The US Open Cup is 99 years old, and stands as the longest-running soccer tournament in the country’s history. But in many ways, the tournament has devolved into an afterthought. With little publicity, and even with pro teams choosing not even to field full-strength teams, the event has struggled to generate much buzz or grab the attention of many soccer fans in the United States.
Cal FC, an amateur team from California created by former US national team star and FOX Soccer analyst Eric Wynalda, has managed to provide a major boost to the tournament, putting together an improbable run through the US Open Cup that has captured the imagination of soccer fans across the country.
The club, which was created in February as a vehicle for Wynalda to showcase the talents of aspiring professionals in the Southern California area, has pulled off a trio of upsets to set up the ultimate ‘David vs. Goliath’ showdown against three-time defending US Open Cup champion Seattle Sounders on Tuesday night. The match will be televised live nationally by FOX Soccer (Tuesday 10:00 p.m. ET).
The Cal FC squad isn’t your typical amateur team. While all the players on the team have day jobs, the roster is filled with players with professional aspirations and the credentials to back it up; from former UC-Santa Barbara standout midfielder Danny Berrera; to recent UCLA star and former US Under-20 national team midfielder Eder Arreola; to former MLS players Artur Aghasyan and Mike Randolph, the Cal FC roster is filled with young players who have struggled to attract the attention of pro scouts.
At least before this improbable US Open Cup run.
Cal FC played in the fifth division of American soccer, the lowest rung on the US Open Cup ladder, but that didn’t stop the team from beating Premier Development League champions Kitsap Pumas in the tournament’s first round, or blowing out USL-Pro side Wilmington Hammerheads in the second round.
The dream run figured to end in Portland last week, when Cal FC was matched up against Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. Portland played a strong lineup, and figured to destroy Cal FC, but they failed to find the net despite dominating play and out-shooting the underdogs by a 37-8 margin. Shot after shot went wide or over, including an 80th-minute penalty kick miss by Scottish star Kris Boyd that could have sealed the victory.
Cal FC pulled off the biggest upset in US Open Cup history when Aghasyan scored a game-winner in extra time to send Cal FC on to a fourth-round date against the defending champion Sounders.
To put Cal FC’s victory over Portland into perspective, consider this: No amateur team had ever scored a goal on an MLS team in US Open Cup play, let alone defeated an MLS team.
The team’s run has attracted attention from fans (Cal FC was trending worldwide on Twitter after the upset of Portland) and from scouts, with Wynalda stating that there are six or seven Cal FC players with standing offers from professional teams.
That may wind up being the ultimate measure of success for Wynalda’s Cal FC project. He started the club in order to help talented young and overlooked players a place to showcase their abilities. “If these guys aren’t with professional teams in August, then I didn’t do my job,” Wynalda said in a media conference call on Monday. “The idea was to find them, showcase them and give them a chance and let them play. Let them show us what they can do.”
Cal FC’s players have done just that, giving soccer fans around the country a Cinderella story to follow, and an underdog to root for. Now Cal FC will try to top the Portland shocker with an even more stunning upset against a Seattle Sounders side that has won three straight US Open Cup titles. The Sounders are one of the strongest teams in MLS, and with the league taking a break in its schedule, Seattle will have the luxury of fielding its strongest possible side in order avoid being the latest victim in a fairy tale run that has nobody outside of the Cal FC team could have imagined when the team was created five months ago.
For Wynalda, the match will also allow him to go up against Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid, the coach he credits with helping him become a professional. Schmid saw qualities in Wynalda that others didn’t, and looked past perceived flaws to help discover one of the best players to ever play for the US national team.
Wynalda is now trying to do something similar with his Cal FC team. He’s hoping to help his players realize their dreams, and potentially help a team that didn’t even exist six months ago make some more history along the way.
The task seems an impossible one, but Cal FC has already proven an ability to pull off some magic.