Sacramento was spurned by MLS. Instead, it beat MLS on a magical U.S. Open Cup run

Sacramento’s first crusade to the top of American soccer climaxed with streamers and suits, and a party on Capitol Mall. It involved a “tireless pursuit,” years of politicking and millions of dollars. It featured a championship and a “Miracle,” heroes and hardcore supporters. But never, not once, did it depend on wins and losses. Sacramento’s first ticket to the pinnacle, rather, was a billionaire.

The Indomitable City had openly courted Major League Soccer. It had pleaded with North America’s top league even before its professional club, Sacramento Republic, had played a single game. The Republic debuted in 2014, and captivated its local community. Sacramento voted unanimously to fund a stadium, and proved that it was, in the words of MLS commissioner Don Garber, “the perfect city for our growing league.”

After years of singing and chanting, of fortitude and faith, and of growing angst as MLS expanded elsewhere, the lead investor — “the final stroke,” as Garber called it — finally arrived. Ron Burkle came with cash, so MLS came to the Californian capital, and on Oct. 21, 2019, Garber announced Sacramento as the league’s 29th team. Up in a balcony, at a downtown celebration, flags flew and Republic fans roared. This, they knew, was their ladder up the American soccer pyramid. What they didn’t know, at the time, was how easily it could be pulled away.

The Republic kept plugging along toward MLS, its eyes on a 2022 start date. But in 2021, Burkle backed out of the deal; so MLS backed out of Sacramento; and the Republic spiraled.

But in 2022, it channeled a slogan championed by the last great American soccer underdog: “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em!”

Sacramento now seems far away from an MLS expansion team, but also 90 minutes away from a truer pinnacle. While pressing ahead in the second-tier United Soccer League (USL), it launched its second crusade. It stormed through the U.S. Open Cup, a century-old knockout tournament of 100-plus participants that any American soccer club, professional or amateur, can enter. The Republic ousted the San Jose Earthquakes, and then the LA Galaxy, which pays one player more than Sacramento pays its entire roster. It toppled Sporting Kansas City in a semifinal penalty shootout that brought players to tears and fans spilling onto the field.

It will meet Orlando City, a fourth straight MLS team, in Wednesday’s Open Cup final (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+). Its players landed in Florida on Sunday with goosebumps and reveries of glory. And if they capture it, they’d not only become the Cup’s first non-MLS champion since the 1999 Rochester Rhinos; they’d cement themselves as American soccer’s greatest underdog story of the modern era — and perhaps ever.

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 27: Sacramento Republic FC celebrates after U.S. Open Cup Semifinal game between Sporting Kansas City and Sacramento Republic FC at Heart Health Park on July 27, 2022 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Sacramento Republic FC celebrates after its U.S. Open Cup semifinal win over Sporting Kansas City. (Photo by Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

MLS snub forces Sacramento to revamp

The story begins last decade, on the humble grounds of the then-third-tier USL. And it explodes on a dark, drizzly 2014 night at Bonney Field, the newly built 8,000-seat stadium named after a local service company. The Republic advanced to the USL semifinals in its inaugural season. It fell behind 2-0 to the LA Galaxy’s reserve team. Then it contrived the “Miracle at Bonney.” Rodrigo “RoRo” Lopez, the club’s very first signing, capped a second-half hat trick with a majestic free kick in stoppage time. He leapt over the pitch-side advertising boards and into a rapturous crowd. A week later, he led the team to a title.

Matt LaGrassa remembers watching that final. He was, at the time, just a NorCal native and college kid at a buddy’s barbecue, with a beer in hand and his eyes glued to a stream on his phone. “It was just so cool to me to have a local club,” he remembers. Sacramento, with just one representative in the major American sports leagues, warmly embraced it.

But LaGrassa, then a college soccer player at Cal Poly, and soon a Republic rookie, also remembers the MLS chatter. As a “huge Sacramento sports fan,” he’d talk with his brother and parents about it, “constantly.” Because MLS expansion was Sacramento’s only route to a place atop the U.S. soccer hierarchy. Whereas in many countries worldwide, clubs can win or lose their way up and down the pyramid, via “open” promotion and relegation systems, the American top tier is closed.

The only way to unlock it is with a refined mixture of ingredients — including consumer interest, a soccer-specific stadium, and a $200-plus million expansion fee — most of which Sacramento thought it had. Multiple mayors wooed MLS. Republic owner Kevin Nagle, a local businessman, was never shy in his chase of an expansion bid. In 2015, Garber told the Sacramento Bee that ​​"it’s less about if, and more about when, the Republic joins MLS."

And so MLS, for years, became the Republic’s focus. “Ever since I came to the club, we were looking toward the future,” says president and general manager Todd Dunivant, who arrived in 2018. “And rightly so. There was a pathway to MLS, and it was very clear.”

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Supporters still filled Papa Murphy’s Park, their renamed stadium that expanded to hold 11,569. But all the while, they and the club waited, patiently, as MLS went to Atlanta and Minnesota, and doubled up in LA. It went to Cincinnati and Miami, and Nashville and Austin. And Sacramento an oft-overlooked city, oft-overshadowed by SoCal and the Bay, felt increasingly so.

The big-time owner, Burkle, was the “missing link,” Garber said, and the enabler of a long-awaited party in 2019. His decision to pull out 16 months later — amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with stadium costs rising — wounded fans and instantaneously muddled the future for which the club had been planning. And with MLS suddenly looking elsewhere — Garber now mentions Las Vegas, and never Sacramento, as the priority market for the league’s 30th team — the Republic plunged into a funk. It finished seventh of eight in its division in 2021, missing the playoffs for the first time in club history.

Dunivant admits that the long-term focus was partially responsible. “Not to say we were ignoring the present, but we were less present,” he says, “and less focused on the here and now.”

So, this past offseason, they revamped everything. They cut ties with 20 players and signed 16 new ones — including LaGrassa, who’d spent the last two years in MLS, and Lopez for his third stint at the club. They scoured data to identify underappreciated USL veterans. They looked everywhere, from Ireland and Scotland to the lower leagues of Spain, for defenders and attackers who could reboot a winning team.

They also stopped talking about MLS. They had “to take control back,” Dunivant says. “And to say, ‘Hey, we've got a great thing here. Sacramento Republic isn't going anywhere.’” They pressed ahead with plans for a fresh downtown stadium, no matter which league it’ll house. And all the while, they filled the current one as the Cupsets piled up and the buzz around Sacramento grew.

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 27: Sacramento Republic FC fans in their supporters group, the Tower Bridge Battalion, celebrate their victory after a U.S. Open Cup Semifinal game between Sporting Kansas City and Sacramento Republic FC at , California. (Photo by Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Sacramento Republic fans continue to pack Heart Health Park to support their team. (Photo by Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Externally, the MLS snub still looms over their Open Cup run. "I'm sure MLS didn't want us to win today," Lopez said after a quarterfinal triumph over the Galaxy. "I don't care what's happened in the past. If you're MLS, you have to look at Sacramento, you have to look at the fan base, you have to look at the city."

But, asked now if he cares about a potential MLS bid, Lopez says nonchalantly: “No. No no, I really don't.”

Because he and the Republic cannot get there by winning. “A lot of things are out of our control,” Dunivant says. What they can control is soccer, and selling their success, which is what they’ve done for the better part of nine years. The Open Cup run, and the frenzied atmospheres that have accompanied it, “speaks volumes,” Dunivant says.

“And what that means, and what that leads to? Nobody knows,” he concludes.

The only certain reward is the biggest game in club history on Wednesday night.

'Hey, we've got something a little bit special here'

The Republic run began with a 6-0 thrashing of the Portland Timbers Under-23s, who in the first round had nipped Contra Costa FC, a local qualifier from the semi-pro National Premier Soccer League that nurtures amateur players and funnels them to affiliates in Portugal’s third division and Denmark’s second division.

The Republic then survived a scare from third-tier Central Valley Fuego in the third round. It bested a perennial USL powerhouse, Phoenix Rising, in the Round of 32. That’s when Dunivant thought to himself, “Hey, we've got something a little bit special here.” And that’s when the MLS foes started appearing.

They weren’t exactly intimidating. “There's a lot more overlap [in talent between MLS and USL] than people sometimes give credit for,” says LaGrassa, who rejoined Sacramento with experience in both leagues in Nashville.

But financially, the gulf is vast. The Galaxy’s player payroll is roughly $20 million. No MLS team’s is under $10 million. The gap between MLS and USL, Dunivant says, varies by club on both ends but is roughly “a 20x difference.” (Within the NFL and NBA, by comparison, the difference between top and bottom spender is typically a ratio of approximately 1.5 to 1.)

The disparate budgets influence countless aspects of life in the two leagues, “and you notice the differences,” LaGrassa said. When asked whether he felt them as a player, he responded, “Um, yeah.” In MLS, he says, there’s “basically unlimited access to treatment, gear, whatever you need to perform at the highest level.” For two years, he never took a commercial flight; he rarely had to carry his own bags; if he needed new boots, he “had them immediately.” He credits Sacramento with delivering among the best environments in the USL, but in general, “it just takes a little bit more of your personal effort,” he says.

CARSON, CA - JUNE 21: Matt LaGrassa #20 of Sacramento Republic FC passes the ball during a U.S. Open Cup game between Sacramento Republic FC and Los Angeles Galaxy at Diginity Health Sports Park on June 21, 2022 in Carson, California. (Photo by Jenny Chuang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Sacramento Republic's Matt LaGrassa helped his USL squad get past the five-time MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy. (Photo by Jenny Chuang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

MLS rosters are also bigger and deeper. There are dozens of factors that stack up to make the latter stages of the Open Cup an uphill climb for a USL upstart. The last team from the lower leagues to reach the final was the 2008 Charleston Battery, which lost to D.C. United. The last to win it were the 1999 Rhinos, who conquered what Dunivant calls “a very different landscape.” MLS was just three years old at the time. Rochester drew comparable crowds, and had a comparable budget and future MLS players. What the Rhinos did, in beating four MLS teams, was “incredibly impressive,” Dunivant says, but also much harder to do now.

Perhaps the more relevant points of comparison are abroad. Spain’s Copa Del Rey has never had a lower-league champion. The English FA Cup’s last one was West Ham in 1980. Italy’s last was Napoli in 1962. (Both clubs, via promotion and relegation, are now among the top 10 in their respective top tiers.)

Yet Sacramento is here, on the doorstep of history, and confident. The club has flown its entire staff across the country to Orlando for the journey’s final leg. As the plane carrying the players descended on Sunday, Lopez’s mind drifted back to the beginning stages. To the first day of preseason and the interminable running. To the two-a-days in Palm Springs. And then to the locker rooms after each cup round, each celebration increasingly jubilant.

And then he got chills as his daydream skipped ahead to Wednesday. He thought about the city that welcomed him, and the club that revived his career, and the teammates who now feel like family. He envisioned another celebration, and there he was, at the center of it, “lifting the cup.”