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Why Galaxy can’t take hungry Sacramento Republic lightly in U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals

Imagine a duffer beating a PGA Tour player at the local pro-am. Or a barnstorming semi-pro baseball team pounding the New York Yankees.

Those are the kind of scenarios the U.S. Open Cup, the oldest national soccer competition in the country, was made to generate.

“That’s kind of the beauty and the curse of the U.S. Open Cup,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said. “When lower-division teams are playing arguably their biggest game of their season or career or whatever, they certainly are going to be looking for the best version of themselves that day. And nothing else is going to matter.”

Domestic Cup competitions around the world are modeled on the same David vs. Goliath structure, with amateur, semi-pro and top-tier professional teams competing against one another for the same prize.

On Tuesday, in the tournament quarterfinals at Dignity Health Sports Park, Vanney will be managing Goliath — the five-time MLS champion Galaxy, the winningest professional team in U.S. history — against the Sacramento Republic, which hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals of the second-tier USL Championship playoffs in eight years, and hasn’t had a winning record the last three seasons.

But David — aka the Republic — will show up, slingshot in hand, just the same.

“Anything,” Sacramento President and general manager Todd Dunivant said, “can happen on a given day.

Especially since there’s more than just winning or losing at stake for the Republic. Beating the mighty Galaxy would prove what people in Sacramento have long believed: that the city deserves to be in MLS.

In fact, three years ago the Republic, with the financial backing of billionaire businessman Ron Burkle, was awarded an MLS expansion berth that would have seen it join the league this season. But when Burkle abruptly pulled out of the deal 16 months ago, MLS rescinded its offer and Sacramento has been stuck in limbo since, never really giving up on MLS yet with no clear path to get there, either.

“We’re not going to put that on our players to say, ‘Hey, go prove that we’re an MLS club by beating all these MLS teams,’ ” Dunivant said. “We think of it as an opportunity to really test ourselves against the best.”

Galaxy manager Greg Vanney watches during the first half of the team’s match against Charlotte FC in Charlotte, N.C. on March 5.

(Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press)

The team, after all, already has beaten MLS teams, upsetting Real Salt Lake, Seattle and San Jose in U.S. Open Cup play since 2017. But a win on the road over the Galaxy would be something extra, both for Sacramento and for Dunivant who, in nine seasons as a Galaxy defender, won four MLS titles and the 2005 U.S. Open Cup.

The team has been back to the tournament final just once since.

“It’s a special opportunity. We’ve never played the Galaxy in their stadium in a real game,” Dunivant said. “It’s a special place for me.”

For Vanney, managing in the Open Cup for the first time, the tournament provides an opportunity to win a trophy, something the Galaxy haven’t done in eight years, a franchise-long drought.

“The mentality we want to build in the Galaxy is that playing for trophies is kind of what we do,” he said. “You come to the Galaxy because you play for championships.”

The Republic is one of two non-MLS teams in the final eight of the Open Cup. Union Omaha, which plays in the third tier USL League One, made it to the quarterfinals by beating Minnesota United. It will meet Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday.

Yet both teams face long odds going forward. Since MLS entered the tournament in 1996, it has failed to win the Open Cup just once, in 1999, when the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the second-tier A League won. That puts the pressure Tuesday squarely on the shoulders of the Galaxy, who are expected to win.

“There’s no question we’re going to be heavy underdogs,” Dunivant said. We understand that, embrace that. That’s the beauty of our sport and a beauty of a Cup tournament.

“We’re playing with house money.”

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