Politics, the saying goes, makes for interesting bedfellows. So can the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, as it turns out.
Exhibit A: Meet Sacir Hot, who is the head coach, top administrator and chief bottle washer of FC Motown, who’ll meet the New York Red Bulls Under-23s in the 2018 Open Cup's First Round next Wednesday, May 9.
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And oh yes, lest we forget, Hot also happens to be a scout for the Red Bulls Academy, which stocks the club's U-23 team. Man, doesn’t that just sound like the closest thing to soccer's version of sleeping with the enemy? “It's a unique situation,” Hot admitted recently to ussoccer.com. “It's so tricky.”
Indeed, it is.
“I know all these guys,” Hot continued. “I know all these players and I've worked with all the coaches in the Academy. The U-23s are the top level of the Academy. Then there's the USL [NYRB II] team and the first team [Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls]. It’s been actually more unique because of that."
Mixed Feelings; Muddled Loyalties
Every week the 26-year-old Hot attends meetings with Red Bulls Academy director, David Longwell, U-19 coach Jeff Zaun, his staff and other scouts in the organization.
“I speak to them about some of these college players,” he said. “Some of them we [FC Motown] are looking at as well. They're looking at the same people as us. So, it's like walking on eggshells. There's guys at Fordham [University] we're looking at that they might be looking at, so you've got to turn on the switch sometimes, whether you want to win for Motown or you want to help the Academy win. I try to stay out of it, I try to keep it to as little as possible.”
(Motown in a preseason friendly against New York City FC of Major League Soccer - MLS)
Hot can’t help but laugh at the predicament he finds himself in. But it was far from hilarious when he was at a Red Bulls match, sitting with Academy coaches and Longwell at Red Bull Arena, when he received a text from an FC Motown owner saying that his NPSL side might well play the Red Bulls U-23s in the 2018 Open Cup.
“I was sitting there thinking: ‘Oh, no. This is not good,’” he said with another chuckle. “I kept it to myself because we were having such a good night. I didn't want to get anyone upset. I didn't know how they would react.
“But they've been light about it. We just crack jokes here and there,” Hot continued. “I love seeing the Academy players do well and I love what is going on with the first team. Ben Mines, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis – my job is to get as many of those guys as i can into their system. If we end up beating them [in the Cup], it will be bittersweet, honestly.”
Sacir Hot is caught in the middle with some mixed feelings. “Listen, I want the Red Bulls to win. On the other side I want us to win,” he admitted. “It's sort of a win-win for me. If the Under-23s go through, then I’m supporting them all the way through. And if we go through, hey, we go through. I wish we would have met them further on, but we're in their backyard and it only makes sense we get them in the first game.”
Hot’s Short Stay at the Top
In 2011, Hot became the fourth Homegrown Player signed by the New York Red Bulls. He was released by the club the following year, but he holds no grudges. “I feel everything happens for a reason,” said Hot, a native of New Jersey born of Albanian and Bosnian parents. “I don't regret signing at all and I loved it. Even though it was a short stay, it opened doors for a lot of things in my life. I was 19-years-old, and I was playing with Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez!”
If FC Motown manage to beat the Red Bulls young guns, it will set up a Second Round contest against Penn FC (of the second-division professional United Soccer League - USL) on May 16. “We have the state semifinals, Open Cup, then the Amateur Cup semifinals,” Hot said with a laugh. “The NPSL is starting up. So, the month of May is just madness.”
(Motown pulling a big crowd in NPSL play in 2017)
Since FC Motown players have nine-to-five jobs, training time is at a premium. Usually, it's once a week. Twice is a luxury. “We limit our training to once a week because guys will get burnt out.” Hot said. “They're taking trains into New York City. Then they're getting out of work by seven or eight and then we train at nine o’clock. They’re going all day. It puts us behind the eight ball. Three starters might show up at one of our training sessions – and that's just the amateur game."
Sometimes even just rounding up a full team for a crucial game can be a challenge. Take a recent Amateur Cup contest in Buffalo: “We started off with a full roster and by the day of travel, we ended up without six or seven starters,” Hot said. “We won 2-1. We stole a win up there.”
Tough Test for Motown Part-Timers
There’s no trash-talk between Hot and other members of the Red Bulls staff. He realizes that his Motown men are up against it when they meet the NYRB U-23s at Ranger Stadium on the campus of Drew University. “It’s going to be super tough,” said the coach and scout. “I think it's the hardest draw we could have got. You know they're going to play that Red Bull style of soccer, which could sort of be kryptonite to an amateur team that’s not as fit.”
The Red Bulls play a high-pressure game from the opening kick-off to the final whistle. “In the amateur game, people work nine-to-five, so fitness is not as high as guys who are dedicating their lives to soccer,” Hot said. “I know what their pace is going to be like. I feel like they might have an ace up their sleeve, one or two aces, and they might not tell me.”
Former Red Bull midfielder Dilly Duka, one of two former MLS players FC Motown have in the squad (defender Hunter Freeman is the other), agreed. “It's going to be really tough especially with the Red Bulls management now and how they try to build the first-team style and the youth team style,” said Duka, who had stints with five separate teams in the U.S. top flight. “It's just good exposure for us to compete with them. How we compete, how far we go, that’s just a bonus."
(Founded in 2012, FC Motown have become a team to fear in the Metro NY area)
FC Motown, who play in the Keystone Conference of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), have a combination of experienced players and young hopefuls trying to make their way. “It’s a local team,” said Duka, still just 28 and a New Jersey native. “Some are out of college. Some guys want to take their game to the next level. And some are like me, on the down-turn and looking to be part of an up-and-coming organization.”
Goals & Grinding: The Amateur Way
Maximiliano Garcia drilled in a 30-yard blast for the decider on that late night up in Buffalo during league play. And on the penultimate Saturday before their 2018 Open Cup bow, there were more late-match heroics as Duka rounded out a comeback – from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits – scoring with two minutes to go to secure a 4-3 New Jersey State Cup semifinal win over Jackson. “It was a pretty wild game,” Duka said. “The crowd was 200-250 people. They were definitely entertained. There were a lot of goals. The other team was competitive. They had some talent. It shows you where the amateur league is at, how a couple of organizations take it really serious."
Oh yeah, one thing we forgot to mention, Hot is a project manager for a civil construction company in New Jersey. When he isn't earning a living, his life revolves around the game he loves. That includes working with New York City FC U-15 coach Mehdi Ballouchy's Kickstart Joy for a Syrian refugee camp, Red Bulls scouting and of course, FC Motown. Beyond coaching, Hot does paperwork for signing players, which includes obtaining international clearance for newcomers, ordering hotel rooms and food for out-of-town trips, scheduling fields and games and sometimes working the team's social media.
(A tight-knit team, Motown are looking for MLS veteran Dilly Duka to put their over the top in USOC)
“It’s all catching up to me right now,” he admitted with a smile, knowing the grind on the edges of the game can sound insane to the uninitiated. “It's been tough, but it's rewarding. I love giving these guys a chance to play in a professional stadium.”
Open Cup = Opportunity
For an amateur side like FC Motown, the Open Cup is special. “It's the No. 1 priority on an amateur team's schedule,” Hot said. “That's where Christos [the Baltimore amateurs who reached the Fourth Round of the 2017 Open Cup] made their name last year.”
"It’s really prestigious for us,” Hot went on. “If we do well, we end up playing in an MLS stadium and that’s kind of what any amateur team's goal is. Even though it will be one, two or three games – I don't know how long our run will be – that one game, playing at Red Bull Arena ... it could mean just as much as winning all the other competitions that we play in. It's pretty big for an amateur team.”