Christos FC don’t train very often. These amateurs, with their headquarters and Hall of Fame in a discount liquor store on the outskirts of Baltimore, hardly ever have the same starting-XI two weeks running. So it should be an easy win for day-in-day-out pros, the Richmond Kickers, when the two meet in this week’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Second Round, right? Well, not exactly.
Reigning Amateur Open Cup and National Cup champions, most of Christos FC’s squad – close to 40-deep – have played together for more than a decade. And in target-man Peter Caringi III, the Open Cup debutants have a weapon built for scoring goals. “People will think we’re underdogs in this game, but we don’t think that way. We never do,” said the 24-year-old striker who scored the only Open Cup hat-trick so far last week against National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) outfit Fredericksburg FC.
This isn’t your average Sunday-morning team. They’re no beer-league for-funners or pub-crawlers making up the numbers and playing for giggles. “We’ve lost maybe one of our last 90 games,” said Caringi, who spearheads the attack for Christos FC, founded by Greek immigrants 20 years ago and taking their first team to new heights in recent seasons. “There’s no other bunch of guys I’d rather go to battle with,” Caringi said, a firmness in his voice that speaks to something deeper, rare even, in this soccer team.
Peter Caringi (left) with his Christos FC teammates holding the USASA Region 1 championship trophy.
Best friends from way back
The depth of the team’s connection quickly becomes clear. “I’ve been playing with a lot of these guys since we were little kids,” said Caringi, just beginning his professional life as assistant coach at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), the Division-One school where he starred between 2010 and 2013. “Some of us have played together for almost 15 years. We know each other so well. Our best friends are in this team.”
Many of Christos’ current crop earned national youth titles together as kids before going their separate ways, to local and far-flung colleges, to study and compete. “But about two years ago a lot of those guys started filtering back into the area,” Caringi said, a swelling pride in his native Baltimore obvious in the way he stresses the words born and raised.
Aside from stand-out careers at top collegiate programs like UMBC, William and Mary, and University of Maryland, some went even farther, spending a few seasons on the edges of the professional game. Goalkeeper Phil Saunders played for a time in Iceland, while a handful more lined-up in the United Soccer League (USL) and Major Arena Soccer League (MASL). Some even had interest from MLS, like Caringi himself who was drafted by the Montreal Impact but never managed to crack the roster.
It was about two years ago when many of the current Christos squad faced up to the quiet moment that comes, eventually and inevitably, for every player. How much of your life do you commit to soccer? For most who aren’t being paid good money to play, the answer is usually the same: Sundays.
Sunday morning part-timers
“I just figured we’d win a few men’s league titles and have some fun playing,” added Caringi about his decision to join up with Christos a few years out from a short stint with PDL Pro side Oklahoma City Energy. “But here we are winning national titles and getting ready to take on a full professional team in the Open Cup this week!”
The word amateur drips with assumptions. The fact that Christos don’t have a regular training schedule might even have fans of the Richmond Kickers writing them off as easy-beats. But there’s more to the story than that. “A lot of us, like myself, came back here to start coaching careers, so our lives are still out on the training ground and we’re very much in the game day-to-day,” said Caringi, who now works for his father and former college coach Pete Caringi Jr. “So, in a way, some of us train all the time.”
Caringi won’t bluff you about Christos’ plan to play the possession game, or keep the ball on the ground and short-pass teams to death. That’s not his style, and it’s not the Christos way either. “It’s my job to score goals,” he said. “ I don’t care how they come as long as they do. We’re fast on the wings and have midfielders who can hold the ball really well,” he said. “But when we get into trouble, we can send it up to me and I can hold the ball up. It works.”
It worked in their first Open Cup game, when Caringi was a constant threat in the Fredericksburg penalty area. He scored the 52nd hat-trick in the Open Cup’s 104-year history in that 3-0 win. But like anyone who knows a thing or two about winning, he’s not basking in the glory of it. He’s been here before and won’t get carried away. “A hat-trick is always a good thing for a striker, whether you’re playing with your pals or in the Open Cup,” said 2017 edition's top-scorer, unwilling to belabor the point.
Caringi in action for Christos FC.
Caringi makes it look easy
While Caringi’s humble about his exploits on the pitch, his teammates don’t mind talking him up. “He’ll find a way to get the ball in the box,” said Daniel Baxter, a teammate from high school to today, who can play wide or in the middle depending on what’s asked of him. “We’re all a little frustrated by Pete because he might disappear for a while, but then he’ll turn up and score, and then score again. It’s just what he does. We all wish we could do it like he does.”
And while Christos is as good as any men’s league team could ever hope to be, they still have to deal with mundane men’s league problems. “Some guys work nights and others work days and evenings. Some weekends,” said Baxter, an X-Ray technologist who admits to seeing some “crazy stuff” working in the shock trauma center at University of Maryland and Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital. “But the chemistry is there, and the core, and that chemistry is something that doesn’t just come overnight.”
There are still a few Christos players shifting the moving parts of their lives around to be available for the trip to Richmond on Wednesday. But Caringi and Baxter don’t sound too worried. “Whoever we bring, they’ll be fighters, and we’re going to surprise their fans with how we play,” said Baxter, in his slow way and thick Baltimore accent. Caringi’s in the same kind of mood: “You can’t buy the kind of chemistry we have. We trust each other and we go way back. Not every team can say that.”