American soccer’s feel-good story comes to the Seattle area tonight, and while a rowdy and packed Starfire Stadium will be behind Sounders FC as usual, sports fans who like an underdog story will have a hard time rooting against Seattle’s U.S. Open Cup opponent, Cal FC.
Sounders FC, which is shooting for an unprecedented fourth straight Open Cup title, is hosting a fourth-round game against the tournament’s most surprising success story. Cal FC, an amateur team based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., plays in the United States Adult Soccer Association. It is a team full of young players chasing professional careers, and one that has surprised nearly everyone by knocking off teams from various professional ranks in its run through the tournament. Last week, Cal FC stunned the Portland Timbers in Portland, earning a 1-0 victory over a Major League Soccer team that was playing most of its starters.
Underdog stories like these are what make England’s F.A. Cup such a huge draw, and are exactly what U.S. Soccer hope can bring more attention to the Open Cup, a tournament that dates back to 1914. And soccer fans are taking notice of Cal FC, particularly after its win in Portland. Fox Soccer Channel, which in recent years has televised the Open Cup final, will be showing tonight’s round-of-16 game live.
Cal FC wouldn’t exist without its coach, former U.S. National Team star Eric Wynalda. What started as a project to unearth hidden talent in Southern California eventually became a team in February, one that set out with the expressed goal of making a run in the Open Cup. And don’t let the amateur title fool you — this isn’t some Saturday beer-league team. Cal FC is a collection of players from all over the globe who have serious credentials, including Colombian brothers Danny and Diego Barrera and El Salvadorian Richard Menjivar, a member of his country’s U-23 team. Cal’s oldest player, 26-year-old Mike Randolph, spent two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and goalkeeper Derby Carillo once had a tryout with Seattle. Armenian Forward Artur Aghasyan, who scored the game-winner against Portland, spent part of a season with Chivas USA.
Almost every player has a day job, which limits their practice time, and as Wynalda openly admits, they’re not they best conditioned group of players. But there is talent on Cal FC’s roster, and maybe something else special going on, which has contributed to a remarkable run that has included road wins against the PDL Kitsap Pumas, the USL Wilmington Hammerheads, and now Portland. And this run is exactly what Wynalda had in mind when he put the team together. Not only is he not shocked that his team got this far, he believes his players can keep this Cinderella story going.
“I don’t think that they’re done,” Wynalda said on a conference call. “I think that they’re going to embrace this opportunity. Obviously Seattle is a fantastic team, it’s not that I’m saying that we’re better, what I’m saying is that, on the day, we could possibly win. Staying true to that, I’m not going to give up on them. The reality is that I always knew they were capable of something great.”
Cal FC’s run is not just a good story, it is, Wynalda hopes, a chance to open people’s eyes to the amount of untapped soccer talent that exists in the country.
“We do have a way of doing things, and sometimes the system overlooks some talent of the kids that do need a second chance,” said Wynalda, who works as an analyst for Fox Soccer. “… I just think the game is always going to be about the players. It’s always about their abilities. I think that if we can as a league — let’s not get lazy. Let’s not make the assumption that just because the kid went to this college or that college or that that means that that’s the best that’s out there. I think we really need to peel back one more layer.”
Peeling back another layer didn’t just help Wynalda build an unlikely Open Cup contender, it also is what allowed him to have a successful professional and international career. And in a nice bit of symmetry, Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid is the man Wynalda credits with launching his career.
“I don’t have a career without Sigi Schmid,” Wynalda said. “I would have never been a soccer player if he didn’t show up on a Saturday morning in Simi Valley in 1986, sit in a lawn chair and watch me play. He walked up to me and my dad after the game was over and he said, ‘Hi I’m Sigi Schmid.’ I said, ‘I know who you are.’ He said … ‘I guess I’ll see you at the state tryouts’ and I said ‘Coach, I didn’t make my district team.’ And he said ‘You just did, I’m the state team coach.’
“And that was the beginning. That was the very beginning of my career.”
That day not only launched Wynalda’s career, it taught him a lesson on trusting his instincts when it came to finding talent. And in a twist Schmid never could have imagined 26 years ago, that day could come back to haunt him tonight.
But regardless of how tonight’s game ends, the real success of Cal FC will be measured months and years from now. Wynalda said six or seven of his players already have offers from professional teams; he’s hoping another game on a big stage will help that number grow.
“If these guys aren’t with professional teams in August, then I didn’t do my job,” Wynalda said. “The idea was to showcase them.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.