SAN JOSE — The Earthquakes” opponent Tuesday night in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a so-called minor league affiliate from Sacramento.
Owners of Sacramento Republic FC hope that changes in the coming years as they push to become a Major League Soccer team that could create a bona fide Northern California rivalry.
The Republic plays in the United Soccer League, the third division below MLS and the North American Soccer League. But with an enthusiastic fan base that bought 9,794 season tickets this year, the team wants to become the next MLS team if and when the league decides to expand again.
Owners, who include the 49ers” Jed York, already plan to build an 18,000-seat downtown stadium regardless of their division because ticket demand has been so high.
“We are competing the right way,” said Republic coach Preki, a two-time MLS most valuable player. “That”s why people are excited.”
The excitement in Sacramento has fueled a budding regional rivalry that could become intense if the Republic were to enter MLS. Although the move would cut into the Quakes” vast territory of homegrown players, San Jose general manager John Doyle said there is enough local talent to support both teams.
“They are a motivated team, and Preki is a motivated coach who wants to do well not only in the USL but also in the Open Cup, and possibly in MLS,” San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear added.
MLS officials expect to have an expansion plan ready within six months, but it is not clear that the league would grow beyond its recent additions. It has awarded teams to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and Minnesota. But in some cases, stadium issues need to be resolved before the teams make their debuts.
Sacramento could face competition from San Antonio and St. Louis for MLS”s next expansion team. Deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said the league needs to grow strategically and perhaps look to the center of the country.
“I don”t know what is going to happen,” Preki said. “I think it is going to happen, but I”m just not sure when.”
In the meantime, the teams share a loose relationship with San Jose sending a handful of reserves to Sacramento last year for grooming. Preki, after all, coached in MLS for five years before landing in the state capital when the Republic made its debut in 2014.
Forward Mike Fucito credited Preki for improving his game after a brief stay to help regain fitness.
“He holds his players to a very high standard,” Fucito said. “He keeps giving you ways to think about the game more so you become more unpredictable.”
No San Jose player benefited more from the Republic experience than target forward Adam Jahn. The former Stanford star spent much of his second year playing and learning from Preki.
When he returned to the Quakes this year, Jahn had transformed into a lineup regular.
“It”s a good place to get some playing time,” Preki said. “That”s always better than just training.”
The clubs won”t be collegial Tuesday night at Avaya Stadium in the fourth round of a century-old tournament for almost all divisions of American soccer.
It would be as if the NCAA basketball tournament had one playoff for all divisions. Or, if UCLA faced Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point to get to the Sweet 16.
The Quakes defeated the Republic 1-0 in an intense exhibition in February in Sacramento. They also eliminated the Republic 2-1 in the Open Cup last year.
The winner advances to the fifth round June 30-July 1 to play the Colorado Rapids or the USL”s Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.
U.s. open cup
Tuesday: Sacramento Republic FC at Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.