It’s “What if?” week here at SB Nation, and there’s one way to kick this off with a bang regarding Sacramento Republic FC: What if the “Miracle at Bonney” had never happened?
The miracle in question, of course, is the comeback against LA Galaxy II in the 2014 USL Pro playoffs semifinals, when LA went ahead 2-0 before a hat trick by Rodrigo Lopez starting in the 70th minute pulled the home side ahead, giving Sacramento the win. They then went on to win the 2014 USL title.
So, what if they hadn’t completed that epic comeback? I think there are two ways of approaching this question, both fairly compelling.
For Sacramento Republic
For Republic FC, the most obvious consequence would be that they didn’t win the 2014 league title.
I think a good deal of Sac Republic’s mystique is built around this debut-season title. The crowds were there from the beginning and the team would have been successful to a considerable extent, on and off the field, without the title.
But having reached the summit of the mountain in the first try, the bar was set sky-high, and the club has continually worked to match and surpass it. In some ways, they’ve done it, in other ways they haven’t.
But the title in year one was a proof of concept and helped cement Republic’s status as a force in Sacramento and in American soccer, too. And without that 2014 title, without the incredible comeback, some of that luster would be lost.
Would SRFC have won a league title in the meantime if they hadn’t gotten the job done in 2014? It’s certainly possible. As the Miracle at Bonney shows, a bounce here, a call there, can change everything in a game.
But having a title in hand gave Sacramento Republic the deserved swagger, the validation of getting the job done even though they were in their first season. Why can’t you win a title in any season? Why can’t you aim for MLS if you want it? Why can’t you dream big?
So for Sac Republic, the Miracle at Bonney gave them a precious piece of club lore, and also propelled them to that first title, and those are both very important for the trajectory of the club. Without them, history would have certainly been different.
To me, maybe the more interesting question here isn’t related to Sac Republic specifically, but to USL as a whole.
Let’s go back to 2014. It was the first year that USL really started to expand. With the formal partnership with MLS signed, the option for MLS clubs to create specific reserve teams in the league, and a willingness to expand the league’s footprint overall, 2014 was a turning point in the history of the league.
I think at this point in time, MLS2 teams, as they became commonly known, tend to be easier opponents in general and have teams that look like, well, reserve teams.
There are exceptions: LA Galaxy II made the USL Pro final one year, and the MLS2 teams of Real Salt Lake, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City have matched or surpassed that. But by and large, the MLS2 teams play younger players than the independently-owned teams, many of them don’t care much about performance in the league and focus on the development aspect of their teams. The doormats in the league nearly always tend to be MLS2 teams, even if a few of them are competitive each year.
But in 2014, we didn’t know how it was going to shake out. I think there was real concern that the opposite scenario would play out: The MLS2 teams would have deeper pockets, they would be able to put first-team players on their gameday rosters and whoop the independent clubs that didn’t have the resources, the player pool or the path to the big leagues their counterparts did. Could independent clubs keep up with the MLS2 teams?
In this way, I think the Miracle at Bonney was a snapshot turning point for the history of the league. If LA Galaxy II had won and advanced, would they have won the league title? Quite possibly. Would the standard operating procedure among MLS2 teams have prioritized development only or would the pendulum have swung the other way, at trying to dominate in the lower league, too? I think there still would have been “doormat” MLS2 teams each year, but I really think there would be more MLS2 teams trying to win titles if LA had done it their first season.
And while the equalizer for a Sacramento or a Cincinnati was the truly incredible turnout for games in USL, without the independent team getting the upper hand in that game, other independent clubs may have been reluctant to get into an arms race with the MLS2 teams that looked like they could dominate. You could even speculate that expansion may not have been as extensive in USL — surely there would have been more teams, but perhaps not the wildfire nature since 2014.
I don’t want to overstate things and say the outcome of the 2014 semifinal between Sacramento Republic and LA Galaxy II determined the entire course of history (in the USL) from there on out, but I think there’s a compelling case to be made that this dramatic outcome helped tip the balance in the league. MLS2 and independent teams co-exist today, compete together, but to this point the independent teams generally seem to be more competitive and successful in the main than their MLS2 counterparts. And in that way, this game may have been a small but significant turning point.
What do you think? Do you agree with my arguments? Let’s chat in the comments below!