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Sacramento's Open Cup success proves a lower division team can compete with the best

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The U.S. Open Cup is the nation's oldest men's soccer competition. And this year, the tournament is coming down to an exciting finish, especially in Sacramento, Calif. Sacramento's team is the only one in tonight's semifinals that is not from the country's top professional division, Major League Soccer. NPR's Tom Goldman reports that the team's success is not only a David versus Goliath story, but it's also another sign of this country's growing youth movement in the sport.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Sacramento Republic FC's magical run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals showed its gritty side during Monday training.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, time, time.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get up, red. Get up, red.

GOLDMAN: The drilling was intense and especially punishing for the team's goalkeepers. At a far end of the field, they dove to the ground to stop one kick...

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON GRUNTING)

GOLDMAN: ...Then scrambled to their feet and went airborne...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Great save, Dan.

GOLDMAN: ...To stop another. In a press conference after, head coach Mark Briggs kept things decidedly unmagical (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK BRIGGS: Yeah, just a normal preparation for a normal midweek game.

GOLDMAN: He knows tonight's game isn't normal. The semifinal opponent, Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer, is a four-time U.S. Open Cup champion. But Briggs also understands his team didn't get to this point by overreacting to the big moments - none bigger than last month's quarterfinal win over MLS royalty, the LA Galaxy.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: That'll do it. The team from the capital city shows that Sacramento may be the soccer capital of California as well. For the first time since 2017, a lower division side has made it through the semifinal of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

GOLDMAN: A record 103 teams entered the tournament this year, pro and amateur. Three MLS teams made it to tonight's semis. That's not a surprise - SAC Republic is. It competes in the United Soccer League or USL, a lower division with smaller payrolls and stadiums and commercial airline travel instead of charter.

TODD DUNIVANT: We shouldn't beat MLS teams.

GOLDMAN: Todd Dunivant played in MLS for 13 years. He's now SAC Republic's president and general manager.

DUNIVANT: Lower division teams shouldn't beat MLS teams on the regular. We've done it back-to-back now.

GOLDMAN: SAC Republic beat LA and the San Jose Earthquakes the round before. But Sacramento is the talk of soccer for another reason. It's a second-division team that reflects how the men's game has steadily grown, even amidst failure at the highest level, when the U.S. didn't qualify for the 2018 World Cup. SAC Republic's roster is dotted with international players as well as locals, like two close teammates who arrived from very different paths.

I hear you guys are roommates, good friends, right?

MATT LAGRASSA: Yeah, he's my little brother.

(LAUGHTER)

RAFAEL JAUREGUI: Uncle Matt.

GOLDMAN: Matt LaGrassa is a 29-year-old midfielder who turned pro after four years of college soccer. The player he laughingly calls his little brother is Rafael "Rafa" Jauregui, a 17-year-old forward whose parents are Mexican immigrants. Jauregui was 13 when he was recruited to SAC Republic's academy, one of many youth development programs around the country, including MLS Next. He signed his first pro contract at 15.

JAUREGUI: I'm pretty shy, so it took me a while to, like, start talking to people. And the beginning was pretty hard, but then I just started, like, coming out of my shell a bit more. And it's been getting better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: He was right. Here's Rafa Jauregui. Rafa with his first professional goal.

GOLDMAN: Despite that milestone last month, Jauregui's minutes on the field still are limited. But LaGrassa says his young teammate has a valuable head start professionally.

LAGRASSA: You know, a lot of the stuff that I probably went through at 23, Raf has gone through at 15, 16 years old, which is - honestly, I mean, it's incredible for the growth of the game in this country.

GOLDMAN: The U.S. men's national team righted itself and qualified for this year's World Cup with a young, talented group of athletes. A number of them played in the USL. In the Open Cup, SAC Republic's success confirms a lower division team can compete with the best thanks to the many pathways talented players take to the pros. And tonight, it has another chance to beat the best. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.