side, Orlando City SC in the final of that competition. The odds will continue to be against them. No lower-tier team in the country has made it this far since 2008, and before that, no such side has managed to win it since 1999.
En route to the final, Sacramento had to beat three MLS teams in a row, including their aforementioned California neighbors. That sort of run has many in the city now rallying around a play on a conventional saying: if you can’t join them, beat them.
Except, it’s easy to say that after the fact. Less than six months ago, when Republic kicked off their 2022 campaign, no one would have imagined that they would make it this far, especially so soon.
After seeing their team limp to a near last-place finish after the MLS expansion debacle, team president Todd Dunivant and head coach Mark Briggs let over 20 first-team players depart the club and brought in an equal amount of new faces in one offseason window.
“I only had five names (returning) on my board at the start of the season,” Briggs said, reflecting on what it was like to assemble a brand-new squad. “You look around at the other teams at the top of our league and that just doesn’t happen.”
Working within the constraints of being a lower-tier club, the two former players – Dunivant a decorated champion in the US and Briggs an English journeyman – had to be shrewd with their recruiting. They couldn’t just spend more to improve, so they focused instead on being deliberate.
“We felt like we were missing some leadership in the group last year,” Dunivant said. In addition to utilizing more data and analytics to identify “winning” type players that might not stand out to the naked eye, he said that he and Briggs wanted to build a more unified dressing room. “The big key to our current run has been bringing in the right guys with certain personality traits.”
“Togetherness”, “protect your teammate” and “lean on one another” are phrases that are commonly heard at Sacramento’s training sessions these days. They can be cliché values that every coach likes to espouse and preach, but here, they’ve been empirically tested.
“Fortunately for me … we started getting results, which generated more energy within the group and created even more buy-in,” Briggs said when asked how his team of 11 new starters was able to gel so quickly in time for a special cup run.
Before the cup run garnered them more attention, his team had been in the middle of the pack in USL. There was no reason to pick them out of the lineup as some exemplary lower-tier side. But now, everyone around him is suddenly asking him for secrets of the trade.
“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. It is not lost on him that magical runs like Sacramento’s or say, Leicester City winning the English Premier League in 2016 are anomalies for a reason.
But neither is the enormity of the moment which he said is “a dream come true”. When Republic kick off against Orlando on Wednesday, they will be playing arguably the biggest game in Sacramento sports history.
That’s not just hyperbole. The only other major sports team in town, the Sacramento Kings of the NBA, have not made the postseason in over 16 years, nor have they ever come as close as the Republic have to winning a trophy.
To mark the occasion, Republic’s ownership group is flying the entire staff to Orlando for the first time in team history. While in Sacramento, even the politicians have organized a massive watch party downtown for the game.
Before he departed for Florida, Lopez had cooled on his bold call-outs of MLS. The club talisman is still Republic’s most influential player at the age of 35, scoring in each of the teams’ three wins over MLS opposition. After his career almost ended a decade ago, he is trying to keep things in perspective.
He knows that things like multi-million dollar expansion fees or the introduction of promotion and relegation in American soccer are outside of his and the fans’ control.
“Wherever we end up, whether that’s MLS or USL, I know we’ll still be important in this city,” Lopez said. “Our fans remained passionate and never stopped believing through the worst.”
“We have to do it for them.”