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(Kieran Roberts celebrates the decisive penalty against Christos in the First Round. Photo Dave Musante)
“The coach put the pressure on us at the half,” said Aaron Molloy, a midfielder out of Penn State and originally from Dublin, Ireland. The 21-year-old Returner is back for a third straight season with Reading, and played a huge role in the historic Open Cup win over full pros New York Cosmos (then of NASL) in last year’s Open Cup. “The coach said we had a big role to play and it was up to us, the guys who know the Reading Way, to take control in the second-half.”The new boys rallied to the Returners’ battle cry. It’s no surprise, really, as Reading recruit among the best talent in the college game – both American and foreign-born. Anyone at the club, even for one summer, is bound-and-determined to go pro. The club’s record for sending their players up the ladder speaks for itself. Mo Adams was last year’s first pick in the MLS SuperDraft and Matt Hedges (of FC Dallas), John McCarthy and CJ Sapong (both of Philadelphia Union) and Luke Mulholland of Real Salt Lake are all Reading alumni. The 2018 Open Cup is the club’s tenth straight qualification and Reading have won their opening game in the last seven installments of the country’s oldest soccer tournament.
Returners & First Timers
“The Returners know what’s expected of them and in a game like our Open Cup opener you need that,” said McCann, the former Reading player who made a move this year from assistant to head coach. “They know what the club is all about and they know how we want to play.”
The vast Majority of Reading’s players are between the ages of 17 and 20 and turnover from year-to-year is significant. It makes their consistent successes in League and Open Cup play all the more remarkable. But one thing the side have working in their favor is their setting. Reading, according to the lads, might not be the most exciting place for a college kid on break to get into trouble and cut loose. It doesn’t have the distractions of say, a New York City…not even a Pittsburgh.
(Reading have qualified for 12 Open Cups and the last 10 in a row. Photo Dave Musante)
“In Reading?” Malloy chuckled when asked if he and his teammates get up to any of the kind of antics expected of college kids on break. “Really there’s not much to do here and it’s a good thing because it gives you a real pro mind-set. You can go to the gym, the training pitch or the running track. Maybe if there was a bustling downtown, the guys would get distracted. But there’s, literally, nothing within walking distance. We focus on our football.”There’s the feeling of a boot camp on the campus of Alvernia University, where the players train and play and work out and live their lives – sleeping in the school’s dormitories and eating in its cafeteria. The players come together in their shared desire to succeed – as a team and as individuals – and they gain a rare camaraderie as they are forced to entertain themselves in a setting devoid of traditional amusements.
A World Cup to Break the Routine
There are 12 different nationalities in the team. It’s a mixed bag and that’s a big part of the team’s success through the years, according to players and coaches. “In the three years I’ve been here I’ve learned something new from everyone I’ve played with – what they do in their pre-game rituals. You get to know what’s important to them. We become like family here,” said Molloy, who watched several of his teammates from last year’s Reading side move up to the professional ranks. Thibault Chretian of Laval, France – a first-year player still shy with his English but urged on by his mates – agreed: “We have players from all over the world and we come together and learn from each other and the places we came from.”
The boys are looking forward to a bonus attraction this summer on the sleepy campus in rural Pennsylvania: The World Cup is on and they all seem to have a stake in it, or at least a favorite to back. “We’re all looking forward to cheering our own teams on,” said Molloy, before adding with a laugh: “But England don’t have a chance.” it’s a dig aimed at his English mate Roberts – the kind of ribbing that comes naturally in this ad-hoc soccer family.
(Christos ran out of ideas against a formidable Reading that grew into their First Round game. Photo Dave Musante)
When you commit to a summer with Reading United, a club founded in 1996, you’re on the bottom rung of a three-tiered system designed to mold talented youngsters into fully formed professionals. The club’s affiliated with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer (the top pro tier in the U.S.) and Bethlehem Steel of the United Soccer League (the second pro division). All of the players in the Reading side want to be up where the Union and Steel men are. And what you hear around the campus most of all is talk of The System and The Reading Way. The players all know it. It’s drilled into them from their first day, and no one speaks of it lightly. No one rolls their eyes and then goes off and does it their own way. No chance of that.“We are part of a system and we’re expected to play in a certain way and we all have to do our part in that,” said talented midfielder Lamine Conte, born in Guinea, raised in Philly and playing his college ball at University of Mobile in Alabama. All the Reading players are rated after every training session and those ratings are made available to the coaching staff of Bethlehem Steel and Philadelphia Union too. Based on those ratings, players are called in to train with the top two teams on the ladder – or they’re not. It’s a simple system and everyone, from top to bottom, is accountable to it.
The Reading Way or the Highway
Coach McCann is in the best position to put into words just what The Reading Way is all about. “It’s ingrained in our training really,” said the coach, born in Ireland but steeped in the traditions of Reading United. “Every session is intense. Everyone’s always fighting for a spot in the squad. It’s about bringing intensity and attention to everything you do – about always bringing your best – being the best you can be.”
(Reading recruit some of the best local and international talent from the college game. Photo Dave Musante)
While they don’t say it exactly, the Open Cup is a chance, every year, for these talented and ambitious players to go and compete. Straight up with the throttle wide open. In the Cup, it’s not about the System or a method, or learning from a loss. It’s not about preparing a player for tomorrow. It’s about winning – today – or going home. “You win and you move on. Lose and you’re out,” said Roberts, who was in camp for only two days before he blasted a winning penalty past Christos’ Phil Saunders. He’s knows about cups, too, having played with Bournemouth in the FA Youth Cups in his native England. “We could find ourselves playing against a big team in front of a huge crowd with a lot of coaches looking at us. Winning is big in the Cup. And the Cup can take you places.”Next up, on Wednesday, May 16, Reading open the doors of their summer home at Alvernia University to the Richmond Kickers, who are off to mixed start in the early stages of their 2018 USL season. But these full professionals, Open Cup champions from 1995, have a score to settle. Last year, in this same Second Round, they lost to Christos 1-0 and provided the spark that sent those lovable amateurs from Maryland through to take on D.C. United in the Fourth Round. “The Cup has its own energy,” insisted Roberts, recognizing the opportunity on offer. “Anything can happen and we want to show people what we can do.”
A few more wins would see Reading to the mountaintop: and a potential date with a team of full-time, top-tier pros from MLS. Maybe even Philadelphia Union, the side they watch closely every day in PA. If they keep about their business in the Reading way, these young men might just get their day.