Commentary

Todd Dunivant on his title-winning playing career, the Open Cup allure, and guiding Sac Republic's ambitions


Upon retiring from a 13-year MLS playing career in 2015, Todd Dunivant  became the Director of Business Development and Soccer Operations for the San Francisco Deltas, who won the NASL title during the club's only season of existence. He became general manager of USL Championship club Sacramento Republic FC in 2017 and in March of 2021 was named the club's president. We spoke with Dunivant, a U.S. Open Cup champion with the L.A. Galaxy as a player in 2005, ahead of Sac Republic's Open Cup semifinal clash with Sporting Kansas City. Sac Republic beat MLS foes San Jose Earthquakes and the L.A. Galaxy en route to the semis.

SOCCER AMERICA: You spent a good part of your playing career the Los Angeles Galaxy. Did you have any empathy for the Galaxy when you beat them a few weeks back?

TODD DUNIVANT: Nothing but love for the Galaxy but when it came to game day it was all business. It was a unique situation because we played Galaxy II the Saturday [a 2-0 Sac Republic win], then MLS Galaxy on the Wednesday a few days later. It was a special day for the club.

SA: You won the Open Cup as an L.A. Galaxy player in 2005. What do you remember about the run and what’s it like representing David after playing for a Goliath?

TODD DUNIVANT: 2005 was really special because we had an up-and-down regular season. The Open Cup set us up for the playoffs later that year. We ended up doing the double that year and attributed a lot of that success to the Open Cup and the confidence we gained from that. Winning that single-elimination tournament and beating Dallas in the final — it was a special day. When you win a tournament like that in September, when the MLS playoffs came around two months later we already had that taste of success.

That was a big deal. Yes, we were the biggest club and to your second question being the underdog in the tournament and in the last couple rounds, beating the San Jose Earthquakes, which isn't supposed to happen, beating the LA Galaxy, which isn't supposed to happen, and now we go up against Sporting Kansas City and we'll be the underdogs there too.

For us as a club, it's a special opportunity. Our players, coaching staff and fans see it as a chance to punch above our weight.

SA: A lot of guys on the Republic roster probably thought they were headed to the MLS before the derailment of the 2023 expansion move. How much of a motivating factor is that for the club when you play MLS teams?

TODD DUNIVANT: As athletes and competitors, we're always looking for motivations and to prove ourselves. That's one of our core values, to have that winning mentality. As a club, we've gone through some challenging times. The questions about what's happening next are being answered for everybody. Our team is doing great on the field, we're in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup, which for a Division II team happens once or twice a decade. So it's a very special run.

We're also answering those questions in the stands — our fan support has never been stronger. The business community is supporting us in a way that they never have before. The club is thriving and we're looking to move to a downtown stadium and take the club to the next level. From the club standpoint, we absolutely have a lot to prove and want to continue to do that.


SA: How seriously do you think MLS teams take these games? Many field reserves and not a full-strength starting XI.

TODD DUNIVANT: Every team in the Open Cup wants to win it. They want to win it in the most economical way possible. Every team goes through this, whether you're a division I, II, or III team, you're trying to maximize your roster and schedule.

We played against a Galaxy team that was very heavily their first team and they absolutely played their entire tournament in a way that showed they want to win it. Kansas City has done the same thing. Ultimately, every MLS team wants to win every game and has to make decisions on how to do that. That's a decision for every club and every coach and ultimately, we have those same challenges. At the end of the day, it comes down to attitude and mentality.

SA: When you played in Open Cup games, did you take games against lower division teams seriously?

TODD DUNIVANT: Anytime you're looking up, so to speak, at a team that's higher than you, there's an extra hitch in your step. You don't have to get up for the game. For teams doing the opposite — we've done that this tournament, too — the challenge is to come out and elevate your game and still play at a high level.

For me, that's the intrigue of the tournament. You have those disparities and you've got those David and Goliath stories that everyone can relate to. We are the underdog — no one is expecting us to win. That's a position that Sacramento thrives in. We've thrived in that in the last two rounds and we don't mind being overlooked or taking that role. Having that chip on your shoulder and punching above your weight is what it's all about. We're the "Indomitable Club" and the "Indomitable City" — we live for that stuff.

It's going to be a special night in the stadium. It's going to be a packed house and an opportunity you don't get too often. Even in my career — I don't know the stats but I was on a winning Open Cup team — I don't know how many Open Cup semifinals I played in. Maybe one other one.

Editor's note: Dunivant's only other appearance in an Open Cup semifinal besides the 2005 championship run with the Galaxy was when he took the field with Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario in the 2004 Open up semifinal against the Kansas City Wizards. The Quakes lost 1-0 on a first-half penalty kick.

After a Stanford career that included two final four appearances, Todd Dunivant played MLS ball in 2003-2015. He won four MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy and one MLS Cup with the San Jose Earthquakes.

SA: What would it mean to defeat your third MLS team en route to the final?

TODD DUNIVANT: The tournament run has ignited the fanbase in a way I've never seen. We put these tickets on sale and they were gone within hours. That was something we've never seen before and it speaks to the interest that this tournament has brought for our club and fans. People love a winning team and the success that we're having. It's been massive for our market and it has sparked interest locally and nationally.

SA: You have a unique experience because you played at a time when college was still a common pathway to the top of the American game. Who instilled in you the importance of academics and sports?

TODD DUNIVANT: I didn't know if I could play soccer. I always wanted to be a professional athlete but I didn't grow up in a pro club and didn't have access to professional soccer players and see myself in the same way.

We have 12-year-olds at our club who wear the same crest as our first team and our superstars. For me it was, 'I don't know if I can do that.' So I thought I'd give myself some options and tried to get good grades — I knew even if I did make it pro I wouldn't be a pro soccer player forever. Being able to play soccer certainly helped me get into school and being able to do both was always really important to me.

I had an older brother and older sister who were 5 and 6 years older than me so I was able to see them go off to college when I was still at junior high. I followed in their footsteps and my parents supported me along the way but I'll never forget — one of the girls in my fourth grade class told me she got $5 for every A she got on her report card.

So I thought, 'That would be great!' and I told me my mom that — but she says, 'No, I'm not doing that.' I told her, 'Well, what if I get Fs?' And she says, 'Well, then you get an F. That's your grade.' She knew I wouldn't do that because I had an internal drive and some competitiveness.

SA: Growing up in Colorado in the 90s .... How much soccer was there around you? What was the soccer culture and environment like back then?

TODD DUNIVANT: It was very local. We had the Colorado Foxes — Robin Fraser and Marcelo Balboa and some other national team players played in the A-League. MLS didn't start until I was 15 years old. Soccer on TV was pretty sparse. I just didn't have that exposure — kids these days can almost watch any game in the world. There was much less exposure. What we did was play in a men's league — it sounds funny but it was a lot of ex-pros, guys in their 20s and 30s who played in college. When you're 15 or 16, that's a high level. It was just a different time.

SA: The evolution of the left back of American soccer. How has it changed since your playing days?

TODD DUNIVANT: I think that the game is always going to evolve, but the reason I was converted to a left back — I was a center midfielder growing up, like most players — was that I was able to attack and be good with the ball. You can learn the defending side — I didn't play left back until my second year in college. At the time, I thought it was a demotion and was sort of frustrated but ultimately went with it and realized it was a niche position that I carved out. I loved it. If you can make the attacker you're marking cover you, that means he's not scoring. There's a lot of games within the game in that position. And it's a lot of running — it was a lot of running then, but a lot of running now.

SA: Heading the soccer operations at the Deltas. What was that experience like and what did you learn from it as you moved away to Sacramento?

TODD DUNIVANT: It was incredible. I was the fifth employee and I had a year to put the staff together and sign players, all of that. 2017 was our only season. We had Marc Dos Santos as our head coach, which was probably the best hire we ever made. He knew the league and putting that roster together with him — he did an incredible job. We found out midway through that year that we weren't going to have a year two. The guys took it as an opportunity to win and have fun and it'll be a great opportunity for all of us.

I learned more in those two years than I probably will for the rest of my career.

SA: What do you mean by that?

TODD DUNIVANT: It was my first job out of being a player. I was in charge of merchandise, the soccer operation and sponsorship. Those are three massive jobs and I had the impossible task of doing all three. But I got to learn all of the different facets of it. We didn't succeed as a club but the league didn't stick around either — reflecting on what went well and what didn't was just as valuable. Seeing the perseverance from our players was awesome.

SA: Did you have mentors that helped you with the business side of the game?

TODD DUNIVANT: 100%. I reached out to folks across the board. That's what I try to tell people in this industry: there are more allies than you realize. People are pretty open to helping. You're going to need that and you should be humble enough to ask. You can get good guidance and direction from folks as long as you ask. What do you guys use for your merchandise warehousing? How did you put together that merchandise deck? Or whatever it is — those are all things we had to do from scratch.

SA: Three days after MLS announced that lead investor Ron Burkle pulled out from your MLS bid, you took over as president after Ben Gumpert stepped down. Was that always going to be the plan or was that change motivated by the fact that the organization had to change strategies?

TODD DUNIVANT: We reacted in real time. Our president at the time, Ben Gumpert, stepped down after that announcement. He's stuck around in other roles and has been a huge help to me. He felt it was important for him to step down. I was honored to be asked by Kevin Nagle to step into those big shoes and kind of work on both sides of the house. It's been an absolute honor to work at this club at this high of a level.

SA: You’re about midway through your 18th professional season in the pro game — 13 as a player and five as an executive. You’ve made it to the final in seven of those seasons and won six of them. Do you have a recipe for success?

TODD DUNIVANT: Good question [laughs]. What I love doing is to be a part of a team. That's what I love about sports and that's what I love about soccer. Initially, that's what it was for me as a player — to be in the locker room and trying to get the best out of people. Realizing that you need everybody. At Sacramento, our core values — being indomitable and having a winning mentality and being a unified community — that's what we always go back to.

To win championships and to win anything, it takes an entire team. That's not just players on the field — that's staff, your equipment manager, your janitor, front office staff, it's everyone — and that's what I love. Being a part of that and being able to shape that. The recipe for success is to stay hungry and to keep at it. That's what's fun for me: waking up every day and getting back at it. The success eventually comes when you're working hard and living by your values every day.

SA: You haven’t found the same magic yet at Sacramento. What is missing from this project to consistently compete for USL championships?

TODD DUNIVANT: I don't think anything's missing. We've had several challenges over the last few years. Looking beyond the here and now — particularly in the last year we're trying to move this club forward. We've been stuck in a wait-and-see mode and we're taking destiny into our own hands this year. We're doing that with the stadium, with our team on the field, our owner, Kevin Nagle has reinvested and doubled down on the team and his commitment to the team and to the city is huge. Without him, we are nowhere.

Because of that investment and reinvigoration, you're seeing the results this year. You're seeing the team we've got on the field — the Open Cup run, the business support, Kevin's completely emerged as the reason why we are where we are.

Photos: Sacramento Republic FC.
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