The players were banged up. They’d been on a long stretch without a break so Michigan Bucks coach Demir Muftari decided to give his boys a morning off. “They needed it,” he told ussoccer.com. But fast-forward to 9 a.m. that next day and there they all were at the pitch lacing up. “Every single one of them,” said Muftari speaking slowly and admiringly, as he often does, of his young players. “And we’re talking college kids here.”
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It’s a good indication of how things are done with the Michigan Bucks, an amateur team out of Pontiac (not far from Detroit). It’s that kind of commitment and tenacity that’s seen the side, made up of an annually rotating cast of some of the country’s best college players, become one of the top teams in the Premier Development League (PDL) and the most effective and consistent giant-killers in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup history. No amateur team has taken more professional scalps than the Bucks.
The club has pulled off ten upsets in 11 trips to the Open Cup. In 2000 they became the first PDL team to beat a side from MLS when they edged New England Revolution on the road in Foxboro. Then they beat four-time champs Chicago Fire in 2012, the crowning achievement for a club that takes pride in doing things the right way.
“It’s not something we think about day to day. We don’t stand around and think of ourselves as giant-killers,” said England-born captain Tom Owens, in good mood because his beloved Liverpool booked a place in next year’s UEFA Champions League. “We’re here now and what’s happened in the past is no help to us. Nothing we did in our last game is going to help us in our next.”
Another pro scalp
But the Bucks’ last game in the 2017 Open Cup was something special – a 1-0 win over full pros Indy Eleven of the North American Soccer League (NASL). “It was a massive win for us. We combined belief with preparation and execution,” admitted Owens who’s in his fourth year with the club, revered by many in the developmental ranks as nothing shy of the gold standard. He’s 25 now and his hopes of reaching the professional game – the expressed purpose of the PDL – are fading. He’s begun coaching, with Quincy University in Illinois, but he’s not quite ready to make the full leap. “I need to get this desire to play out of my system before I focus just on coaching.”
Coach Muftari slows down when he talks about his players and his club. He’s serious and he knows he’s discussing something special. Something rare. He sounds like a TV dad in the best possible way. His feeling for his players, like his trusted skipper Owens, quickly becomes clear. “I always tell Tom he’s got a bright future in coaching this game, but he gets mad because he still has the passion to play.”
There is very clearly a Bucks way of doing things, and it’s brought the club massive success since its founding in 1995. “Winning in the Open Cup is just part of the culture here,” said Muftari, head coach of a club that’s placed a growing list of players – like current D.C. United defender Kofi Opare and former U.S. National Team stand-out-turned-assistant coach Pat Noonan – in the professional ranks. “A main reason guys come here is because there’s that potential. The Open Cup is a different animal and it’s a huge opportunity for them to play against pros. All these guys here want to be pros. They’re here in their summer, working and sacrificing for it.”
A lot of coaches in the PDL take it for granted that players will sacrifice and grind, go along with whatever plan is laid out for them. Muftari doesn’t. Not at all. He appreciates his players, those who go on to star for MLS clubs and those who bring the Bucks ethic to fields beyond soccer. He respects their effort, their skill and their character. “There’s a handful of guys coming back from last year,” said the coach who saw seven of his players drafted to the pros at the end of last season. “They keep everyone in check and help manage the attitude and intensity of the group. That core of guys, Tom Owens included, pass on the message of the club.”
“The lads are easy to communicate with,” said Owens, dismissing any notion of pressure as captain of a team where there’s much expected and big history to live up to. “You don’t have to motivate them too much because they’re driven.”
Up next for the Bucks is a tough test against St Louis FC of the United Soccer League (USL), another full professional club coached by former U.S. National Team star Preki Radosavljević. It’s bound to be an interesting evening for the men from Missouri who are currently struggling in ninth place of the USL’s Eastern Conference standings. The force of their amateur opposition, and the strangeness of their game-day surroundings, might surprise the 2015 USL expansion franchise.
At home indoors
“It’s not up to us where we play. We’re players so we’ll play on a baseball field or a basketball court,” said Owens when asked about the huge indoor complex, Ultimate Soccer Arenas, the Bucks call home. It looks, feels and sounds like an airplane hanger. “We have a certain comfort level here that’s hard to explain,” added Muftari about the venue. “We train there every day. The stands are close and there’s an energy to it. We love it.”
St. Louis will do well not to underestimate their amateur hosts. “If we played Indy Eleven ten times we’d lose most of those games,” said Owens who admits to a Cup buzz after the win in the previous round. “But these games in the Cup are special. Anything can happen on the day. When you throw into the mix we’re playing against guys who are at the level we want to be at, you end up with more of a chip on your shoulder.”
There’s a sense of anticipation – and expectation – around the Ultimate Soccer Arenas these days. But it’s Muftari’s job to keep his head, to remember the big picture, and make sure things are done the right way. The Bucks way. “History and culture mean a lot here,” he said, slowing down again and thinking precisely about what to say. “We’re not selling these players flimsy promises and false dreams. We’re building something. We have success because we strive to do things the right way.”
Muftari and his staff are doing their jobs right. There’s no doubt about it. It’s clear in the attitude of the players, now just one win away from a game against four-time Open Cup champs Chicago Fire and the possibility of writing their own page in the history books. “Our win over Indy Eleven won’t help us now,” said Owens, following his dreams of a professional career for one more year at least. “Nothing that any Bucks team has done before is going to help us. We want to make our own history and we have a job to do.”