CARSON, Calif. – Goalkeeper Danny Vitiello leaped into the air to knock a long shot attempt away. He landed on his backside, fist raised, just as the final whistle blew. The players of Sacramento Republic FC collapsed. They were exhausted after an intense defensive effort, but this reaction was obviously more than fatigue.
“We’re just lost for words quite frankly,” Republic FC coach Mark Briggs said after the match.
Sacramento Republic FC had just defeated LA Galaxy 2-1 at Dignity Health Sports Park, the Galaxy’s home stadium. In doing so, it advanced to the semifinals of the 2022 U.S. Open Cup for the first time in the team’s history. Not since 2017 has a non-MLS team had made it that far in the tournament.
MLS is widely considered the peak of soccer in the United States, with the MLS Cup the biggest trophy a team in this country can win.
But the faces of the Sacramento players, arms wrapped around each other as they celebrated in front of an ecstatic visitors section, said otherwise.
The U.S. Open Cup, in terms of overall growth of the sport in the United States, is the country’s most significant soccer competition. While the MLS Cup final may have the stars, the big stadiums, and name recognition, this competition, running nearly uninterrupted since 1914, has something more.
Hope and exposure.
“A team like Sacramento come into the LA Galaxy stadium, and it’s arguably their biggest game of the season,” LA Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said.
Briggs believes that “to get a result against arguably the biggest club in this country … it’s an amazing achievement.”
The U.S. Open Cup is the longest running soccer competition in the United States. Unlike the MLS Cup playoffs, the competition is open to teams from all leagues in the U.S., even amateur squads.
It’s similarly structured to competitions in European nations. American fans are likely to be most familiar with the FA Cup and the EFL Cup, contested annually in England between teams from the Premier League all the way down to the 10th ranked level. More than 700 teams can compete each year in these competitions.
In the United States, the number of competing teams is around 100, not as much as England, but the principle is the same. Theoretically, a team from the lowest division in the country can go on a run and win it all.
“I think it’s kind of the beauty of the event,” Vanney said.
In both countries, the top league teams have dominated the competition for the last 30 plus years. That only makes the runs Sacramento Republic and the recently eliminated Union Omaha have been on this year more remarkable.
Union Omaha plays in USL League 1, the number three league in the country, and it made it to the quarterfinals against MLS side Sporting Kansas City. Sacramento Republic plays in the USL Championship, the number two league, and will now face Kansas City in the semifinals.
“All around the world there’s Cup competitions,” Vanney said. “In every league around the world, in every country around the world. And there’s always upsets and knockoffs.”
The 2022 U.S. Open Cup competition has been great for smaller club exposure. The competition was last played in 2019. The past two years saw the competition canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interrupting 106 years of consecutive play.
With the excitement of having the competition back, smaller clubs who make it far had opportunities for even more exposure than usual.
“When you see these upsets, which many of them have happened this season, I think that’s the beauty of the competition,” Vanney said.
Sacramento Republic FC has now gone through two MLS clubs: San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy. Before them, it faced off in a clash with fellow USL Championship Western Conference side Phoenix Rising FC.
With a chance at playing against MLS clubs on the horizon, both teams gave it their all, with Sacramento eventually coming out on top 2-0.
For these smaller clubs, the wins mean so much more. As do the losses. Playing MLS clubs means a spot on national television. The team that wins the U.S. Open Cup gets one of the United States’ four allotted slots in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) Champions League. The winner of the Champions League plays in the FIFA Club World Cup.
“(Smaller clubs) are going to come with a different level of intensity, concentration,” Vanney said.
Apart from opportunities to play bigger and bigger clubs on higher profile television networks, there are also financial incentives for smaller clubs to do well.
The winner of the U.S. Open Cup is awarded $300,000 in prize money. For the runner-up, the prize is $100,000, and the teams from each lower league with the best finish get $25,000.
After getting one step closer to such huge boosts for their club, Republic FC fans were ecstatic.
“The fans tonight were electric,” Briggs said after the LA Galaxy match. “From the first minute to the 95th minute, they never stopped singing.”
It’s fair to say Sacamento’s win against LA Galaxy was an upset. Despite not being a title favorite at the moment, the Galaxy are still one of the most historically successful clubs in the country, having won the U.S. Open Cup twice.
There’s almost an expectation that the Galaxy will be playing for a trophy every year because of their history. It’s impossible to ignore that fact. Even when the final whistle blew, Sacramento’s celebrations were backdropped by the monuments to all the Galaxy’s trophies in the rafters of the stadium.
“LA Galaxy, the club, the history, this is a club that wins a lot of titles,” Galaxy defender Kelvin Leerdam said. “So that’s what you want.”
That’s not to say Sacramento Republic FC isn’t a successful club, they won the USL Cup in 2014. But the LA Galaxy will hardly ever lose in the history department.
Sacramento Republic FC was initially scheduled to play in MLS this summer, but its already-approved bid was put on “indefinite hiatus” in 2021. After all that, being able to play so many games against top league teams is huge for the club’s potential growth.
“It shows that we’re a football club that can compete with the elite clubs in this country,” Briggs said.
Whether the Sacramento Republic ever does get a chance to play in MLS, they have proven they can compete with them. They wouldn’t be out of place.
Now they have a chance to be the first USL Championship team in the U.S. Open Cup finals since the 2008 Charleston Battery. They are also trying to become the first non-MLS team to win the Cup since the 1999 Rochester New York FC, then known as the Rochester Rinos.
No matter the outcome, the tournament has done its job. This USL Championship side has gotten exposure from its remarkable run. Monetarily, and culturally, the future looks bright.