Every year, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup gives clubs around the country an opportunity to write some soccer history of their own.
Debuting NPSL side FC Tacoma 253 took their first opportunity earlier this year, improbably using the club’s first two competitive matches to qualify for the 2015 edition of the tournament.
Having launched last September, the club which has ties to Italian Serie A side Fiorentina and was founded in part to provide cultural exchanges to Italian players, used locals to dispatch last year’s NPSL Northwest Conference Champion Spartans Futbol Club 2-1 on February 20. The lone win earned Tacoma a one-game playoff with the Southwest Conference qualifying winners San Diego Flash, who were thrashed 6-1 by the NPSL upstarts on March 23 in Tukwila, Washington.
Two wins and we’re already living a dream. It’s really unexpected what we’ve done for the first year and we don’t want the dream to end. - FC Tacoma 253 head coach Filippo Milano
To keep the dream alive, the club will have to beat the Kitsap Pumas, another local, lower league side that have found immense success playing in the Cascadia shadows of four-time U.S. Open Cup winners Seattle Sounders FC.
The Bremerton, Washington-based side was founded in 2009 by Robin Waite, one of the former owners of the Sounders USL First Division team, who took his USL ownership rights to Kitsap County to begin a Premier Development League club on the other side of the Puget Sound.
One of the key differences in how Waite’s club operates in comparison to other PDL clubs is payment. In effect, the Kitsap Pumas are one of the league’s few teams that identifies as professional.
“Being able to pay players was the primary emphasis when we started,” Waite told ussoccer.com. “We went down to the league AGM in Tampa and people asked, “Where the hell is Kitsap?” and it’s still true to some extent. That gave us a leg up to get started.”
Competing with a number of other PDL teams in the area, the extra incentive Kitsap could offer proved beneficial, with the club qualifying for the Open Cup in each of its first four years of existence. In 2011, they reached the tournament’s third round, where they lost a narrow 2-1 decision to eventual champions Seattle Sounders, but went on to win the PDL North American title later that year. Last season, they finished as runners up, falling 1-0 to the Michigan Bucks in the league’s title game.
The PDL's Kitsap Pumas have carved out a winning tradition since being founded in 2009.
The club’s professional stature and history of success should make them favorites in Wednesday’s first round match in Mount Tahoma, Washington, but a lack of competitive games for his team to this point will certainly make the match against FC Tacoma 253 a bigger challenge.
“We haven’t had everybody together until recently,” Waite said. “We’ve had practice games, but at the same time it’s difficult to figure out who is in your starting group if you don’t have everyone together, practicing against each other.”
To prepare, Kitsap has taken part in a couple of small tournaments, scrimmages and most recently fell 1-0 in a friendly with the University of Washington last Saturday.
In contrast, FC Tacoma 253 has played more than half of their inaugural NPSL schedule, albeit going 1-5-1 along the way. Despite the record, Milano pointed to a few key players that he expects to step up in Wednesday’s first round Open Cup match.
Chief among them is captain and attacker Matt Shaxton. A product of Cal-State Bakersfield who now works construction, the Englishman struck in March’s 6-1 qualifying victory over San Diego. Gareth Vaughan, son of former Cardiff City midfielder Nigel Vaughan tallied a goal and assist in the team’s previous qualifying match, while former Venezuela youth international Pedro Millar brings more high-level experience to a match full of pressure.
One of the club’s cultural exchange prospects is 23-year-old left back Marco Dugo, who joined the side in March after most recently playing for Italian Serie D side Atletico San Giuliano.
“For players like Marco, it’s about getting exposure in the States and coming here is really helping them,” said Milano. “Football in the states is growing fast and for European players coming here, it’s a great opportunity to get visibility in Italy. The fact that Marco is doing well, I might say this guy might be able to move up professionally because he’s doing well here.”
Although only in its inaugural season as a club, FC Tacoma 253 has already found success by qualifying for the 2015 U.S. Open Cup.
More exposure for Dugo and FC Tacoma could come with a first round victory as the winners are set to face USL’s Seattle Sounders 2 in the second round the following week. Meanwhile in Kitsap, a shot at Sounders 2 has Waite excited, although it’s not the same side that dispatched his team in the 2011 tournament.
“We played Seattle straight up in 2011 and only lost 2-1,” said Waite. “Ultimately, a benchmark is to get back and play an MLS team in this competition, but a chance against Seattle’s second team would be a very good step for us.”
While the history and methods between the two Cascadia sides are different, FC Tacoma 253 (named after the city’s area code), are honored to come up against a side that’s as well-regarded locally as Kitsap.
“Washington state is the Sounders, but after the Sounders, the Pumas are very well known and have been successful,” Milano said. “In a small community like Bremerton, they’ve been very popular and have done very well on the field. They bring good players, they play good football and it’s a big opportunity to play them. The difference is that they’re professional and we’re not. We want to compete very hard, we know we’re the underdog but everything can happen in 90 minutes.”
“Makes me think that maybe we are actually doing something well,” Waite said of Milano’s comments. It’s always a question: What are we doing? What can we do more of? We always think we’re doing a good job, but we can do so much more. The fact that another club within the soccer community thinks we’re doing a good job is satisfying. We wish them well save for next Wednesday.”
|Head Coach:||Cameron MacDonald||Filippo Milano|
|Affiliation:||USL Premier Development League||National Premier Soccer League|
|Stadium:||Gordon Field||Mount Tahoma Stadium|
|Appearances/Record:||5th appearance: 2009-2012; 2015
|1st appearance: 2015
Ever wondered what a day in the life of a U.S. Women’s National Team player is like? We followed WNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to get an inside look at a day inside WNT training camp, a day that included a weight session and on-field practice.
After a grabbing a quick coffee, the busy day starts early for Harris and the WNT, as they are headed to a weight lifting, the first of two trainings sessions that day.
“The bus ride is always total shenanigans with the people I sit around with. Usually that group is Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger. It’s just fun and good vibes heading into our workout.”
First stop of the day: weightlifting. The WNT usually spends about 90 minutes at the gym, and each player has a specialized workout sheet that is tailored to their needs.
“At lifting I usually spend time on my shoulders and continue to strengthen my back; things I need as goalkeeper. Every day I hit the ground, so I have to make sure my arms are strong. Shoulder strength and shoulder stability are key to make sure my arms are moving well and to prevent any injuries.”
As the team exits the gym, several fans await them by the bus and most players, including Harris, stop to sign a few autographs and pose for a few selfies.
“It’s always just really cool to stop and have a chat with the younger generation after or before training sessions. They’re just awesome.”
“Our van leaves the hotel about 45 minutes before the field players whenever we go to the training. I always have a pre-training and pre-game routine of taping my fingers and hands. It’s a personal preference and to be honest, I’ve always done it. Being at training earlier helps us get some good stretching in, stay focused and it allows us to nail down techniques and work individually and collectively as a small group before we jump in with everyone else.”
For afternoon training, Harris, along with Alyssa Naeher and Jane Campbell, as well as goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel, all pile into a team van and head to training earlier than the field players to spend some time working on their technique and specific areas before the rest of the team arrives.
“Alyssa and I have very good communication and no one has a better view or can critique one another better than each other. If we see something we tell each other and help each other out.”
After training, the players all cool down, chat with each other, hydrate and reflect on the session they just completed.
“We tend to immediately grab our protein shakes. We talk about the day, what we saw on the field, what we can fix, what wasn’t good, what was good and we just overall critique the game in every way we can to become better.”
“Once we’re back in the hotel, it’s all about treatment. Like true professionals, we must take care of our bodies and be responsible to get the treatment we need. Our bodies take a beating from all the impact at training so we take care of it to do it all over again the day after.”