‘Wish we could do a little bit more.’ Republic grapples with MLS on and off the pitch

Republic FC forward Cameron Iwasa (14) looks for an open teammate against the Vancouver WhiteCaps FC 2 on Aug. 27, 2016, at Bonney Field in Sacramento, Calif.
Republic FC forward Cameron Iwasa (14) looks for an open teammate against the Vancouver WhiteCaps FC 2 on Aug. 27, 2016, at Bonney Field in Sacramento, Calif. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento lost its expansion bid to join Major League Soccer last week, but the nation’s top professional soccer league will still be headed to the state capital Wednesday.

Seattle Sounders FC, coming off of back-to-back MLS Cup appearances, will play Republic FC of the United Soccer League for a spot in the round of 16 in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The fourth-round match comes after Sacramento missed out on an expansion franchise for the second time in about six months. The MLS awarded Cincinnati its 26th franchise on May 29 after tabbing Nashville on Dec. 20. 

Republic FC midfielder Jeremy Hall, who played a team-leading 3,443 minutes last year, has followed the process closely.

“It’s unfortunate that we weren't one of those two, but our front offices are doing everything in their power to try and get that, but it’s obviously out of our control,” Hall said. “We wish we could do a little bit more, but all we can do is play.”

Last year, Republic FC won their first match against an MLS team after defeating Real Salt Lake 4-1 on June 14 to advance to the fifth round of the U.S. Cup for the first time. They were eliminated by LA Galaxy, 2-0. 

Republic FC has gone 0-2 in friendlies against MLS teams since then, including a 3-1 loss to the Sounders on Feb. 15. Hall said that his team – tied for second place in the USL Western Conference at 7-3-3 – welcomes the challenges that MLS franchises bring.

“We got a crack at them and (Los Angeles) FC in the preseason, which was a good test for us, and I thought we did well against them in the preseason, so everybody is looking forward to it,” Hall said. “We’re excited, obviously we respect them, but we’re not going to back down and I think it’s going to be a good one.”

Forward Cameron Iwasa, a Jesuit High School graduate who leads Republic FC with five goals, said the team's chemistry has improved since losing to Seattle in the preseason. 

The Sounders (2-7-2), meanwhile, are near the bottom of the MLS Western Conference standings as they limp into the contest. They'll be without former U.S. national team forward Jordan Morris as well as midfielders Victor Rodriguez, Handwalla Bwana and Osvaldo Alonso. 

“They’re a smart team, they keep their lines compact, so they try to make it hard for us to find spaces offensively,” Iwasa said. “So we’re going to have to move the ball quickly.”

They'll also have to contend with one of the best players in American history, as Iwasa puts it, in Sounders forward and former U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey.

“We’re just going to have to try and limit his touches and try to keep him away from the box as much as possible,” Hall said. 

While Hall and company prepare for their MLS competition at Papa Murphy's Park, the Republic FC front office eagerly awaits its next chance at expansion. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said the league plans to grow to 28 teams, but has not given a timeline.

“We’re still full steam ahead with our push to get MLS and we know what we need to do,” said Republic FC general manager Todd Dunivant. “The fact that Cincinnati got it, there’s two more spots, so we’re very confident that we’re going to be one of those two.”