The beauty of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup comes from the unexpected. It’s the only tournament of its kind in professional American sports where the Davids get to slay the Goliaths. In the city of underdogs, rooting for Sacramento Republic will be easy, but if you had prior intentions of watching the USL side knock off another MLS team, you have another reason.
Former Penn captain and Ivy league Player of the Year Duke Lacroix, a mainstay on the left side for the past two seasons in Sacramento, will attempt to be the next Philly area soccer player to make history Wednesday night.
Sacramento hopes to become the first non-MLS team in the modern era to raise the trophy since the Rochester Rhinos won it all in 1999. Among local players, Jeff Larentowicz was the last Open Cup winner when Atlanta United beat Minnesota United 2-1 in 2019, the last time the tournament was completed. Lancaster’s Andrew Wenger won it in 2018 when the Houston Dynamo beat the Philadelphia Union 3-0, and Delran’s Peter Vermes won the title in 2017 when Kansas City Wizards beat the New York Red Bulls 2-1, his second title in three years as head coach. Kansas City also beat the Union on penalties in the 2015 final at Subaru Park.
Lacroix, who hails from New Egypt, NJ, plans to savor the moment. “This is really special,” he said in an interview with Brotherly Game last week. “There’s always Cinderella stories, you know, teams from low divisions below us and then us kind of aiming up in the way that we have been able to do the last couple games and in the finals as well. So it’s just a unique opportunity for players to explore the different landscape that US Soccer has to offer.”
In two seasons in Sacramento, Lacroix has 7 assists in 54 league appearances. His lone league goal this year came in the 86th minute to beat FC Tulsa 2-1 in March.
Last season, he led the team appearances (31) and minutes played (2,583), adding a goal and 4 assists and serving as the team’s captain for 12 games.
“There’s a lot of people talking about it,” Lacroix said when asked about staying in the present with the increased attention, “but if we look too far ahead then we stumble on what’s in front of us, and preparing for the things in front of us prepares us for that moment in the future.”
Over the weekend, Sacramento Republic lost to Eastern Conference leaders Louisville City 3-1 on the road, and the team went straight to Orlando to prepare for the final.
“It’s about taking all the little things that we’ve done to get to this point, to continue to do them in the present. And then when the present comes of the Open Cup game to apply those same principles.”
Sacramento’s cup run began in the second round against Portland Timbers U23. Lacroix scored two goals to lead the Lions to a 6-0 victory. He started the next two games, a 2-1 win over Central Valley Fuego FC (USL-1) in the third round and a 2-0 win over Phoenix Rising (USL-Pro) in the fourth round. In the Round of 16, the underdog dream started to become a reality.
Lacroix started again as Sacramento beat the San Jose Earthquakes 2-0, then came off the bench in the 2-1 win over LA Galaxy in the quarterfinals. Sacramento reached the finals after a dramatic shootout win over Kansas City, becoming just the second team outside of MLS to play in the title game since the Charleston Battery lost 2-1 to D.C. United in 2008.
“To be in the finals right now, you have opportunity to get silverware, which is always every professional athletes’ aspiration. So I’m grateful and blessed that we have this opportunity, and a culmination of a lot of hard work that a lot of people have put in to get this moment. So I’m really happy and excited by that.”
Lacroix made his professional debut in 2016 with Indy Eleven in the NASL, appearing in a 2-0 loss to Louisville City in the Open Cup. He went on to play in 34 games over two seasons, and his goal against the Tampa Bay Rowdies earned NASL Goal of the Year.
In 2017, Lacroix played for Orange County in the USL, but after scoring a brace in the season opener, an injury ruled him out of action for much of the season.
.@MDukeLacroix strikes again! @orangecountysc takes a 2-0 lead at the half. pic.twitter.com/9FpAo2eM8s— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) March 26, 2017
Lacroix then moved to the now defunct Reno 1868 in 2018, compiling 4 goals and 11 assists as a defender in 62 appearances over two seasons. He earned four of his seven career USL Team of the Week honors during the 2019 season. After spending 2020 with Charlotte Independence, Lacroix moved back to California, but while some may view the toll of the journey, the traveling, the and change as difficult, Lacroix only sees the positives.
“My journey has taken me further and further west than where I started,” he said. “And I kind of look at it as an opportunity. If you look at it as you’re kind of moving away from home then that might put a negative spin on it. I like to think about it as moving towards something new and exciting. And once it feels like where you’re kind of giving something up rather than pursuing something to gain. I think then the perspective kind of shifts a little bit, and I always feel like every single season, every single year, that I’ve had the opportunity to gain a new life experience, to gain a new perspective to compete on a different platform in front of new fans, new faces with new teammates.”
When asked how he stays motivated, his answer was simple. “I think a re-occurring theme of people I’ve talked to and for myself as well, is being self-reflective. The desire to compete, the intrinsic motivation where regardless of the situation, regardless of where you’re at, what level you’re playing at, what’s available, what resources are there for you, at a certain point there has to be a desire to compete at the very foundation of it as some way, shape, or form.”
Lacroix said he harnessed that desire to compete and play at a higher level from his youth soccer days in New Jersey. Drawn towards Thierry Henry and Arsenal during The Invincibles season coincided with his growing interest in the game. A young Lacroix channeled his passion with the help of three coaches. “Rob Johnson, the first African-American coach I saw other than my dad, who helped with another coach of mine Don Green, who helped me go to my first competitive team that was coached by Tab Ramos.”
Playing for several U.S. youth national teams before finishing his high school career at Lawrenceville Prep, Lacroix became a star at Penn, becoming the first player in school history to win Ivy league Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year. He ranks third all-time at Penn in appearances with 68 and amassed the fifth-highest points total and the most by any player since 1990. But Lacroix is so focused on the present that the past rarely enters his psyche.
“When I’m talking to people, I’m like oh yeah, that is pretty cool that I was able to do that, was able to accomplish that, achieve that at the collegiate level,” he said. “but I think as I’ve grown as a professional, analogously it’s kind of like having a college resume, where you know, your college experience kind of only gets you so far and then eventually, as you get years and years removed from that college experience, it’s no longer applicable on your resume. So in the professional soccer world, it doesn’t really come up ever. Like from day to day, it’s more about, what have you done for me lately?”
Lately, Lacroix has become more than a role model but an advocate for promoting the game at all levels. He touched on the growth of the game’s diversity at the local level and nationwide.
“It’s a combination of both where it’s progressing slowly, but it’s also a nationwide thing as well in the sense that soccer is an international game. You look at the international stage, the diversity is there and encompasses the game worldwide, but then in the US, there weren’t as many teams, there wasn’t as much access to opportunities that there are now where even the international game has sort of creeped into U.S. Soccer structure and the grassroots development.”
Lacroix has pointed to the increased exposure of the game in media, advertisements, and the improved opportunities, especially in areas where the game might not have been as popular before, as contributing factors to the game’s rise in diversity.
“It’s really exciting for U.S. Soccer going forward that a lot of different faces and for Philly soccer especially that you know there are people out there who look and feel and experience the world differently who also enjoy the same game you do.”
Giving back as been a theme throughout Lacroix’s professional career, from attending after school programs at the local Natomas Unified School District to launching the opening of four futsal courts at Del Paso heights Sports Complex.
And not only have Lacroix’s efforts helped improve the game locally, but his contributions have gone outside the lines as well. In February 2022, Lacroix teamed up with the USL and Black Players Alliance in designing a “Dream in Color” scarf to promote diversity through the game.
This past summer, Lacroix was one of several USL players to team up with designers in creating bootbags for the Juneteenth celebration. Half of the proceeds went to supporting the soccer program at Fisk University, a Historically Black College and University, and the rest went to local charities.
“It’s extremely important,” Lacroix said of his efforts off the field. “I think it really came to fruition for me when I hurt my knee in 2017. I kind of had this mental wrestling match in terms of my identity beyond being a soccer player and sort of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be, and you know speaking to the accolades that I was able to accomplish, personally up to that point in 2017. I was really happy that I was able to have and hold those but making an impact beyond the field was something I felt at the time was missing from what I was doing. If I just stopped playing then it’s like, I had these accolades, which are cool, but what have I done off the field to grow the game, to affect change in a positive way off the field? Because as you know, that’s what society is like, soccer doesn’t last forever.”
Soccer doesn’t last forever, but there’s no doubt the glory of Sacramento Republic winning the Open Cup will last a long time. And for Philly fans, the game will be an opportunity to watch a local talent, a star at the college level, an accomplished professional, a charitable individual with a strong head on his shoulders who uses his love for the game to give, to promote, and to help others, who defines the positive qualities we strive for not only on the soccer field but in life.
How could you not root for Duke Lacroix?
Sacramento Republic will meet Orlando City SC Wednesday night at Exploria Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:00 EST on ESPN+. Tune in for a chance to see another Philly soccer legend make history.