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“It came out of the blue,” said Greg Zuboff, captain of the team from the fifth division of American soccer. “We had a week’s notice. Roma were in town and one of their friendlies fell through, so just like that we’re on our way to play Roma in Boston.”
It wasn’t just Omens who took to the pitch that day. “We had 15 guys from our team who wanted to play,” said Zuboff, one of five GPS players selected. The rest came from other top teams in the Bay State Soccer League. It’s the region’s top league and one that GPS has dominated for the last two years, and many more before that when they were known as MPS. They won 16 of their 18 games last season and never lost, claiming their second straight title with four games to spare.
“Every now and then you come up against an ex-pro, so that’s not new,” said top-scorer Keith Caldwell about the BSSL, where former MLS vets and internationals Avery John and Khano Smith have pulled on jerseys. “But this was totally different. These were international stars in their prime and it’s something none of us will ever forget.”
“I saw the difference in the midfield,” said Zuboff, a Boston transplant from Connecticut. “At our level when a pass comes in high and hard, the guy receiving it might get into trouble and cough it up. But the Roma players all handled the ball so cleanly. That composure and control was pretty amazing to see.”
Totti magic up close
Caldwell starred for Brown University and was drafted by the Colorado Rapids in 2006, but he can’t help but chuckle a little when he recalls a moment few have ever seen at such close vantage. “Totti did something I’ve never seen before,” said the striker from Braintree, MA. “He received a 30-yard ball from the back and, facing his own goal, he tapped it behind him blindly and into the path of a striker. It was so casual and so precise and it stuck with me. I saw that other level I’ve never seen before, or at least up that close.”
The game ended 3-0. It was no slaughter. “Roma had about 80 percent of possession, but we had a few chances,” said Caldwell, who – with a little luck and the wind at his back – could meet his younger brother Scott, a midfielder for the New England Revolution, in this year’s Open Cup “They were better than us. But we didn’t get hammered.”
“[Francesco] Totti did something I’ve never seen before,” - GPS Omens striker Keith Caldwell
After the final whistle in the dying light of that August day, the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Eden Dzeko, and Stephan Kareem el-Shaarawy – some of the leading lights of the game’s biggest stages – stuck around for hand-shakes. They posed for photos with their opponents on the day who play only because they still love to. The Roma players treated their amateur hosts with the dignity and respect their performance demanded. Well, most of them anyway. “Totti disappeared right after the final whistle,” said Zuboff with a good-spirited laugh. “But they were all class acts. Before, during, and after the game – they treated us like pros.”
But GPS Omens are not pros. They are an amateur side full of extremely talented players that dominate a local league. They’ve won all three of their games so far this season, scoring 20 and conceding just once. Those who might dismiss this as the byproduct of playing in a so-called Beer League, have clearly never seen a game between GPS Omens and Kendall Wanderers out on Blue Hills Avenue in Mattapan, or on the turf at Danehy Park. They may not be pros, but they are the big fish in their pond. When the name GPS Omens gets mentioned, eyeballs might roll or heads shake. It’s the kind of lighthearted contempt reserved for teams who dominate. It’s an envy born of respect.
Among the Omens squad are graduates of elite local college programs like Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown and Williams. It’s a white-collar crowd, and their scouting network in the Boston area is bull-strong. Their supply-line seems endless and talent is refreshed in the squad every few seasons without a loss of continuity.
Their training schedule is leisurely. Most of the team work long hours in Boston’s buttoned-up professional world: in finance and consulting, in education and coaching. Their one training session a week isn’t mandatory, or terribly grueling. “We just put down some cones on the turf and carve out a little space to play,” said Zuboff of the small-sided games that constitute an entire week’s preparations.
“We don’t do drills or anything like that. We expect the guys to handle their fitness on their own, so when we get together we play small-sided,” added Zuboff, speaking to the team’s core strength. “We have a lot of guys who like to have the ball at their feet and can do good things with it.”
They begin their Open Cup campaign on May 10 against Portland Phoenix, a Premier Development League (PDL) outfit up the Maine Turnpike. “It’s our goal to make a run into those later rounds of the Cup, and with the season we had last year, this might just be our time,” said Caldwell, 33, one of the older players in the squad.
GPS Omens have never moved past the first round of the Open Cup. But with a wealth of recent successes and the experience of lining up against AS Roma’s glamor boys, they won’t be overawed. “They’re soccer players and so are we,” said Caldwell referring to that memorable game with the Romans. But he may well be talking about a hoped-for long run in the Cup too. “It’s a game; like any other game. You just go out there and play it.”