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Major League Soccer "cup set" as the Republic of Sacramento advanced to the US Open Cup final

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Sporting Kansas City and Sacramento Republic FC will play their US Open semifinals at an arena that shares space with the State Fair in Sacramento, California.NPR’s Max Whitaker
The Sacramento Republic’s Douglas Martinez Jr. (left) and Sporting Kansas City’s Remi Walter battle it out in the US Open semifinals.NPR’s Max Whitaker

“Penalties are a lottery ticket,” said Vitiello after the match. “You have to dive the right way.”

Lucky or not, this save saw Sac Republic score the final kick to win the match. And the team’s diminutive hero, the 5-foot-7-inch captain Rodrigo “Lolo” Lopez, took advantage of it.he hit the hole behind the net The KC goalkeeper jumped in to no avail.

The celebration was loud and inclusive, and the players stayed on the field to share the moment with the Sacramento fans.

Sack Republic head coach Mark Briggs praised the defensive effort of the entire team and praised the players for their quality performances at key moments throughout the tournament.

“They’re comfortable even when they’re uncomfortable,” said Briggs. “That’s why we go through these games.”

Briggs is a coach who likes to focus on the moment. In the days leading up to Wednesday’s game, he deflected much of the talk that Sack’s Republic magically ran through the tournament with his three impressive wins over his MLS team. .

But he certainly recognizes that his team carries the torch for football’s lower divisions.

“Obviously, that we represent the USL shows the quality of the league and the quality of the players in the league,” Briggs said. , not just us, but as you’ll see when USL teams play against other MLS teams.

Sac Republic’s explosive performance may be a sign of what’s to come. But they are also signs of what is already happening. Sports fans focused on men’s football’s epic failure at the highest level (the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup), but the game continued to move forward.

In the eight years since Sacramento entered the USL Championship, the league has grown to nearly 30 teams. And these teams have filled their rosters with talented players from everywhere, in every way.

Todd Dunivant, president and general manager of Sacramento Republic FC, talks with the players after practice.NPR’s Max Whitaker
Sacramento Republic FC’s Luther Archimede stretching after practice.NPR’s Max Whitaker

Various Paths to Pro

Sack Republic has players from Spain, Scotland and Congo. Of course, there are also locals playing professional football locally.

Like two close teammates who arrived from very different paths.

‘He’s my little brother,’ said the Sack Republic starting midfielder Matt Lagrassa, 29, about teammate Rafael ‘Rafa’ Jauregui, aged 17. “Uncle Matt,” Jauregui replied with a laugh.

LaGrassa turned professional after four years of college football. Jauregui, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, is one of many youth development programs across the country, including MLS Next.

Juaregui signed his first professional contract at age 15.

“I think going into a locker room at his age would be really scary for a lot of kids,” LaGrassa said. It’s a sink or swim situation and they’re not going to make it easy for you.”

Sacramento Republic FC midfielder Matt LaGrassa.NPR’s Max Whitaker
Sacramento Republic FC midfielders Matt LaGrassa and Rafael Jauregui head into the locker room after practice on July 26, 2022 in Sacramento, California.NPR’s Max Whitaker
Sacramento Republic FC midfielder Rafael Jauregui.NPR’s Max Whitaker

Juaregui admits it was tough at first.

“I’m pretty shy,” he said. “So it took me a while to like talking to people. It was pretty hard at first, but little by little I started coming out of my shell and it got better.”

Last month, Jauregi First professional goal With their league victory over LA Galaxy II, Sac Republic are scheduling the USL Championship alongside matches in the US Open Cup tournament. Jauregui celebrated the moment with his family as planned.

“I told my brother [and] Dad,” he said. That was the plan and I did it. ”

Despite the milestone, Jauregui’s on-field appearance time is still limited. But LaGrassa says his young teammate is off to a valuable head start as a professional.

“You probably know a lot of what I went through at 23. Rafa at 15, 16,” LaGrassa said. “Honestly, the growth of gaming in this country is incredible.

Still, LaGrassa says he doesn’t envy Jauregui for opportunities like training at the academy. did not do it.

“No, I think everyone’s journey is different,” he said. “I wasn’t really going to be a pro. I was undrafted in college, which meant I wasn’t rated as one of the top players at the end of four years, even among college players. That’s why I’m so grateful for the professional career I’ve been able to put together.

LaGrassa believes Jauregui’s path is becoming more and more realistic.

“By the time Rafa is 20,” LaGrassa said.[he’ll] Hopefully, he has nearly 100 professional matches under his belt. ”

When probably Benefit some national teams.

“It’s such an honor to represent either Mexico or the United States,” said Huaregui.

The Sacramento Republic FC players celebrate their victory in extra time in the US Open semi-finals.NPR’s Max Whitaker
Sacramento Republic FC goalkeeper Danny Vitiello celebrates his US Open semifinal win.NPR’s Max Whitaker

emotional fuel

But for now, Jauregui and his teammates, who didn’t play Wednesday, are focused on finishing their US Open Cup journey with a title.

And they continue to use their emotional fuel as motivation.

Sac Republic had planned to join MLS before a major investor pulled out last year. Team His President and General Manager Todd His Dunivant said the disappointment helped create the team’s mentality of wanting to prove themselves every day.

“To put that chip on your shoulder,” Dunivant said.

But the football world is talking about Sacramento now.

One more win on Sept. 7 could make the Sac Republic the first non-MLS US Open Cup champions since 1999. It’s not easy. Orlando City beat New York 5-1 in another semi-final on Wednesday. Host the final.

And will definitely take Second Division’s Sack Republic seriously.

The second army team that preys on the top team.

The Sacramento Republic FC players celebrate their US Open semifinal overtime victory against Sporting Kansas City in Sacramento, California.NPR’s Max Whitaker