With Sacramento's MLS plans on hiatus, a U.S. Open Cup win would etch team into American soccer lore

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- When Sacramento Republic forward Maalique Foster walked to the penalty spot in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal July 27, it represented one of the most pivotal moments in club history and in American soccer lore.

After 120 minutes of goalless soccer, second-division USL Championship side Sacramento trailed Major League Soccer's Sporting Kansas City 4-3 in the decisive penalty shootout. Neither team had missed, so Foster needed to score to keep pace. A failed attempt would put the team on the brink of elimination, possibly ending a magical tournament run that had re-energized the soccer community in California's capital city, following a disappointing previous year.

So, naturally, Foster went about it in one of the most audacious ways possible: a Panenka. The Jamaican's approach was normal enough, but just as he arrived at the ball and planted his left foot, he slowed into a lean and softly chipped the ball right down the middle. There was nothing SKC goalkeeper John Pulskamp could do -- other than smirk afterward -- as he fell helplessly to his right.

Foster cartwheeled into a backflip and, in a nod to Steph Curry, rested his face on his hands ... night night.

The shootout wasn't over, but it might as well have been. Sacramento goalkeeper Danny Vitiello saved Graham Zusi's attempt moments later before Rodrigo Lopez, the club's first-ever signing in 2014, sealed the Republic's passage to the final with an emphatic final penalty.

Sacramento will travel to Orlando City SC for the Wednesday final (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) with a chance to make history. Simply put, a victory would complete one of the greatest underdog stories in American soccer history.

Advancing this far in the tournament is a significant achievement for any club, but for the Republic -- just more than a year after its MLS status dissolved unexpectedly -- it's more than just the opportunity to win silverware or qualify for CONCACAF Champions League.

Not since 2008 had a non-Major League Soccer team advanced to the Open Cup final (Charleston Battery, 2008), and only once since MLS began play in 1996 has a team not from of it won the competition (Rochester Rhinos, 1999).

For the club and city, it's more than just pride. It's about belonging. It's a statement of intent that the Republic, once tabbed to join MLS, doesn't necessarily need it to ensure a vibrant future.

"If you don't have struggle, then when you experience the highs, they're not as high," Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg said. "When you've had struggles, it's so much sweeter and I do think that's part of it. We don't feel like we have anything to prove and we're showing it."

MLS snub 'a big shock'

This was supposed to be the year that soccer lifted Sacramento.

At least that was the plan when thousands of fans packed downtown in October 2019 for the announcement the city and the Republic had been building toward for years: MLS was officially coming to town.

The club had the backing of billionaire Ron Burkle, a part-owner of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. MLS commissioner Don Garber raved about the community. A $300 million, 20,100-seat soccer-specific stadium was set to be the centerpiece of a transformational development project that would double the size of the city's downtown. All the pieces fell into place.

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"For many years, soccer fans in Sacramento have passionately supported Republic FC and shown that the club deserves to be competing at the highest level," Garber said at the time, with MLS announcing the team would join the league in 2022 from the USL Championship.

When the starting date was delayed until 2023 months later, during the height of the pandemic, club employees went about business-as-usual as much as that was possible at the time, thinking that's all it was -- a delay.

And at first, that's all it appeared to be. But as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc, circumstances continued to change and in December 2020, Burkle's group missed a deadline to submit a signed MLS expansion agreement and its first payment toward the $200 million expansion fee, which was reported by The Athletic the following month.

The death knell came Feb. 26, 2021. Late that Friday, MLS announced Burkle had revoked his pledged support of the Republic, citing the impact of the pandemic, and plans for the club to join MLS were on "indefinite hold." Though the league, the club and city all indicated intent to find a new majority investor to keep the Republic a viable MLS team, it's hard to overstate how deflating the news was.

"It was a tough moment. Obviously, it was a big shock," said Todd Dunivant, then the team's general manager, whose role now also includes club president. "I think it was to everyone. To MLS, to our club, to the city, to our fan base. We had been prepping for a year and a half really to move our club toward MLS and I think to have that happen -- there's no question that was difficult for everyone involved.

"I think everybody had to deal with that and had to work through it. 2021 was a huge challenge for us because of that and I was proud of the way everybody handled it, but there was no question there were casualties."

Club officials refuse to give up on the idea that MLS can still happen eventually, but there is nothing substantive to indicate it will be anytime soon. The league, which will grow to 29 teams when St. Louis begins play next year, is more focused on other cities with Las Vegas generally viewed as the favorite to be next in line. Even in California, San Diego is better positioned than Sacramento with the opening of Snapdragon Stadium -- the home to San Diego State football and NWSL side San Diego Wave (the latter owned by Burkle) -- which took input from MLS during its design.

In response to being asked what the process was like to find a new investor to keep the MLS hopes alive and if those discussions went beyond cursory conversations, Republic owner Kevin Nagle told ESPN in an email: "We have and continue to have conversations with many interested parties. Finding investors has never been the issue.

"Sacramento is an amazing market that has passed every test multiple times. What is tough for many to grasp is, we aren't selling Sacramento to potential investors -- we are making sure we get the RIGHT investors for Sacramento. There's a difference."

Ultimately, Sacramento's MLS future will likely be determined by how large the league grows. Under the current plan to cap the league at 30 teams, the Republic have almost no chance of making the cut. If that number grows -- which is well within the realm of possibility -- the door could open back up.

"I think those conversations will always continue and there's an openness to exploration there," Dunivant said. "We're not shutting the door on MLS, but we're also not relying on it. We're not tying our fortunes to it. This club has shown that it does great things, like it's done this year and with or without MLS, that doesn't matter."

With that in mind, the club revamped its stadium plans for a scaled-down version of the one planned for the downtown Railyards that is expected to hold roughly 12,000 and cost between $200-$400 million, according to Nagle. It is unclear what the realistic timeline is for that project to move forward.

'Revitalized our club, our city'

Unlike in countries where promotion and relegation give lower-division sides the opportunity to play their way up to higher levels of competition, those chances are almost nonexistent in the U.S. The Open Cup is all there is.

The beauty of the tournament is in what's theoretically possible. Amateur teams can earn Open Cup berths through local competitions, at which point they are in a funnel that technically -- through the CONCACAF Champions League -- leads all the way to the Club World Cup, whose most recent winners are Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Real Madrid.

If nothing else, it's fun to dream.

For all heartbreak off the field for Sacramento in 2021, it was a bad year on the field, too.

"It was a difficult season. Extremely difficult, extremely disappointing," said coach Mark Briggs, who coached the Real Monarchs to the USL Championship title in 2017. "Not a good energy at the club, not a good culture, not a good environment and I think you saw that on the field with the displays.

"We didn't make the playoffs for the first time in club history, which obviously hurt everybody, but for me personally, it was an opportunity to really galvanize the club and make the team mine. So, fortunately [Nagle] gave me and [Dunivant] the backing and the support to really build a team that we feel can compete and be successful."

A complete roster overhaul followed, with 16 new players, and from the beginning they had their eyes on the Open Cup.

"We've always prioritized the Open Cup. It's obviously an opportunity to punch above your weight," Dunivant said. "But you also have teams gunning for us that are in divisions below us. We love this tournament."

After the pandemic prevented the competition from taking place the last two years, 32 teams entered in the first round. Sacramento was one of 46 teams to enter in the second round, where the run started with a 6-0 win against the Portland Timbers U-23 team.

Nothing has come easy since. In the third round, the Republic needed a stoppage-time penalty from Lopez to beat the Central Valley (Fresno) Fuego, 2-1, which was playing just its third-ever competitive match. A 2-0 home win against the Phoenix Rising, a USL power that also has MLS ambitions, followed in the round of 32 before the magic really started.

Sacramento drew the San Jose Earthquakes in the round of 16. It was the fourth time the clubs had been paired in the Open Cup -- all San Jose wins -- but the first time Sacramento got to host. Located 120 miles apart, this figured to evolve into a true rivalry when Sacramento was on track to join MLS. Instead, for many Sacramento fans, this specific game symbolized the city (left at the altar by a billionaire) vs. the league (that appeared quick to move on when Burkle backed out).

"It was a catalyst, I think, for our fan base, for the city to kind of galvanize and say, 'Hey, this is a huge moment for us. Let's step up,'" Dunivant said. "And Sacramento, every time it's been asked to do that, has done it and then some."

The game sold out on short notice.

Forget the fact that San Jose, playing three games that week, used a heavily rotated for the Wednesday match. The atmosphere was electric. It was the type of environment that allowed Sacramento to emerge as an MLS candidate initially. Former Earthquakes midfielder Luis Felipe scored the opener for Sacramento before Lopez's second-half banger made it 2-0 in a historic win the Republic mostly controlled throughout.

In the stands on the field after the game, the question was asked: Was this the best win in club history? 

"There have been other big moments, but to beat an MLS team in an Open Cup match in front of a sellout crowd at home, that was special," Dunivant said. "And I think, again, it sort of revitalized everybody a little bit. Revitalized our club, revitalized the city, the fan base. It was a big moment one that I can say, "Hey, that's one that I'll never forget."

For Dunivant, that set up a homecoming of sorts with a trip to play the LA Galaxy in the quarterfinals. In a 13-year MLS playing career, Dunivant won five MLS Cups, including one with the Quakes and four with the Galaxy. He retired after the 2015 season with L.A. and joined Sacramento as GM in 2018.

Playing against a strong Galaxy starting XI, the Republic again showed they belong. Lopez continued his hot tournament run with a fourth-minute goal and after conceding an own goal 14 minutes later, Felipe scored another game winner, this one in the 70th minute. If anyone watching had no previous knowledge of either team, it would have been impossible to conclude one team was one of the most prestigious clubs in North American with vastly superior resources at its disposal.

Back in Sacramento three days later, the Republic staff huddled in their office for the semifinal draw. A huge roar erupted when they found out they would host Sporting Kansas City. The stakes kept rising and for this game to be played at home at Heart Health Park amid the backdrop of the State Fair provided another opportunity to raise the profile of the club, both in the city and nationally.

The attendance was listed as a sellout at 11,500 but after Foster's backflip and Lopez's winner, it could have been mistaken for much more.

"These 12,000 against Kansas City and San Jose probably felt like it was 20 or 30,000 people," Lopez said. "To play in that environment, that atmosphere is always something that drives us and pushes us on the field. We feel that vibe."

It resonated beyond the stands, too.

"Even during the MLS hunt, everybody saw what an incredible fan base we have and so the community is excited about this Open Cup run," Steinberg said. "No matter what league we are in, this is a major league city. We've beaten the Earthquakes, the Galaxy, Sporting KC.

"This has been an incredible run, but it is really a reflection of the Sacramento spirit on many, many things. It's a unique community. It's a very well-informed community. It's engaged, it's inclusive and it roots hard for its teams."

Relishing the moment

Sacramento's preparation for Orlando City has been going on for weeks. The day after the Republic eliminated Sporting KC, Briggs started watching OCSC games during their cross-country flight to Charleston.

"It's a little deeper than we normally would as this is cup final," Briggs said. "This is one of those moments that don't come around often."

Orlando's five Open Cup wins to reach the final all took place as home. It heads into the Wednesday game having won four straight in MLS and sits in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Sacramento's form has been up-and-down in USL. After a 3-1 loss to Louisville City on Saturday, the Republic is in fourth place in the Western Conference and appear comfortably on a trajectory to the playoffs. While a return to the postseason is an important aim, winning the Open Cup would provide a boost to the club in a way nothing else can compare to.

"We need more fun things in life," Steinberg said. "And this is this is pure fun in all the right ways."