CARSON, Calif. – The Los Angeles Galaxy gave Luis Felipe too much space. He fired a long shot from way outside the box toward goalie Jonathan Klinsmann, who dove a little too late.
Dignity Health Sports Park was stunned, and Sacramento Republic FC held onto the lead Tuesday to advance to the semifinals of the 2022 U.S. Open Cup in a historic victory.
Such upsets show the value of tournaments like the U.S. Open Cup. Smaller clubs like Sacramento Republic, who play in the USL Championship, have the chance to test their skills against bigger teams like those in MLS. And sometimes, as Sacramento Republic proved, the smaller clubs win.
The U.S. Open Cup puts top-division MLS squads against teams from all lower divisions of U.S. soccer. It’s played parallel to the USL regular season.
Many might take issue with the “smaller club” narrative surrounding Sacramento Republic FC, as it was scheduled to play in the MLS this season after being accepted in 2019. In 2021, however, Sacramento’s expansion to the MLS was placed on “infinite hiatus.”
For now, the team has to settle for the USL Championship and Tuesday’s stunning victory in Los Angeles.
“All I can say is I’m focused on the group that we have here,” Republic coach Mark Briggs said. “In regards to MLS, that’s for other people to discuss and figure out.”
Republic has faced a difficult road in this tournament, toppling western foe after western foe, while showing off consistent team strengths in doing so.
“I think it’s kind of the beauty of the event,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said. “It’s a challenge for all clubs … the smaller teams don’t even have as big a roster as us in some ways, so they’ve got to manage through that as well.”
Republic’s first match was against Portland Timbers U23, a development team for the Timbers’ MLS team. It dominated U23, winning 6-0.
It was Republic’s first clean sheet of the tournament. Goalkeeper Carlos Saldana made no saves because he faced no shots on goal.
Sacramento’s next foe was Central Valley Fuego FC in Fresno, just down State Route 99 from Sacramento. Republic won 2-1, dominating such categories as shots, shots on target, passes and possessions.
Although goalkeeper Danny Vitiello conceded Sacramento’s first goal of the tournament on the only shot on goal he faced, he stood victorious after 90 minutes and would become Republic’s man in net for the rest of the tournment.
The team next traveled to Phoenix, where they proved they’re the real deal.
As of now, Phoenix Rising FC sits 11th in the USL Championship’s Western Conference, and Sacramento Republic FC is fifth.
Phoenix Rising looked strong coming off a 2-1 win against New Mexico United in its previous U.S. Open Cup match. Their offense was good, nearly doubling New Mexico’s shots on goal, and although they only had 38% of the possession time, their defense was strong enough to limit any damage.
Unfortunately for Phoenix Rising, Sacramento’s defense by then had become one of the stories of the tournament. Phoenix outshot Republic FC 21-14 and recorded more shots on goal, 6-5.
But Vitiello stopped all six, and Sacramento shut out Phoenix 2-0 to move on in the tournament. Felipe scored the winning goal in the 30th minute.
“He can strike a ball like the best of them,” Briggs said of Felipe. “He has the ability to play at the next level.”
This was no longer a team that thrashed a U23 squad and crumbled when the higher competition started to control possession. This team’s defense had stepped up all game, and its keeper had found his form.
Pairing that with their opportunistic offense, Sacramento Republic FC was ready for the big time: MLS clubs.
“It’s amazing,” Briggs said. “We’ve been through a lot the last couple of years.”
The next test on Sacramento’s increasingly challenging western gauntlet was the San Jose Earthquakes. Although the Quakes are last in MLS’s Western Conference, a top-division team is a top-division team.
And again, the story was the same: a 2-0 win. Another clean sheet for Vitiello, and another winning goal for Felipe, this time in the 28th minute. Rodrigo Lopez’s 83rd-minute goal was simply insurance.
“It’s great for Luis,” Briggs said. “Obviously, he was with San Jose for three years, didn’t get the minutes that he would have liked. And he’s come to us, last year he was fantastic for us … and this year he’s carried on that form.”
Felipe said he felt “really blessed, to be honest. And really happy to be a part of this team.”
Sacramento was outshot and out-possessed. But it didn’t matter. They were on their way south again to take on the L.A. Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.
“It shows that we’re a football club that can compete with the elite clubs in this country,” Briggs said.
The Galaxy, fifth in MLS’s Western Conference, was coming off three big games. In the previous round of the U.S. Open Cup, they convincingly beat LAFC, their crosstown rivals and leaders of the MSL, 3-1. In their next two league games, L.A. defeated Austin FC 4-1 and scored a late goal to secure a tie against Portland Timbers.
L.A. was clearly the favorite. They were playing great soccer, and their many titles displayed at Dignity Health Sports Park come with an expectation of being a legitimate trophy contender.
It was a strange game from the beginning. Once again, Sacramento was out-possessed. Throughout the game, the Galaxy seemed to be more dangerous, but they just couldn’t solve Sacramento’s defense.
“They’re stingy defensively,” Vanney said. “They’ll get everyone behind the ball and they’ll defend.”
Briggs said his players “executed the plan to perfection.”
The Galaxy made some mistakes too, and when they did, Republic capitalized. In the fourth minute, Lopez scored on Sacramento’s first real chance of the game. And of course, Felipe’s audacious launch in the 70th minute fooled L.A. goalie Klinsmann.
“We took advantage of everything that we had the chance to,” Felipe said.
“We were good in transition,” Briggs said. “We looked threatening in transition.”
Vitiello was spectacular. Although he didn’t add another clean sheet to Sacramento’s tournament, he might as well have. The only goal the Galaxy got was an own goal in the 18th minute by Conor Donovan off a corner kick.
“Leading into it … transitions and set pieces were going to be the two big things for us to manage tonight,” Vanney said. “Right off the bat, we didn’t manage a transition.”
Having a player with the last name Donovan listed under the Galaxy’s scoresheet was unusual. The last time the Galaxy won the U.S. Open Cup, in 2005, club legend Landon Donovan was making his debut season with the Galaxy. The cup was one of the first of his many career honors with the team.
When the final whistle blew, players hugged and then collapsed. Sacramento outshot the Galaxy 15-11, despite only having possession for 36% of the clock.
“When you come to teams like L.A. Galaxy, you have to understand you’re going to be under pressure for large amounts of the game,” Briggs said.
“I’m just over the moon. So proud of the players, so proud of the staff. So happy for everyone involved at the football club.”
The game was physical, with seven yellow cards, including one to a member of Sacramento’s staff.
“It was great,” Felipe said. “The fight that the boys showed, everyone from the staff to everybody, the whole team, I think was great.”
Briggs praised his players for the way they managed those.
“Danny Vitiello coming out and claiming crosses, defenders heading the ball out … just a complete performance from start to finish,” he said.
With near certainty, Sacramento will face another MLS team in the semifinals, as the only other remaining non-MLS side is Union Omaha of the USL League 1, who will face Sporting Kansas City.
But all doubt is gone about the team’s ability to compete in the big moment. They not only won the West, they nearly shut out those opponents.
“To get a result against arguably the biggest club in this country … it’s an amazing achievement,” Briggs said of the Galaxy. “It’s something I’m sure will live long in my memory and our players’ memories.”
Phoenix Rising, Omaha United and similar clubs should be inspired by Sacramento Republic’s run. The open cup is open to all leagues for a reason. The leaders are not invincible. To New York, Orlando, Nashville or any other team that may stand in Sacramento’s way in open, pay heed to your Western brethren.