As part of the second-division USL Championship, the Republic aim to win the U.S. Open Cup — the country’s oldest soccer tournament — when they clash with Major League Soccer’s Orlando City SC on Wednesday (stream on ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET).
“I still sometimes can’t believe it,” Lopez told ESPN. “Not that I’m saying we don’t deserve it. We definitely deserve it.
“I’m just saying, for a USL Championship team or any lower division team to be in the final of a cup, that is definitely very rare.”
The knockout competition dates back over 100 years when organized versions of the sport were still developing. The game is now much more sophisticated in the modern era and with the introduction of MLS in 1996, it has become rare to see teams from outside of the top division in the final.
In recent months, Lopez and Sacramento stunned the American soccer world, earning gutsy wins over MLS sides San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City to reach the final. In the semifinal round against Sporting KC, Lopez stepped up as the hero of the night, scoring the game-winning penalty in a shootout that followed a tense 0-0 draw in regulation time.
Sacramento — the first non-MLS finalists since 2008 — would also become the first lower league team to lift the trophy in the 21st century.
‘Paycheck to paycheck’
It’s a fairy-tale run and one that might not have been a reality if Lopez had ended his time with the sport — which was a possibility nearly a decade ago.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Lopez moved to the United States at an early age but eventually made his way back home through the famed Liga MX academy at Chivas. By 2005, Lopez’s career was on the rise through a professional debut with the Guadalajara club’s MLS affiliate, the defunct Chivas USA, and a call-up to the U18 squad for the U.S. youth national team.
Consistent appearances then became difficult to earn for the midfielder at Chivas USA, leading him to a handful of different leagues and teams in a short amount of time. In 2013, he found himself questioning his future during a stint with third-division side Los Angeles Blues (now Orange County SC) in the former USL Pro league.
“I was living paycheck to paycheck … I was sleeping in a closet,” said the 35-year-old. “That just tells you how much love I had for the game.”
Whenever a season ended, Lopez worked in construction to help 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, reached out to him during this time about joining them. He didn’t want to retire from the sport, but also had his doubts about returning. Reciprocating the support that they had received, those close to him helped make a decision to sign with the Republic.
“Speaking to my family, they said it was my chance to really make something out of my career if I really wanted to. They saw how hard I was working doing construction and how miserable I’d be coming home and missing the game,” Lopez said.
Taking advantage of the opportunity given to him, he balanced out a restless offseason schedule that involved going to the gym at five in the morning, working construction all day and then running afterwards during the evening.
“I was more than ready, I had never felt so good in my life,” he said.
As a key figure, Lopez bolstered a Sacramento squad that won a 2014 USL Pro title in their debut season. In the championship game, he would go on to earn honors as the MVP of the match. Unsurprisingly, he gained attention back home in Mexico. By 2016, he made his debut with Celaya in the country’s second division, which later paved the way to a dream move to topflight Liga MX through Toluca and Veracruz.
In his 30s, he returned to Sacramento in 2020 and after a quick stay with Rio Grande Valley FC last year, he’s now back with his third stint at the club — which could prove to be the most meaningful one to date if a national title is lifted next week.
“It would be huge,” said Lopez about possibly winning the U.S. Open Cup. “Sacramento, we’re known to be indomitable and winning a championship doesn’t just reflect on us, but on the whole city.”
‘If you’re MLS, you have to look at Sacramento’
On their path to the U.S. Open Cup final, Sacramento’s soccer community and the Republic, like Lopez, have had their own share of peaks and valleys.
On the rise through a rapidly growing fan base, support from local leaders and plans for a new stadium through a wealthy investor in billionaire Ron Burkle, Sacramento were announced as a new expansion for MLS in 2019, with an expected transition into the league in 2022 — delays due to COVID-19 eventually pushed the project one year further to 2023.
Then in early 2021, the city and team had the rug pulled out from underneath them entirely when Burkle backed out, putting the team’s jump to MLS on an indefinite hiatus. Other cities have since entered the race to take the next expansion spot, including Las Vegas, referred to as the “front-runner” by MLS commissioner Don Garber last December.
Lopez hasn’t shied away from that thorny topic, especially with Sacramento proving not only that they can not only keep up with MLS teams, but also defeat them.
“I’m sure MLS didn’t want us to win today,” he said in June after beating the Galaxy 2-1 in the quarterfinal round. “I don’t care what’s happened in the past. If you’re MLS, you have to look at Sacramento, you have to look at the fan base, you have to look at the city.”
Even so, Lopez was quick to note that he’s perfectly content playing in the USL Championship with Sacramento. Discussing the importance of the organization to him, there was a genuine sense of appreciation from the player that was picked up by the team when he was unsure of his future nearly 10 years ago.
“Whether I’m playing [with Sacramento] in the USL Championship, MLS or whatever it is, I’m happy.”
He plans to continue to extend that joy to supporters, who haven’t lost faith in the Republic amid the paused move to MLS. In 2022, they still boast some of the very best average attendances in the USL Championship, continuing to grow the passionate fan base that has become more and more boisterous and elated with each passing U.S. Open Cup match.
If you ask Lopez, that connection between the club, supporters and players like himself has only become stronger. Gaining a place in next week’s final also doesn’t hurt either when it comes to building enthusiasm and buzz.
“Right now the vibe and the energy from the city and the fans is bigger than it has ever been. We’re embracing it, we’re soaking it all in, we’re ready to make them proud,” Lopez said.
“We’re one game away.”