In a few months, Revere Beach will be packed with lazy sunbathers and day-trippers. The smell of fried clams and Bianchi’s Pizza will hang thick in the salty air. But in the freezing rain of late March, only the brave and the crazy are out. And Boston City FC, running hard on the wet sand in their socks, are a little bit of both.
“Training on the beach is the best thing you can do for your body,” Palhinha, head coach and president of the two-year NPSL club, told ussoccer.com from under the hood of a puffy coat, shivering away the chill. “It’s even better than Copacabana Beach here, because of the incline in the sand!”
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Even without his hood and the extra layers, it’s unlikely Palhinha would be mobbed by fans on the streets of Greater Boston. But in his native Brazil, where he won two Copa Libertadores titles with Sao Paulo in the early 90s, he’s still a star, and hounded for selfies and signatures. An elegant playmaker and passer of uncommon skill, he is considered by many back home, Paulistas especially, a frail genius who paid the price for his slight build and dreamer’s vision. He earned only 16 caps with the national team in a time when the bulkier frames of Dunga and Mauro Silva held sway in the Seleção.
A preseason conditioning session on an empty Revere Beach, dirty winter snow still piled along Route 1A, is a long way from the adoration of more than 70,000 fans at the Morumbi, who chanted Palhinha’s name during his glory days. But when the 49-year-old coach gets to talking about the U.S. Open Cup, in which Boston City will take part for the first time this year, his eyes light up with a kind of mischief. He might as well be talking about the Copa Libertadores. Hell, even the World Cup.
“For us, this Open Cup is our World Cup,” he said through a translator, greeting his young players, mostly amateurs. “Sure, it’s a dream. But we all need to believe this is possible because dreams come true. And to be clear, I’m not talking about getting a few rounds in, I’m talking about winning the whole tournament,” he adds, gesturing to the gray sky and lapping ocean behind him. “There’s a way to do this and it begins here.”
Little teams & big dreams
It’s been almost two decades since a non-MLS team has won the 103-year-old Open Cup, and longer still since an amateur team hoisted the trophy. But Palhinha’s big dreams are contagious, and so is his focus on keeping the ball and playing attacking soccer. “I want, most of all, for my players to love the ball. To enjoy the game. I tell them all the time – ‘you need to sleep with the ball, wake up with the ball, have lunch with the ball.’”
“My classmates always joke with me because I dribble a soccer ball between buildings on my way to classes,” said striker Kevin Herrera (above, second from left). The 20-year-old hails from Lynn, Massachusetts, a few miles up the Parkway.
Herrera gets about as close to his coach’s mantra of living life with the ball as you can. “My stomach churned when I found out we’re playing in the Open Cup,” said Herrera, who keeps an image of the Dewar Cup, the historic trophy that used to be awarded to the Open Cup winner, as screensaver on his laptop. “I want to see it all the time,” said the compact No. 9, a former member of the New England Revolution Academy. “I want to be reminded of it and to keep focused on it.”
Eyes on the horizon
It’s a rough session for the boys in the sand. Palhinha works them hard. He even drags some of the laggers with a rough hand from the back of the pack, craving preseason pain in exchange for future glory. Each of these players, most of them on amateur contracts, has a dream. Alone on the cold sand with only the gulls for company, these players are chasing a taste of the big-time.
Yao Addow is nearly 30 years old, but he still talks about “taking the next step.” You can’t help but root for him. He scored the first goal in City’s history and was sent off later in the game. He has a welcoming smile and wide eyes.
“I’m from Ghana, so this is a little cold to be at the beach for me,” Addow said with a grin. He’s known for giving away game tickets to fans via social media and when he’s injured or suspended he stands with supporters on the bleachers at Brother Gilbert Field behind Malden Catholic High School. “But this is the work we need to do to be ready for the Open Cup.”
The rain never lets up. The boys peel off their soaked clothes at the end and know the worst is behind them until next Saturday when, with luck, it will feel a little more like spring. The bag of soccer balls Palhinha brought along was never untied. It sits against the cement wall of the boardwalk like a promise. Of a new season. An Open Cup debut. A bigger stage.
On April 12, they learned they would visit the PDL's Western Mass Pioneers in the First Round of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The first game in what they hope will be a dream run in the tournament.
They might be crazy, but Boston City FC will be ready. “We’ve got nothing to lose,” said young Herrera who sat on the wall at the end of the session staring out over that same horizon he’s considered since he was a little boy growing up on the shore. “We believe we can beat the big teams. We’re hungry for this and just talking about it gets me excited.”