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Sacramento Republic’s run to US Open Cup final has been a reminder of its unrealized MLS plans

After Sacramento Republic missed the USL Championship playoffs last season, team president and CEO Todd Dunivant knew it was time for a reset.

Fifteen new players were brought into the club and the team made its first preseason trip to Palm Springs, California.

A ‘penalty wheel’ was also introduced for the following season, with a list of light-hearted penalties for minor offenses such as being late.

But perhaps the biggest change was one that was less tangible: adjusting the club’s mindset after they came painfully close to joining MLS.

The league announced that Sacramento would join as the 29th team in 2019, with the team set to begin play in 2022.

But the pandemic delayed that timeline, and last year the franchise’s lead investor, Ron Burkle, pulled out of the project. As a result, the club’s future has been on hold since February 2021, and Garber did not mention Sacramento when discussing expansion plans last December.

So after Sacramento spent half a decade with MLS in its sights — competition commissioner Don Garber said “we hope and expect” Sacramento to join as early as 2016 — it was time for a different approach in Northern California.

“If everything is focused on something you don’t have, you are” [not] when you’re so present, you’re not as focused,” team president and general manager Todd Dunivant told DailyMail.com.

“And we felt that across the board in our club. And that’s what we wanted to change, let’s focus on what’s great we have, and that’s our current form, our club, our stadium plans – that’s what we need to focus on, and the rest will take care of ourselves. And we think that’s a good shift.’

Sacramento Republic FC celebrates after the US Open Cup semifinal between Sporting Kansas City and Sacramento Republic FC at Heart Health Park on July 27

Sacramento Republic FC celebrates after the US Open Cup semifinal between Sporting Kansas City and Sacramento Republic FC at Heart Health Park on July 27

Todd Dunivant (third from right) thought it was time for the club to change their mind

Todd Dunivant (third from right) thought it was time for the club to change their mind

Focusing on the present has paid off for the club: on Wednesday they will face Orlando City for the US Open Cup as the first non-MLS finalist in 14 years after beating three MLS teams en route to the finals .

“It’s a chance to prove yourself, to show yourself… and if you have the chance to play against the competition as an MLS team, it’s a huge moment,” Dunivant said.

To a national audience, victories over San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy and most recently Sporting Kansas City on penalty kicks were shocking.

Internally, however, there was a genuine belief that this was possible.

The team celebrates after Rodrigo Lopez's penalty that defeated Sporting Kansas City in the semifinals

The team celebrates after Rodrigo Lopez’s penalty that defeated Sporting Kansas City in the semifinals

Sacramento Republic fans during a game between Sacramento Republic FC and San Jose Earthquakes at Heart Health Park on May 25

Sacramento Republic fans during a game between Sacramento Republic FC and San Jose Earthquakes at Heart Health Park on May 25

Sacramento Republic FC fans in their supporter group, the Tower Bridge Battalion, celebrate their victory after a US Open Cup semifinal match against Sporting Kansas City

Sacramento Republic FC fans in their supporter group, the Tower Bridge Battalion, celebrate their victory after a US Open Cup semifinal match against Sporting Kansas City

Months before Sacramento Republic FC secured a place in the US Open Cup final, the team was doing the kind of work that had nothing to do with a ball.

One day in Palm Springs, players in the pool were engaged in relay races as coach Mark Briggs tried to excite a squad full of new faces.

There were floaties and warm weather, and presumably some laughter. But there was also a legitimate team bond – something Briggs remembers fondly.

“It sounds stupid, but one of the guys had trouble swimming,” the coach said.

“…so three of the guys jumped in, helped him and basically swam with him on their backs and pulled him through the other side.”

This was the early point in the season where new players sang initiation songs, switching roommates and seating arrangements to create more exposure.

Mark Briggs led the team to the brink to win the US Open Cup

Mark Briggs led the team to the brink to win the US Open Cup

Still, Briggs said, he knew he had a “special group of guys” long before the team reached the Open Cup final.

Day 1, Mark spoke to everyone – front office, players, staff – and he said it. He said this group was meant to be, built to win both the Open Cup and the USL Championship,” said midfielder Rodrigo “Roro” Lopez.

‘Did I think he was crazy? I might. But when I got to know the boys, got to know the players on and off the field, I didn’t doubt him anymore.’

That ghost would later manifest as the team ran through an MLS gauntlet. Sacramento overcame an own goal on the way to defeat the Galaxy, and kept their nerves in a shootout vs. Kansas City to reach the final.

Of course, team building pool relay races and a ‘penalty wheel’ can only get you this far, and Sacramento’s off-season was also defined by a major roster reshuffle.

More than a dozen players were added to the first team after it won just eight of its 32 games in the USL Championship last season.

“Continuity is absolutely huge and will often make up for talent too,” Dunivant said.

‘And we just didn’t have that luxury this year. I think we felt like our cycle with our previous group had kind of run its course and we needed to freshen things up. And we’ve done that in a pretty significant way.’

Some of the key employees of the team were brought in last summer.

Douglas Martinez (five goals) is the club’s joint top scorer in league games after joining on a free transfer, and the re-signing of Lopez (who was with the club in two previous stints) leads the club in assists with six assists.

In addition, defenders Jack Gurr and Lee Desmond, along with goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, have bolstered the defense and within minutes they are among the leaders of the club.

The medley of new faces on the team makes the cup run all the more unlikely; the run itself has served as an unfortunate reminder of an unfulfilled deal.

Rodrigo 'Roro' Lopez returned for a third stint at the club and was instrumental in 2022

Rodrigo ‘Roro’ Lopez returned for a third stint at the club and was instrumental in 2022

By all accounts, the club is not pining for the top flight as it once was. The MLS chatter comes from outside the house.

Lopez said he and his team-mates are “not too focused” on MLS developments, while Dunivant said it is not even discussed within the club.

Instead, Sacramento has embraced control as much as it can.

“For so long things were a bit out of our control and fate was not in our hands,” Dunivant said. ‘And we said, ‘Let’s change that.’ And now is the chance to do that.”

The response to the apparent death – or at least delay – of their MLS project has been strong.

Plans for a 12,000-15,000 capacity stadium ‘with or without MLS’ are well underway at the city’s Railyards.

More than 11,000 seats were sold to fill the stands for a sold-out semi-final.

And every tough MLS test has been answered with an equally rigorous answer.

“The flame of the city was lit again,” Briggs said of the vote after the semi-final.

A club that once waited for its moment is now able to seize it.

The club has benefited from - and cultivated - enormous support during the cup run

The club has benefited from – and cultivated – enormous support during the cup run

And plans for a new stadium seem to be going ahead regardless of the team's league status

And plans for a new stadium seem to be going ahead regardless of the team’s league status

Orlando City beat the New York Red Bulls 5-1 to reach the final of the tournament

Orlando City beat the New York Red Bulls 5-1 to reach the final of the tournament

For all the layers and stories surrounding Sacramento’s run to the finals, there’s one more game to play.

And the challenge of going one step further in the tournament will be great.

They will have to beat an MLS playoff team – away from home – that has never won a trophy.

Sacramento may very well lose, but if they do it won’t be because they assume yet another Cupset is a foregone conclusion.

“We’re against it,” Briggs said. “We are going up against a team that is expected to win… we have nothing to lose.

“We’re going to go in there and we’re going to express ourselves and we’re going to give everything we have, and hopefully that’s enough to come out the other side with a trophy and a win.”

A certain mindset would have you believe that Sacramento, a heavy underdog in this tournament, only plays with house money. That a trip to the final alone is a nice reward for what the club has been through.

They don’t see it that way.

Lopez, 35, called it “the biggest game of my career.” An ‘addictive’ feeling that you want to continue, that’s how he described this run.

As for his coach? There is also nothing to indicate that he is already saturated.

“It just made me hungrier to succeed…when you experience these highs, you want more of them, right?”

Sacramento undergoes one last test to win the US Open Cup, and they know it's going to be a tough one

Sacramento undergoes one last test to win the US Open Cup, and they know it’s going to be a tough one

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