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David vs. Goliath duel pits Sacramento and Orlando City in U.S. Open Cup soccer final

Orlando's Exploria Stadium is set to rock for the finals of the U.S. Open Cup between Orlando City SC and Sacramento Republic FC.
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Orlando's Exploria Stadium is set to rock for the finals of the U.S. Open Cup between Orlando City SC and Sacramento Republic FC.

For this country's longest-running soccer tournament — more than 100 years old — tonight's the night.

And the 2022 U.S. Open Cup final starting at 8 p.m. ET features an unlikely match up.

Major League Soccer's Orlando City is one finalist – that's not unlikely. Since MLS became America's top men's division in 1996, its teams have dominated the Open Cup.

But the other finalist, Sacramento Republic FC, is unlikely...and the darling of a tournament that began nearly six months ago with 103 clubs, both pro and amateur. Sac Republic is in the lower-division USL Championship, the first non-MLS finalist since 2008, and aiming to be the first non-MLS U.S. Open Cup champion since the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1999.

Sac Republic already has proved it belongs with the big dogs, or in this case the Lions of Orlando City. On its way to the final, Sac Republic beat three MLS teams – the San Jose Earthquakes, L.A. Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City, four-time winners of the U.S. Open Cup.

The win over Sporting KC was perhaps the most exciting, decided by penalty kicks on Sac Republic's raucous home field.

With national media playing up the little-team-that-could theme, Sac Republic head coach Mark Briggs has embraced the underdog role heading into tonight's final.

Winning when no one thought they could

"Nobody expects us to win," Briggs was quoted as saying. "We can go out there and enjoy the game – play without fear and play with courage. We'll not have any pressure on us."

Except from Orlando City, a team that comes roaring into the match. While Sac Republic won its thriller against Sporting KC in one semifinal, Orlando City was dominating the New York Red Bulls 5-1 in the other. The Lions also are riding a four-match win streak in their MLS season.

Midfielder and captain Mauricio Pereyra says he respects what Sac Republic has done and "knows how they can hurt us."

"But most important," Pereyra told reporters, "is what Orlando City will do [today] on the field. Know their weaknesses and how we can handle the game."

Orlando City has home field advantage in its Exploria Stadium, and has made the most of it during its U.S. Open Cup run. All five of its Open Cup wins have come at home. A sixth will earn Orlando City its first championship trophy since joining MLS in 2015.

Orlando City was a lower division team that moved up to the top tier. Sac Republic has wanted to do the same, and was close to joining MLS until its principal investor pulled out last year. Team President and General Manager Todd Dunivant says the disappointment helped forge a team mentality of wanting to prove itself every day.

More than a soccer match

Proving itself tonight will be a watershed moment for the club, and provide the kind of push club officials say could lead to a new Sacramento stadium and a leap up to the big leagues.

And none of that's a secret as Sacramento's rabid fans prepare watch parties...and the team prepares for its moment.

"We'd be fools to think [the players] don't recognize the occasion and significance," Briggs said yesterday. "It's our job [as coaches], to bring them back to the present and to understand the details of what they need to focus on."

Simply a soccer match. But fans of both teams know, it's so much more.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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