Sometimes in life, if you’re lucky, you find yourself in the middle of something great. Perched on a barstool in a liquor store surrounded by two generations of Christos FC players, and sharing, if only briefly, in their fairytale 2017 U.S. Open Cup run feels like one of those moments. It’s as special as it is rare.
“It’s no accident we have the word Brothers printed under the crest on our shirts,” said Jody Haislip, 44, who founded the club on the outskirts of Baltimore in 1997 with his older brother James. “The guys all love each other. They’d do anything for each other.”
Haislip has a hard time not breaking down in tears when he talks about the early days, those first tentative steps that led the way to here, now and a date with D.C. United in the Fourth Round of the Open Cup. A lot of people from a lot of clubs will tell you that they’re just like a family. That it’s more than a club. But here, in the back corner of Christos Discount Liquor Store in Ferndale, Maryland, you get the sense it’s not just talk.
When the bell on the door rang, and the Christos players came through with their shirts still wet from a leisurely kick-around at a local high school, a voice shouted: “beers on the house” from the register. It was all smiles and open arms. “When I watch what these young guys are doing I feel like I’m still out there,” said Haislip fighting through the emotions. “Like I’m out there on the field and playing along with them.”
Christos Young & Old
Haislip still pulls on a Christos shirt, so does head coach Larry Sancomb and a bunch of the other founding members gathered around the bar at the liquor store, family-owned for two generations, that sponsors the club and has since its birth. Christos’ Over-30s team, just like the first team, have been crowned amateur national champions. In all, the club has won six national titles. That’s a lot of time in the back of a van, going on trips and getting into trouble. A lot of time besting opponents and building chemistry. They compare their scars at the bar and make jokes at each other’s expense. They go on and on about the old days. Who’s the craziest guy at the club and that time so-and-so had one too many and played through an epic hangover.
A lot of it sounds like fish tales. But it’s all true, more or less, like that time the first team showed up in Buffalo, NY for a USASA Regional semifinal with nine men and won. “Nine’s all we need,” defender Collin Fisher was rumored to shout before the game kicked off against Lansdowne Bhoys, clapping his hands. Believing it because it was true. His teammates around the bar swear to it, shaking their heads. Every men’s league teams has a guy like that. A madman who can back it up.
Christos FC play hard. They work hard on the field. They tackle hard and love to compete. Heads don’t drop when someone makes a dud pass across the middle. The nearest guy races back to help when something goes wrong. They chase lost causes and throw themselves into danger. Daniel Baxter, the wide man who works the night shift as an x-ray tech at a local hospital, never, ever seems to stop running.
A Family Affair
This is family. Younger Brothers and Older Brothers. They play because they love it. It’s no job. They’ve all got those, but they do this because it’s worth doing. They give each other a hard time. They butt heads and bust chops, but they’re all a part of the same thing. They’re all in it together. Christos ‘till I die is the mantra on their t-shirts. “We don’t ever really feel like underdogs,” said 28-year-old defender Chris Wilson, an IT specialist at alma mater Johns Hopkins and the longest-tenured player still in the first team. He was influential in the Second Round win over full pros Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer League. “We’re all doing the same thing, working and playing soccer for fun. But we’re at the point now where it’s something more.”
D.C. United isn’t Richmond Kickers. MLS isn’t USL. Cody Albrecht knows it first-hand. He grew up halfway between D.C. and Baltimore and spent time in the D.C. United Academy. “Baltimore teams don’t rattle,” said the stocky central midfielder who captained collegiate power University of Maryland and is currently in his first year with Christos. “You learn that early on around here. Playing teams from Baltimore is always tough; I don’t care who you are. We’ll just go out and do what we do and play with that Baltimore toughness and you never know.”
You never do know. Not in the Open Cup. The game on Tuesday at the Maryland SoccerPlex needs a winner. And Christos FC have a swagger, an attitude and a belief as strong as it is justified. They’ve yet to conceded in their three Open Cup games and they’ve scored five times. There’s no law that says they can’t win.
“Chemistry is a huge part of what we do here,” said Michael Scott, a midfielder or defender depending on what’s needed and who’s around week to week. Born in Scotland, his accent hovers somewhere between the Highlands and Highlandtown.
Pete Caringi III has three goals for Christos so far in the Cup. He doesn’t come to the liquor store too often. He has his own way and a budding career that keeps him busy. He’s an assistant coach at his alma mater, UMBC, where he and Scott were teammates in 2014 when the Retrievers went to the College Cup Final Four. “I’ve played with some of these guys since I was ten years old,” said Caringi, an all-American with an astonishing vertical leap who makes a point of using the III in his name to distinguish himself from his dad, Pete Caringi Jr., who was his coach in college and is now his boss. Dad also happens to be a legend of Baltimore soccer, playing for the Washington Diplomats in the old NASL of the 1970s and coaching at UMBC for the last quarter-century.
More Than a Club, More Than a Job
“We grew up together and there’s more of a family sense. It’s not a job for us, we’re playing with guys we want to fight with, guys who are your best friends,” said Caringi earlier in the day from his desk, a makeshift office in a small hallway between his dad and the more senior staff. “Guys you’ve known your whole life.”
It’s not just the novelty of a chance to play one of the top teams in the land that’s inspiring Christos. It’s the pride of representing Baltimore, an American city that commands a huge devotion among those who call it and its outskirts home. “I’ve played in a lot of places,” said Caringi, who had one professional season with OKC Energy in the USL. “But there’s just something different about wearing the name Baltimore across your shirt. It makes me play better. It’s not the same with some other name on there. You don’t feel the same. At least I don’t.
If Christos FC is a family, it’s also a home. You can’t have one without the other. Home is there in the liquor store with all their trophies going back to 1997, stacked along the shelves and on top of the chest where patrons buy bags of ice for picnics. There are so many trophies they obscure a picture of the Christos family patriarch who came over from Greece in the black-and-white days to find a better life for his family. Home is in the memories of a first six-pack, maybe even a few weeks before you turned 21, from the fridge in the back. Home is Christos FC and Christos Discount Liquors and mom and dad and Anne Arundel County and your high school. It’s your youth, and all the guys you grew up with playing the game you loved the best. It’s looking out for each other and missing the ones you lost along the way.
Home Sweet Home
“Guys get homesick when they leave Baltimore,” said Haislip who’s been there from the beginning. He saw it all happen and he works long hours, after his own workday ends, because he couldn’t live with himself if the club went down the tubes. “This club is a home for them: a family, a brotherhood; whatever you want to call it. I feel like I live through these young guys and what they’re doing. It’s like a dream come true what’s happening right now and this game with D.C. United.”
The evening turns to night and breaks up. It happens slowly the same way the sun sets through the front glass. A few of the guys have an Over-30s game to get to. Others have kids’ softball games to coach and the ebbs and flows of life that drag you around by the nose. Some have work and some are just tired. One of us has a flight to catch, back to the real world. Bro hugs and fist bumps signal farewells; arrangements are made for the big day against D.C. United. Someone’s reserving a few busses and a block of hotel rooms.
The thing about special moments is that they end. They have to. Win or lose on Tuesday night, Christos FC will keep playing because they love it. These players will grow older, raise families, and join up with the Over-30s and, God forbid, the Over-40s if things get dire. There’s even talk about a Christos FC Youth team in the works, young kids, maybe another generation of Brothers in the making. Let’s all hope so, and raise a glass to it.