Team of destiny? Sacramento Republic FC near dreamland after third MLS Cupset

Three Major League Soccer teams down, one more to go.

Sacramento Republic FC are one game away from becoming the first lower-division team to lift the US Open Cup trophy since the Rochester Rhinos (reborn as MLS NEXT Pro team Rochester New York FC) accomplished that feat in 1999. In fact, a non-MLS team hasn’t reached the tournament’s championship game since 2008, when the Charleston Battery fell to D.C. United.

The USL Championship side is charting history in 2022’s edition of the national competition, booking a Sept. 7 final at Orlando City SC after knocking off Sporting Kansas City in penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw Wednesday night.

The result at their home ground of Heart Health Park was no fluke, either. Sacramento beat the San Jose Earthquakes in the Round of 16, 2-0 at home, and beat the LA Galaxy in the quarterfinals, 2-1 on the road.

On the precipice of a 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot, the second-division club is dreaming big and has large swaths of the American soccer public in its corner.

“This is the biggest night of my coaching career and then to be going to Orlando to play in a final with a Champions League spot at stake, you have to go\] like 'Is this really happening?' But fortunately for us it is, it's reality,” said head coach Mark Briggs, who formerly led [Real Salt Lake’s reserve team Real Monarchs.

“We're 90 minutes away from a trophy and a Champions League berth. So it's a massive accolade, a massive night and something that'll long live in the memory. But we aren't done. We said in the last round we're not in this competition just to make up the numbers. We're in this competition because we want to win it. Now we've put ourselves in a position to go and win it.”

That confidence was on full display in the penalty kick shootout when Maalique Foster sunk his fourth-round spot-kick attempt in audacious style. The Jamaican international forward deposited a Panenka past SKC goalkeeper John Pulskamp and then went into a backflip routine, a move that Sacramento goalkeeper Danny Vitiello said required “massive balls” to pull off.

Vitiello, who played for Nashville before their MLS chapter began in 2020, then played the hero in the fifth round upon diving to his left to deny SKC right back Graham Zusi’s shot. That allowed Rodrigo Lopez, the joint-leading scorer in this year’s Open Cup, to deposit the winning PK and send SKC packing.

SKC left "disappointed, gutted"

As sour as Sporting were left feeling, manager and sporting director Peter Vermes wasn’t shocked that Sacramento’s found success against top-flight groups.

“It’s not the first time that a lower-division team has made it into a final. It’s normal. It happens around the world,” Vermes said. “This is why this Cup is such a great competition. I think it’s an awesome competition, personally speaking. I loved playing in it as a player and I love coaching in it.

“So, congratulations to Sacramento. They play hard, they fought for everything, they were throwing their bodies around, they were blocking shots. Listen, they worked really hard in the game, so congratulations to them.”

The loss keeps SKC on four Open Cup titles in their history and stops the potential of a run reminiscent of D.C. United’s 2013 season, when they finished bottom of the overall MLS table yet won the national tournament over an RSL side that reached that year’s MLS Cup final before losing, coincidentally, to SKC on penalties.

The visitors outshot Sacramento 31-13, too, but lacked sharpness in key moments. Amid a season where SKC, perennial Audi MLS Cup Playoffs contenders, are uncharacteristically bottom of the Western Conference table, captain Johnny Russell said it’s an especially tough pill to swallow.

“Disappointed, gutted. We did enough in the 90 minutes and extra time to win it, I feel,” Russell said. “Created so many chances and we just weren’t good enough in taking them, myself included. The longer it goes and you let it get to penalties, you give their team hope. We should’ve handed it and been done with before it even got to penalties.”

The Scottish forward drove home the emotional toll of this exit for SKC, who had steamrolled USL League One side Union Omaha, 6-0, in the quarterfinals to reach this stage. In earlier rounds, they beat fellow MLS Western Conference sides FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo FC.

“We really wanted this one. It’s not been a good season for us, we know that,” Russell said. “This was our chance to get to a final and try and win some silverware this year and we let ourselves down. We let the fans back home down as well, the ones who traveled out here. Just a really, really disappointing night, to be honest.”

Up next: Orlando

As downtrodden as SKC were left, Sacramento’s dream run continues nearly 18 months after it was announced they weren’t going to become an MLS expansion team after being revealed as a league newcomer in October 2019. They were originally ​​due to begin play in 2022 before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed that timeline back a year, contributing to an eventual course reversal.

Briggs downplayed that storyline as motivating Sacramento’s Open Cup success.

“We have a group of players that are representing this club, that are representing this city, that are representing this badge and they're doing it with pride and they're doing it with passion,” Briggs said. “Regardless of whatever league, that's irrelevant. That's for other people to discuss. It's about these players.”

What is clear, undoubtedly, is Sacramento will enter the Orlando matchup in six weeks with boatloads of confidence. They’ve dispatched three MLS teams and are on the verge of a CCL spot, providing a task the Lions won’t take lightly.

“It'll be the biggest game for a number of our guys, coaching staff, players, when we get down to Orlando,” Briggs said. “It's a good spot to be in and we're all pleased.”