Two teams separated by 2,800 miles but connected by a shared season in the USL Pro league in 2014 – Sacramento’s first season of USL play, Orlando’s last before moving up to MLS – are now meeting again for a chance at US Open Cup glory. Though they only met once due to a geographically-influenced unbalanced schedule – a scoreless draw in front of a sell-out Florida crowd – the two teams split the titles that year. Orlando City resoundingly claimed the Commissioner’s Cup, the award given for the best regular season record, beating second-place Sacramento by seven points. But their run of form ran out in the playoffs as they fell in the quarterfinals to the eighth-seeded Harrisburg City Islanders, the team that Sacramento had no trouble dispatching in the playoff final to win the 2014 USL Pro championship.
The 2014 USL Pro season was the only time these two teams have been in proximity to each other, and their paths have diverged since then. Only one player from either team’s 2014 rosters will be on the field or bench in the Open Cup final: Sacramento’s Rodrigo Lopez, who took a winding path in the past eight years and returned to Sacramento before this season (interestingly enough, Lopez was once on Orlando’s roster in their USL days). One team left to try their luck at top division soccer and the other stayed to find their way in a league landscape that changed around them, hoping to one day follow suit in the first division.
Orlando City enjoyed a lot of success in the USL Pro league, right from the get-go. The team won the regular season and the championship in their first season, setting the standard for fans with the expectation that they were the best in the league. The success of that season proved to be no fluke, and they claimed top spot for the regular season three out of four years in USL Pro and winning the championship in 2011 and 2013. But their entrance to MLS was quite a different story.
Despite signing Brazilian Balon d’Or winner, Kaka, the team put on the field by Orlando City wasn’t composed of big names ready to win the league. Orlando struggled in the transition to MLS both on and off the field. Phil Rawlins, who was instrumental in forming the team, relocating to Orlando, and moving up to the top division left, and the team went through three coaches in five years as they went year after year without making the playoffs.
But one area where Orlando didn’t always struggle was connecting with their city.
As Austin David of The Orlando Soccer Journal puts it, after moving the team from Austin to Orlando to play in USL Pro “the ownership was very good at cultivating the community.” They held soccer clinics, community events, and had dedicated staff for their foundation for underprivileged children.
When they moved up to MLS, they seemed to try to continue this trend to market their team to the city at-large, while splashing less cash on famous players (Kaka notwithstanding) than fellow 2015 expansion team New York City FC.
David remembers “Magnet Mondays” where fans could stop by the club office and pick up free car magnets to give to their friends—covering the city with them and making it impossible not to see the team’s presence. But that’s not to say the team ownership hasn’t had a sometimes-contentious relationship with their fanbase. The previous ownership group didn’t seem to make a huge effort to connect, leaving long-time fans with a less-than-friendly, though not necessary adversarial, relationship, particularly around 2017-2019. However, it appears that those brought in by the Wilf family, who purchased the team last summer, have been making an effort to be more active and engaged with fans through meetings, social media, and even dropping by tailgates.
Carlos Alvarado, an Orlando City fan since their inception in USL and member of the Iron Lion Firm, mentioned that “you can tell there’s a proactive approach to it … based on hiring and money in all aspects of the club, at least you can see the genesis of being more involved in the community, which is more initiative and effort than we saw from the former group.” One specific example he mentioned was that there seemed to be more resources given to community relations staff, led by Kay Rawlins.
Meanwhile, as Orlando was trying to find their way in the top division, Sacramento Republic was taking hold of their city and trying to meet the expectations set in their first season of existence. Though the USL Pro team was new to the scene, their welcome was robust. Long-time Republic reporter, Evan Ream, remarked on this reception, saying, “I don’t think anybody knew what to expect before the first home game … Sacramento always supported sports teams in their city , but nobody thought it was going to this big.”
Twenty thousand fans showed up to that first game, setting a single-game record for USL Pro, a record previously set at close to 11,000 by Orlando City in 2013. The team would go on to set a single-season record for attendance, all for a team just getting started. The front office was instrumental in jump starting demand for tickets. Dan Tyree, a Republic supporter and Tower Bridge Battalion member from the start, expanded on this, stating, “they did a good job with supply and demand … They offered two-for-one ticket deals and the stadium was packed several times that season … The club leadership was totally different then, and they were really smart in understanding that community engagement is huge. They had a lot of events outside of the game and cemented lots of long-term relationships.”
Ream described the Republic’s championship in their inaugural season as “one of the best and worst things for Sacramento,” as it set their expectations very high right off the bat. Since that first season, Sacramento hasn’t enjoyed quite the levels of success they hit in 2014. But they haven’t been unsuccessful either and were consistently one of the better franchises in the league. Though the team’s results have been a little up and down, they made the USL playoffs every single year until 2021 and continued their streak of great attendance at games.
In 2019, they hit another high point, but this time off the field. The top division of American soccer announced that Sacramento had been successful in their bid for an MLS expansion slot, a goal of the team’s ownership from the very beginning. The team was set to join in 2022 (later pushed back to 2023 due to the pandemic) with the whole city behind them and a plan for a new stadium in the works.
Unfortunately for the city, the pandemic did more than simply push Sacramento’s MLS debut back; it suspended it entirely. In February 2021, Ron Burkle, the team’s lead investor who was to privately finance the new stadium, pulled his investment, leaving the ownership group without the funds to make the jump to the top division. MLS pulled their bid and is set to choose another city to be the 30th team in the league, with no announced plans to continue expansion in the immediate future. Tyree mentioned this left “a huge amount of bitterness toward MLS” in the Republic’s fanbase. But even so, the plan for a new stadium for the team (albeit a scaled-down version) is still in place, with the possibility to expand the design should the team ownership find new investment and MLS come calling again in the future.
Though both teams have had their trials since their USL Pro clash, there is still plenty for their fans to be proud of. In a weird pandemic-affected 2020 season, Orlando had a breakout performance led by a front trio of Daryl Dike, Chris Mueller, and Nani in the MLS Is Back Tournament, finishing as runners up to the Portland Timbers. They followed this up with a dramatic first round playoff win in penalties against fellow 2015 MLS debutants New York City FC in which fullback Rodrigo Schlegel had to fill in as keeper after Pedro Gallese received a second yellow card for coming off his line too soon and Orlando was out of substitutions. Orlando would go on to lose in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but the excitement around the team after their first ever playoff win was palpable. On the coaching side, the team has enjoyed stability under Oscar Pareja that has offered room for success. In the front office, the Wilf family acquired the team in July 2021, and they and their new front office staff have been active and engaged with the fanbase and wanting to improve the team.
For Sacramento Republic, MLS bid aside, ownership for the team has been stable since 2014, stadium plans are still a go, and they have been one of the more successful franchises since their debut—making the playoffs every year but last. And of course, their historic Open Cup run has captured the hearts of not just the city, but the nation. It is rare that a lower-division team makes it to the final (the Republic will be the first non-MLS team to make it since the 2008 Charleston Battery) and even rarer for that lower-division team to beat three top-division sides on their way there. A lower-division team hasn’t won the Open Cup final since the 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos (who beat four MLS sides on their way to the trophy).
As is fairly common in both the American and international soccer landscape, the relationship between the supporters’ groups for Orlando City and Sacramento Republic and their respective front offices are not always warm and friendly or seeing eye-to-eye, but the fanbases’ passion for their teams is unmatched. Both groups truly believe in their team’s chances at winning the trophy. Alvarado thinks it’s good when teams like Sacramento make it to the final of this tournament, but he doesn’t like their chances of winning. He said, “Sacramento really hasn’t had an MLS side at full-force … they’re going to be walking into hell. Playing in Orlando when Orlando is popping off is a really hard environment.” He goes on to say, “with Orlando not playing the weekend before, they’ll be playing with an A+ team … Sacramento are in for a rough night.”
On the other side, Tyree sees things a bit differently, mentioning that he wouldn’t be traveling all the way from California to Florida if he didn’t believe they have a chance.
“Knowing these guys, they’re going to have a shot; anything is possible,” he said. “We believe in this team; they have a kind of quiet confidence … this is a different group; they love playing for each other, and they love playing for the city.” He goes on to say that he knows none of the players are getting on that plane thinking they’re going to lose.
When Sacramento Republic came on the USL scene, there were comparisons made with Orlando City’s success in the league and subsequent rise to MLS. People wondered if Sacramento would be the next team to dominate in USL and then move on to bigger and better things. And though the two clubs have traveled different paths, the teams have both become entrenched in their communities, building a strong foundation for the excitement that is now pulsating through their cities, destined to culminate in a historic and sold-out US Open Cup final: a final taking place nine years to the day after Orlando City’s last trophy win and just twenty days shy of eight years since Sacramento Republic’s.
This year’s tournament has reenergized fan bases in Orlando and Sacramento and fueled excitement through soccer communities there and nationwide. Two teams in different leagues, but with intertwined dreams will meet once again, but only one will get to write their names in the history books as the 2022 US Open Cup champion.