After a two-year hiatus, the U.S. Open Cup returned in 2022 with renewed enthusiasm from American soccer fans — and they were rewarded with an abundance of entertaining fixtures. Eight matches featured lower league sides upsetting MLS clubs, as teams like Detroit City and Union Omaha had a chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage.
But no club outside Major League Soccer had a better showing than USL Championship side Sacramento Republic. The second-tier team won six matches, including three victories over MLS opponents, to become the first non-MLS side since 2008 to reach the final of the U.S. Open Cup.
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) July 28, 2022
This is a rare feat that has only been achieved three other times in the MLS era (a total of 25 tournaments). Let's take a look at the lower-league sides that have reached the U.S. Open Cup final and see how they got there.
Non-MLS Teams In U.S. Open Cup Final (Since 1996)
1996: Rochester Rhinos
Along with the inauguration of MLS, another key player in the American soccer landscape emerged in 1996 — the Rochester Rhinos. The USL A-League franchise quickly carved out a niche in upstate New York defined by a solid fan base, averaging 10,000-plus fans per game for the next decade.
The club proved that despite being a second-tier side, it was ready to compete with the big boys, taking down a pair of MLS sides in its first season before falling to D.C. United 3-0 in the U.S. Open Cup final.
#USOC Grammar AlertThe Rochester Raging Rhinos are the only team with a modifying adjective in their name to reach a #USOC Final (1996 & 1999) | #RochesterRhinos 0-0 #Rapids96 | #OpenCupClassics
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) April 26, 2020
1999: Rochester Rhinos
In an alternate timeline, the Rochester Rhinos went from a second-tier powerhouse to a mainstay in Major League Soccer. Between 1996 and 2001, the Rhinos reached five league title games in six seasons — taking home the crown three times — while also becoming the first (and only) lower-league club in the MLS era to win the U.S. Open Cup.
Anywhere else in the world, that performance would be rewarded with promotion. Rochester fought for an MLS franchise and even built a soccer-specific stadium, but top-flight football never came to New York's fourth-largest city. The stadium was not big enough for MLS yet too large for a second-tier franchise — the club defaulted on the ground in 2008 and was sent to the third division three years later.
But in 1999, it was Rochester vs. the world. The club played a brash, physical style; it was unapologetic and symbolic of a team that felt overlooked by the rest of American soccer. The Rhinos took down four MLS opponents in the U.S. Open Cup that year, including an impressive 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids in the final.
2008: Charleston Battery
It would be nine more years before a lower-league side again reached the U.S. Open Cup final, but not through lack of opportunity. During this span, 16 quarterfinalists and four semifinalists came from outside MLS, yet none could make the breakthrough until the Charleston Battery did so in 2008.
Charleston was an unlikely contender. The club was a solid A-League side in the early 2000s, even winning the league in 2003, but had petered off in the seasons since and missed the playoffs the year before. This was also a club that, at its peak, was attracting less than 4,000 fans per match.
The 2008 U.S. Open Cup was magical though, as the Battery used two penalty shootout victories as a platform for its best-ever cup showing, losing 2-1 to D.C. United in the final.
2022: Sacramento Republic
In the early days of MLS, lower-league clubs enjoyed a fair amount of success in the the U.S. Open Cup. As time has passed, the disparity between Major League Soccer and the rest of the footballing pyramid has grown. Only three of the 44 cup semifinalists between 2009 and 2019 came from outside MLS — that is until the Sacramento Republic this year.
The Quails, as they are nicknamed, began their U.S. Open Cup journey in the second round — way back in early April. Six victories later, including three over MLS opponents, the club reached the cup final. Sacramento plays at a beautiful soccer-specific stadium, and there have even been talks of the club becoming an MLS franchise. The fan support from the USOC run has shown Sacramento is ready for that jump.