Sacramento Republic captain Rodrigo Lopez almost quit nine years ago and hung up his football boots. Now he’s just one win away from incredible success in American football.
As part of the second-tier USL championship, Republic are aiming to win the US Open Cup – the country’s oldest football tournament – when they take on Major League Soccer’s Orlando City SC on Wednesday (Stream on ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET).
“I still can’t believe it sometimes,” Lopez told ESPN. “Not that I’m saying we don’t deserve it. We definitely deserve it.
“All I’m saying is that a USL championship team or a lower league team is in the final of a cup, that’s definitely very rare.”
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Knockout competition dates back over 100 years when organized versions of the sport were still developing. The game is much more demanding these days and with the introduction of MLS in 1996 it has become rare to see teams from outside the top division in the finals.
In recent months, Lopez and Sacramento have stunned the American soccer world by notching brave victories over MLS clubs San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City to reach the finals. In the semi-final round against Sporting KC, Lopez emerged as the hero of the evening, scoring the deciding penalty kick in a penalty shootout that followed a tense 0–0 draw in regulation time.
Sacramento — the first non-MLS finalist since 2008 — would also become the first minor-league team to lift the trophy in the 21st century.
Sacramento Republic FC beats Sporting Kansas City on penalties to win in dramatic fashion.
‘Salary to Salary’
It’s a fairytale run that might not have become a reality had Lopez ended his time with the sport — which was possible nearly a decade ago.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Lopez moved to the United States at a young age but eventually returned home through the famous Liga MX academy in Chivas. By 2005, Lopez’s career was on the rise with a professional debut at Guadalajara club’s MLS affiliate, the defunct Chivas USA, and a call-up to the U.S. youth national team’s under-18 squad.
Consistent appearances then became hard to earn for the midfielder at Chivas USA, leading him to a handful of different leagues and teams in a short space of time. In 2013, he questioned his future during a stint with third division club Los Angeles Blues (now Orange County SC) in the former USL Pro League.
“I lived paycheck to paycheck … I slept in a closet,” said the 35-year-old. “That just tells you how much love I had for the game.”
Each time a season ended, Lopez worked in construction to put food on the table and provide for his growing family, which included his newborn son, Roman. The Sacramento Republic, who were set to begin their first-ever season in the USL in 2014, approached him about joining them during that time. He didn’t want to retire from the sport but also had doubts about returning. Those close to him reciprocated the support they received and helped in the decision to sign with the Republic.
“Speaking to my family, they said it was my chance to really do something with my career if I really wanted to. They saw how hard I worked on construction and how unhappy I would come home and miss the game,” Lopez said.
He took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself and balanced a restless off-season schedule of hitting the gym at 5 a.m., working construction all day, and running in the evenings afterwards.
“I was more than ready, I had never felt so good in my life,” he said.
A key figure, Lopez bolstered a Sacramento roster that won a USL Pro title in its 2014 debut season. In the championship game, he would earn honors as the game’s MVP. Unsurprisingly, he’s garnered attention back home in Mexico. In 2016 he debuted with Celaya in the country’s second division, which later paved the way for a dream move to Toplight Liga MX via Toluca and Veracruz.
In his 30s, he returned to Sacramento in 2020 and after a brief stint with Rio Grande Valley FC last year, he is now back in his third stint at the club – which could prove to be the most significant yet when it comes to a national title canceled next week.
“It would be huge,” Lopez said of a possible US Open Cup win. “Sacramento, we’re known for being indomitable and winning a championship reflects not just on us but on the whole city.”
“If you’re MLS, you need to check out Sacramento”
The Sacramento football community and Republic, like Lopez, have had their share of ups and downs en route to the US Open Cup Finals.
Sacramento, on the rise thanks to a rapidly growing fan base, support from local leaders and plans for a new stadium by a wealthy investor, billionaire Ron Burkle, was announced as a new expansion for MLS in 2019, with an expected transition to the league in 2022 — Delays due to COVID-19 eventually pushed the project back a year to 2023.
Then, in early 2021, the rug was pulled from under the city and the team when Burkle retired, indefinitely pausing the team’s leap into the MLS. Since then, other cities have entered the race for the next expansion spot, including Las Vegas, which MLS commissioner Don Garber described as a “frontrunner” last December.
Lopez hasn’t shied away from this touchy subject, especially as Sacramento not only proves they can not only rival MLS teams, but beat them.
“I’m sure MLS didn’t want us to win today,” he said in June after beating Galaxy 2-1 in the quarterfinals. “I don’t care what happened in the past. If you’re MLS, you gotta look at Sacramento, you gotta look at the fandom, you gotta look at the city.”
Despite this, Lopez quickly found that he was perfectly content playing with Sacramento in the USL championship. Speaking about the importance of the organization to him, there was a real sense of appreciation from the player that was picked up by the team when he was uncertain about his future nearly 10 years ago.
“Do I play? [with Sacramento] in the USL championship, MLS or whatever it is, I’m happy.”
He plans to continue extending that joy to fans who have not lost faith in the Republic despite the paused move to MLS. In 2022, they still boast some of the very best average attendances in the USL Championship and continue to grow a passionate fanbase that just keeps getting more boisterous and enthusiastic with every US Open Cup game that goes by.
If you ask Lopez, that connection between the club, fans and players like him has only grown stronger. A spot in next week’s finals doesn’t hurt either when it comes to building enthusiasm and excitement.
“Right now, the spirit and energy of the city and the fans is greater than ever. We’re taking it, we’re soaking it all up, we’re ready to make them proud,” Lopez said.
“We’re a game away.”
https://www.espn.com/soccer/sacramento-republic-fc/story/4735841/for-sacramento-republics-rodrigo-lopeza-us-open-cup-title-over-mls-sides-would-be-huge For Sacramento Republic’s Rodrigo Lopez, a U.S. Open Cup title over MLS sides ‘would be huge’