Soccer

Republic FC’s bid to challenge MLS teams starts Wednesday

pkitagaki@sacbee.com

It’s the one event where Republic FC has a shot at proving on the pitch its motto: “Built for MLS.”

The 102nd annual Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup brings together amateur, minor-league pro and Major League Soccer teams for a national 81-team competition from late April to late September. It’s an event unlike anything in American professional sports.

Republic FC plays the amateur Sonoma County Sol in the second round of the Cup on Wednesday nightat Bonney Field.

“It’s a great competition, and it’s a competition you want to go and do as well as you can,” Republic FC coach Preki said. “We are taking this game serious.”

Wednesday’s match is the tournament opener for the defending USL champions, who advanced to the fourth round last season before falling to the San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 in San Francisco.

MLS teams have dominated the late rounds of the competition since that league’s first season in 1996.

Only one non-MLS team has won the U.S. Open Cup in the past 19 years – the USL’s Rochester Rhinos in 1999. Two others have reached the championship match, the Rhinos in 1996 and the USL’s Charleston Battery in 2008.

But plenty of MLS teams have been upset in the earlier rounds through the years, something Preki and veteran stars Rodrigo Lopez and Justin Braun experienced during their MLS tenures.

Preki was a member of the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) that lost to the amateur San Francisco Bay Seals in the third round in 1997. He was an assistant coach and Lopez a player on the 2006 Chivas USA team that lost on penalty kicks to the amateur Dallas Roma FC.

“We were the best team in MLS at that point, and we lost our first-round Open Cup,” said Lopez, who did not play in the match. “It was one of those games that showed that if you don’t come prepared, you miss opportunities and you let an amateur team hang around, you are going to be punished.”

Preki was the head coach and Braun a forward on the 2009 Chivas USA team that lost to Charleston 3-1, one season after the Battery’s title-match appearance.

“Not to give any excuses, we always gave everybody an opportunity to play in those early Open Cup matches,” said Preki, a U.S. Open Cup champion as a player with Kansas City in 2004. “The second group wasn’t ready for it that day, and we lost fair and square.”

Preki said that’s the paradox of the Open Cup. Because matches are held midweek in the midst of league seasons, pro teams rarely play their top 11. So he plans to start mostly reserve players against the Sol, which defeated the Burlingame Dragons 2-1 in extra time in their May 13 first-round game (USL teams don’t enter until the second round) and is 6-0-1 in the National Premier Soccer League this season.

“We are going to give guys an opportunity to show what they can do,” Preki said. “Hopefully, the guys can step up and do their business because they are professionals.”

Most of Preki’s starters, including Lopez and Braun, played the entire way in Sunday’s 1-0 USL win over LA Galaxy II in Carson. Lopez thinks the carrot of getting to play MLS teams in later rounds, if not the championship match, is huge motivation for the players.

“I think whoever plays (Wednesday) is going to be ready because we all want to make the best run possible in Open Cup,” said Lopez, who scored his league-leading seventh goal Sunday to move Sacramento back on top of the Western Conference. “We feel we have a good enough team to make some history.”

Wednesday’s match

  • What: U.S. Open Cup
  • Who: Republic FC vs. Sonoma County Sol
  • When: 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Bonney Field
  • Radio: 1140
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