The Earthquakes didn't expect their U.S. Open Cup game Wednesday night to garner much interest in a summer highlighted by playing in the last sporting event at Candlestick Park and the first one at Levi's Stadium.

But their fourth-round opponent at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco has changed all that.

The Sacramento Republic FC has taken the American soccer community by surprise with record-setting crowds in its first year as a United Soccer League Pro division team.

That's USL Pro as in the third-tier behind MLS and the North American Soccer League.

But the Republic's ambitions are as big as its audience, coming to Kezar to ignite a Northern California rivalry it hopes to take to Major League Soccer some day.

What better way to launch it than to play the Quakes in a century-old tournament open to all comers, amateur and pro alike?

"We said at the outset that we need to generate and develop a rivalry," Republic technical director Graham Smith said. "That is what football relies on."

The Republic has become a soccer phenomena on the eve of the World Cup, attracting sellout crowds of 20,231 for three of its four games at Sacramento City College's Hughes Stadium. The other game drew 17,414 fans.

"It has caught all of us by surprise by its intensity," said Smith, the team's architect.

The crowds have jammed the stadium although the team has few recognizable players, such as former Chivas USA forward Justin Braun.


Advertisement

They come to express civic pride, said Mike Sophia, Sacramento Sports Commission director.

"We show up" for sporting events, he added.

The state capital boasts the NBA's Kings, the Triple-A River Cats and now the Republic. Otherwise, many of its fans root for Bay Area teams.

Quakes president Dave Kaval welcomes the development, saying Northern California is big enough to support two MLS clubs.

He added that the rabid interest in Sacramento highlights soccer's upward tick in popularity in the United States.

"It's a groundswell," Kaval said. "Some haven't realized how far we've come already. We're right on cusp of some really exciting growth."

The Republic is banking on it by announcing its intentions to enter MLS.

Such ambitions led Smith to hire coach Predrag Radosavljevic, better known as Preki. The former Kansas City Wizards star has coached Chivas and Toronto FC in MLS. He is charged with building a MLS-caliber team from scratch.

Sacramento officials, however, understand entrance into MLS won't happen quickly. The record crowds are encouraging, but the team also needs to build a soccer-specific downtown stadium and prove it has solid ownership.

As Sacramento Kings fans know all too well, stadium issues often are the biggest obstacles. The NBA team almost fled to Seattle for a new arena.

Talks about a soccer stadium are in their infancy. In the interim, the fourth-place Republic (6-3-2) will move this month to 8,000-seat Bonney Field at Cal Expo because it has grass and is configured more like a soccer pitch.

The two teams scrimmaged in Turlock in the preseason. Wednesday is their first real game.

It is the Earthquakes' only match until a June 28 showdown at Stanford against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Although the 4-5-4 team is headed into the World Cup break, coach Mark Watson might resist using all his regulars four days after losing at Toronto.

But the Quakes also don't want to suffer the ignominy of losing to their lower-division affiliate.

The winner advances to the fifth round June 24-25 against either the Seattle Sounders or Irvine amateur team PSA Elite.

On paper, the Quakes and Seattle should win. Only three lower-division teams have reached the Open final since MLS began in 1996. The history doesn't worry Smith, a goalkeeper who was part of one of the great stunners in FA Cup history. In 1971, his fourth- division Colchester United upset EPL's Leeds United in the fifth round.

"We went into the game believing we could beat this team," Smith recalled.

Now the Republic enters Kezar with an edge, realizing the stakes go beyond the soccer field.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.

Wednesday's game
Earthquakes vs. Sacramento Republic FC at Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 7:30 p.m.