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Opinion: Republic FC nearly shook up soccer world

Beat the Earthquakes? Republic FC almost did way better than that. The local guys almost became the earthquake.

What a tremor Republic FC nearly delivered to the North American soccer pyramid Tuesday night. Sacramento’s third-division USL club led 2-0 with 73 minutes gone in the fourth-round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against the Earthquakes, a first-division Major League Soccer outfit representing San Jose and the San Andreas Fault.

But Republic FC couldn’t contain the Quakes’ goal machine, Chris Wondolowski. Rumbling out of Chico State and a U.S. national team veteran, Wondolowski, who is tied for seventh on MLS’ all-time goal-scoring list, evened it up with two in regulation.

Still, with the score tied and Sacramento having a chance to win in the bottom of the fifth round of the shootout, Republic FC’s Emrah Klimenta hit one low and right – precisely to the spot where San Jose goalkeeper Bryan Meredith flung his body. Meredith knocked it away, and the game went into sudden death, where Republic FC lost when James Kiffe airballed a potential tying attempt in the eighth round of penalty kicks, and the Earthquakes won 6-5.

You could say the match was just an exhibition in a tournament most urbanites never have heard of or care about. But the deal with soccer around here is for Republic FC to force MLS chieftains to let Sacramento into the club. MLS entry means a soccer stadium in the railyards and more to do in a downtown area ticking upward with the new Kings arena and the influx of young people looking for a fun place to live, work and play.

Sacramento will do fine with or without MLS, with musicians, chefs, painters, architects, sculptors, entrepreneurs and the like lighting up the town with life and energy.

But who couldn’t use a big-league soccer team? Even if the league is MLS.

There are many names you could call MLS – overly cautious, insecure, unwilling to turn the market loose and let the soccer capitalists of North America compete with their rivals the world over for the best talent on the seven continents. You can call MLS all these things, but you also have to call it the professional soccer organization in this country that has made the most progress in taking the sport into the American mainstream.

MLS is gracious enough to always say nice things about Sacramento, when asked. But it’s holding back on letting California’s capital into the game even though Republic FC won a championship its first year, sells out every game and could become one of the most successful organizations in MLS if its gatekeepers would only open up. They won’t, not now anyway, so the only real opportunity Sacramento has to stick a thumb in MLS’ eye is to beat one of its teams in the annual U.S. Open Cup.

The long-lived U.S. Open Cup, in its 102nd year, is perhaps the most democratic sporting endeavor you’ll find in this country. Everybody gets a shot at it, from the amateurs of Chula Vista to the multimillion-dollar men of MLS. Tuesday night in the fourth round, seven USL teams launched themselves at MLS dragoons on pitches from Chester, Pa., to Sandy, Utah, to San Jose’s lovely Avaya Stadium – a model for sporting venues with its end-zone bar the width of the field and a grassy knoll outside where you can stretch out before a match with a 22-ouncer of Lagunitas IPA.

Before Wondolowski lit up Republic FC late, the other six USL teams had been defeated by MLS bullies. Sacramento stood last for the USL, and a win over the first-division Quakes would have put Republic FC into the headlines in every soccer blog and news service in the United States.

15 Shot totals for both Republic FC and the San Jose Earthquakes

Goals by Klimenta on a feed from Rodrigo Lopez and by Lopez on a penalty kick staked Sacramento to its 2-0 margin and put the club in position for the media blitz – until Wondolowski stopped the presses. His goals in the 74th and 79th minutes led to a final chapter of shootout heartbreak for Sacramento.

Preki, the perfectionist who coaches Republic FC, recounted “a couple unfortunate plays” by his guys and offered that “we basically threw it away at the end.” But he was most emphatic in saying he was “incredibly proud of these guys” who stood up to a team with an international star in Wondolowski, who makes $650,000 a year, and a payroll in 2014 of $3.6 million, according to figures released by the MLS players’ union. Republic FC pays its players only a fraction of that, according to team president Warren Smith, who did not release the total.

“Obviously, we want to win every game, but the most important thing for us was to measure ourselves against an MLS team because we have high aspirations,” Preki said after the match. “We want to be an MLS team. We just want to know what we have, where we are.”

Republic FC held the ball as much as San Jose and got off the same number of shots as the Earthquakes – 15.

The coach and his team will get more opportunities, at least in future U.S. Open Cups. Tuesday night was a great chance to shake the ground beneath the league that needs to absorb Sacramento sooner rather than later.

It shouldn’t take an earthquake to do it.

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