Central Valley Fuego FC came into the Third Round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup with a load of confidence. After taking down El Paso Locomotive (USL Championship) in Round 2, Fuego FC battled Sacramento Republic FC in a close match at Heart Health Park.
For the third time in US Open Cup history, the Indomitable Club was welcoming a Fresno-based professional team to the Golden State’s capitol, curious enough they have all been matchups in the Third Round. In 2014 and 2019, Republic FC came out on top and moved on to the next round. Tonight was no different, with Sacramento coming out with a 2-1 win on the strength of a Rodrigo Lopez penalty kick in the 90th minute.
“When you play cup games, it’s all about winning,” said Mark Briggs, Sacramento Republic FC head coach. “And we’ve won, we’re in the draw tomorrow and that’s all that matters.”
This win did not come easy.
While Republic dominated in the first half and headed into halftime with a 1-0 lead courtesy of Dan Casey, the second half was a different story. CV Fuego FC came out with a change in attitude and mentality. Martin Vasquez’s side pushed the lines forward and started to attack with a higher frequency. A familiar foe in Villyan Bijev, who spent three seasons in a Sacramento uniform, led the attack for Fuego FC and Republic captain Rodrigo Lopez was aware of that.
“You saw Villyan Bijev everytime he got the ball in the second half he was a threat,” said Lopez. “We just needed to be a bit more aware, but in the end we did what we had to do and we won, which was the most important thing.”
The game almost seemed like a chess game between Vasquez and Briggs. The first 15 minutes of the game Fuego FC did not attack, sat back and limited Lopez getting involved.They did a good job closing down space and closing down Luis Felipe and Douglas Martinez Jr. as well. Even then, Republic relied on Keko and Lewis to create chances on goal. The Fuego goalkeeper made three big saves in the first half.
In the second half, as mentioned, Vasquez modified to a more offensive mindset. Bijev was moved to the left flank instead of in the central part of the field. A turning point came in the 75th minute when Fuego substitute Renato Bustamante came in for Diego Casillas. Last 15 minutes of the game, down 1-0, Vasquez was going for it. His decision paid dividends as Bustamante’s first contact with the ball turned into a goal two minutes later after Bijev beat his defender and crossed the ball in for Renato to hit the back of the net.
In the dying minutes of regulation, Sacramento pushed numbers forward and Matt LaGrassa drew a penalty kick after being taken down in the box by a CV Fuego defender. The home crowd ignited after the whistle was blown.
Rodrigo Lopez was the clear choice to take the spot kick.
“There’s nobody else I would want in those moments,” said Briggs. “We all know what ‘Roro’ brings, his qualities, but the things he does off the field make him an exceptional captain as well. I think he led by example again tonight.”
The 90th-minute goal was Rodrigo Lopez’s fifth career US Open Cup goal, second-most in Sacramento Republic history.
With this win, Republic FC also extended their home winning streak to eight games, which is the longest active streak and tied for the fourth longest of the Modern Era (1995-present) of the US Open Cup.
“Hopefully we can get a home game, get this place rocking and hopefully we can beat an MLS team and make some noise in the cup,” Briggs said after the game. “And also show MLS what they’re missing with this club.”
The next day, the Indomitable Club found out that they will, in fact, have a home game in the Fourth Round of the tournament. However, it won’t be against an MLS side. Republic FC will host fellow USL Championship rival Phoenix Rising FC on May 11.