Sacramento Republic Look To Upset Another MLS Giant In Open Cup Semifinals
The time has finally come Republic fans.
Sacramento Republic FC look to make history Wednesday night when they host MLS side Sporting Kansas City in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. This is the first time the Quails have progressed this far in the competition and the first non-MLS side in five years to reach the final four of the tournament.
The Republic were hoping for better results leading up to cup competition, having drawn or lost in their previous four matches, sitting seventh in the USL Western Conference. Regardless, Sacramento head coach Mark Briggs and his team are confident they can turn it around, seeing the progress, without the results, thus far.
“It’s about the little details within the process. And when you look at the little details that we’ve been working on the training field, those have started to come back into the game,” Briggs said Monday. “So yes, we’re not in our best run of form but this group and this group of players, they’re ready, and they’ve been ready.
“And now the performances, sometimes haven’t quite got the results. We play Birmingham and we’re by far, by far the better team, creating a number of chances but that didn’t go in that night and then we were on the wrong end of the result. So sometimes the performance doesn’t always tell the result. But I’ve been happy with what the detail that’s been going into those performances and we’re positive as a group that those results will turn around.”
Sporting KC have also not been doing so hot as of late, currently ranked at the bottom of the Western Conference in the MLS after dropping four of their last six matches. Despite the recent run of form, the Wizards are not a team to take lightly as they are one of three sides to lift the Open Cup four times in its’ illustrious history, the most out of any active organization. Additionally, KC’s coach, Peter Vermes, is a legend in the U.S. soccer community, having won four major trophies since joining the Wizards in 2006, the second most of all active coaches in MLS.
Briggs and Republic captain Rodrigo “RoRo” López understand the prestige of their opponent, eager to get on the front foot early as a team.
“I don’t think the results dictate some of their performances in the league. We’re not naive, we know they’re coached by one of the best coaches that’s been in MLS…So we’re not naive in the fact that we’re coming up against a very, very good team, a very hungry team with dangerous pieces, we have to be at our best,” Briggs stated. “We have to have 11 players perform at the highest level in order to give ourselves the opportunity and we have to be able to collectively work for one another, fight for one another, and do the basics. And that will hopefully put us in a position to be through to the next round but we’re up for a very, very difficult game against a very, very difficult opponent…”
“I know Peter, I was with them for a little bit and I know a couple of the players on their team and it’s a team that’s always fighting to win titles. Not only Open Cup and MLS Cup, it’s a team that, you know, they could come out and be the best team on the field. And for us, we just have to be focused, we have to worry about what we have been doing, what we want to do on the field and what the coaching staff has prepared for us,” López said.
The Republic will also need to be wary of possession Wednesday as the last two Open Cup matches have saw the MLS side holding up the ball for the majority of time. Obviously, Briggs and the Quails want to be leading in that category but the club knows you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable facing the caliber of the MLS.
“I think this group view when you play an MLS side, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Briggs said. That’s just the reality of the test you’re up against. So for our group, yes, we want to keep the ball and we want to retain possession. But when we’re under pressure, and we don’t have the ball, we’re still comfortable, we’re still strong and solid. And the players understand from a tactical standpoint, what that means and their individual role within that in order to be comfortable.”
Despite the separation of leagues, the Wizards aren’t brushing off the competition as well, seeming mentally and physically prepared to face the cinderella story of the Open Cup.
“I think the first thing is that they’re a very organized defensive team,” Vermes said Tuesday. “Their guys are good, individual defenders, they’re aggressive. They look to win the ball, when they do, they try to go forward very quickly. They have guys up front that that are very mobile, they’re attack minded, and they got good nose for the goal. So they can do either, they can get out and open the game up and running, or they can drop off and compact the space and be very good defensively, a very organized unit and then build from there. So big challenge for us for sure.”
One of those aggressive players is forward Douglas Martínez who could be the X-Factor for the Republic Wednesday night. A Honduran international, “Dougie” has shown his talent in spurts this season, scoring four goals and three assists in 20 matches.
Regardless, Briggs was very complementary of his number nine, needing a big performance from him if he’s selected Wednesday night.
“Douglas is an MLS-caliber player. He’s brought a physicality to our forward line. A speed and a strength as well…his technique and his quality in and around the box. But with Douglas as well he brings a bubbly personality that’s infectious for the group. So he brings an awful lot and he’s someone, if selected, we’re going to need on Wednesday. A huge asset for us and we need him at his best,” Briggs said candidly.
The Wizards have a few tricks up their sleeves as well, with a lethal front line of internationals, including Scotsman Johnny Russell, who leads the team with eight goals across all competitions in 2022.
“They’re obviously struggling a little bit in the league, but they’re a talented team. They have some very good players in Dániel Sallói and Khiry Shelton and Johnny Russell so it’s gonna be an exciting game…they’re gonna come out and give it their all, it’s a semifinal game,” centre-back Conor Donovan said last Thursday.
But the biggest advantage of them all with be the crowd as the Republic are looking to snap their recent slump in a big way, taking down another MLS giant to advance to the Open Cup finals, and sending Heart Health Park into sheer pandemonium.
“I think the reaction of Sacramento, the city, the fans, you could see how excited we were to host the semifinal. Obviously, it’s a historic match,” López stated. “I mean, we love playing in front of our fans, I think we have the best fans in in the USL. The boys love playing in front of our home crowd and we’ve done fairly well for ourselves at home. So you know, we’re just excited. The boys are excited to play in front of a sold out Heart Health Park and they’re [SKC] gonna see what Sacramento fans are all about.”
A club legend and current captain, RoRo will be the catalyst that drives the Quails to finals, coming up in big moments throughout the season. It’s no wonder coach leans on his shoulders to get the job done.
“Yeah, you’re looking at him,” Briggs said, pointing to his captain. “Got to lean on this guy with his experiences and what he’s been through in his career…we’ve got players that have played in big moments and played in big games, and we’ll be leaning on those [players] heavily on Wednesday night to to offer that little bit of advice in uncomfortable times, make sure we don’t get too excited. We’ve got to be able to manage this scenario and players like Rodrigo…are going to be pivotal in keeping our eyes on the prize and keeping our heads in the game.”
Wednesday’s match will kick off from Heart Health Park at 7:30 p.m. and will be streamed live on ESPN+.