The qualifying rounds for this year’s Open Cup tournament began almost a year ago, when 92 regional amateur teams entered open division play for 11 spots for the Cup that began in March with 103 professional and amateur teams.
Only one will remain standing by Wednesday night’s end.
Sacramento Republic, the neutral’s favorite, aims to become the first non-MLS club to win the USA’s longest-running soccer tournament since the Rochester Rhinos in 1999. Orlando City, meanwhile, plays host and spoiler as it seeks the first trophy in its MLS history.
The Open Cup’s 107th edition found a resurgence this year after the pandemic canceled the 2020 and 2021 tournaments. Clubs have beaten teams from a higher division 14 times this year, and eight of those wins were against MLS teams. No team has embodied the underdog zeitgeist of the Open Cup better than USL’s Sacramento Republic, which on Wednesday pursues its fourth consecutive victory over an MLS opponent after defeating San Jose, the LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City in the lead-up to the final.• ESPN+, Wednesday, 8 pm ET, U.S. Open Cup, Orlando-Sacramento.
“It's given that competition the boost that it needed,” USL Commissioner Jake Edwards told Soccer America. “It's brought a lot of attention to the competition again, which is fantastic. For Sacramento, a lower-division side, to make it to the final of a cup competition...it’s kind of unheard of throughout the world.”
Unheard of, maybe. But certainly dreamt of by fans of those smaller sides. The Republic faithful filled up Heart Health Park to maximum capacity in the semifinal against Sporting KC in July, and their dreams came true in a dramatic penalty-shootout win that shot them into the club’s first ever cup final.
Offense sells tickets, Defense wins championships?
Sacramento's three-man backline has soaked up pressure for long spells of time against MLS teams — they invite them to break them down and then try and break quickly on the counter. And they’ve been successful, conceding only one goal against three MLS teams combined and two goals in six Open Cup games total.
Leading Sacramento’s defensive efforts are center backs Lee Desmond and Dan Casey (No. 4 & 5 in above photo), who spoke to Soccer America about their defensive efforts ahead of the biggest game of their lives. Casey is the club leader in minutes logged and in blocked shots, while Desmond is the club leader in interceptions and clearances.
“We trust each other — that's the biggest thing,” Casey says. “We know each other's game and complement each other well. When we're in our 5-4-1 shape, we're very difficult to break down. We're comfortable sitting for five or ten minutes and playing on the counter if we have to.”
Casey and Desmond, two Dublin, Ireland natives, have played in all six Open Cup games this year. The duo played against each other a few times in Ireland but “weren’t friends,” says Desmond. Casey, who arrived in California’s capital a year before Desmond, helped his countryman acclimatize to a new culture.
Desmond, who won Ireland’s Open Cup-styled competition, the FAI Cup in 2021 for St. Pats, helped Casey see those intimidating cup matchups as just another game.
“I just feel more equipped mentally after dealing with the pressures from preparing for such a big game,” Desmond says. “It's not a special game anymore — it's a normal game. If I can give that energy off to some of the younger guys on the team, then I think that'll be helpful. You don't want to feel anything extra, you just want to focus on the job, which is winning.”
The “act like you’ve been there before” mentality is easier said than done when playing in what for every Republic player is the biggest game of their life. Amongst Orlando City’s potent attack, Casey and Desmond will face Austrian striker Ercan Kara, who has nine goals and two assists in 24 MLS league appearances this season, and club-record signing Facundo Torres, the Uruguayan international who has tormented MLS defenses this season and has notched six goals and nine assists in league play.
Playing against these elite attackers is something to relish for Casey.
“Personally, I love it,” he says. “You want to play against the best players. We play with a bit of a chip on our shoulder because we all want to play at the highest level possible. It brings an extra 10% out of everybody on our team.”
For Desmond, the key to success is one word: focus. “You have to be focused,” he says. “You get punished more easily [by MLS teams] than most of the USL clubs we play against. We just have to be really mentally tuned in all of the time and be focused on the little things, like body position and communication. Those make a massive difference against the top players.”
Sacramento has nothing to prove at this point in the tournament. The giant killers have captivated the American soccer audience in a way few clubs have before in Open Cup history. What’s left for them to do?
“We're going to come in confident,” Casey says. “They're a good team — we've watched them a lot. We're going to stick to our game plan, give it our all, and go from there.”