Among the tens of thousands of tourists and day-trippers that swell Ocean City’s population each summer, you’d hardly notice a couple dozen soccer players here or there. They mix right in with the throngs on the boardwalk. But every year they come, among the best collegiate players from every corner of the country (and the globe), for fun and sand and dramatic sunrises, sure, but mostly to join up with one of the best amateur soccer clubs in America: The Ocean City Nor’easters.
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“For me this is not a business,” said Giancarlo Granese who bought the bankrupted South Jersey Barons in 2004, and moved them to Ocean City from “the middle of nowhere.” He immigrated to New Jersey in the mid-1970s from a small town near Naples, Italy that claims to have the best chestnuts in the world. His passion for soccer, for his adoptive city and his Nor’easters is palpable. “This isn’t a business for me. It’s about the game, about togetherness and family…and most of all it’s about Ocean City.”
(The Nor'easters, in orange, knocked off AFC Ann Arbor of NPSL & Charlotte Independence of USL)
The Nor’easters have existed, in one form or another, for the last 22 years. They now compete in the Premier Development League (PDL) – an all-amateur summer league whose sole aim is to groom top-class college players to take the next step up and into the professional ranks. That’s clearly the case in Ocean City, a club with pedigree and no trouble attracting the cream of the collegiate crop. Veteran of the 2012 squad Tyler Miller, is now lining up with LAFC in Major League Soccer (MLS), and a whole host of Nor’easters alumni dot the Division II USL ranks. But there’s something more than just boot-camp going on here at the Jersey Shore.
The players all live together in a house steps from the ocean. They play their home games in the heart of tourist season at Carey Stadium (aka ‘The Beach House’) – there’s no soccer field closer to the ocean in the whole country. The Nor’easters become, in a very real way, a part of the community that grows from a population of just over 10,000 in the off-season to ten times that in June, July and August when the sun shines brightest. The players get recognized on the two-and-a-half miles of boardwalk and they mingle in the community in a way that most PDL players don’t. “I think we win because of the togetherness we bring as a family and as a city and a club,” said Granese, who runs the Nor’easters as a labor of love with his wife and his son (and General Manager) Giancarlo Jr. “All the kids who come in have host families looking out for them and every summer there’s a huge connection between the people of the town and the players.”
Proven Results on the Pitch
All that has translated into huge success on the field. They’ve won two PDL Eastern Conference titles in the last six years and are annually among the best teams in the league alongside Reading United of Pennsylvania and the Michigan Bucks out of Pontiac. But most of all, the Nor’easters have become known as giant-killers in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup by knocking off a raft of professional teams in recent years.
“I have too many great memories to count from my time with the club, and most of them are around the Open Cup,” said current head coach John Thompson, an Englishman and former Nor’easters captain. A two-time PDL Defender of the Year, he’s been involved – as a player or a coach – in five of the team’s six victories over professional opponents in America’s oldest soccer tournament. He was on the field in 2004 (the team went undefeated in league play that year) in an 8-4 loss to the Richmond Kickers that he calls “the wildest game” he ever played in, and again in 2009 when they met DC United of MLS and held them until the 70th minute. In 2013, they were on their way to a 1-0 win in the 90th minute against Philadelphia Union only to be undone by a 90th-minute equalizer that forced extra-time.
(Carey Stadium aka the Beach House - not a bad spot to spend your soccer summer)
With a pair of wins under their belt in the current competition (a 3-0 win over NPSL’s AFC Ann Arbor in the First Round and a 3-1 win over full USL pros Charlotte Independence last week) the Nor’easters are one win away from meeting MLS opposition for a third time in this year’s Fourth Round.
Along with the ideal locale, the sunny weather and all the fun there is to be had on the Jersey Shore in summertime – the team’s reputation as giant-killers is among the biggest draws of top talent to the Nor’easters. “We all want to be pros ourselves and so these are the games we’ve got to show we’ve got what it takes,” said Sam Jones, an English center-back who had to fly to Michigan for the First Round game against Ann Arbor and fly right out again after the final whistle to get back in time for final exams. Liam Bennett, a busy midfielder from Leeds, also cherishes the opportunities inherent in playing (and beating) pros. “It doesn’t matter who we play, we want to start every game sharp and bright. We want to get right in their face right away, and if we get to play an MLS team, we’ll do it just that same way – we’ll be right up for it.”
Between now and that dream tie with an unnamed MLS side, is a tough test – and their third straight game on the road – against North Carolina FC of the USL. If the Nor’easters are giant-killers, NCFC might be giant-killer-killers as they showed in their 3-0 rout of Lansdowne Bhoys, reigning double national amateur cup champs. The game will be a homecoming of sorts for UNC goalkeeper Alec Smir, Carolina born and raised. His parents and friends will be among the crowd at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. on Tuesday night, but he’s got only one thing on his mind. “We all have aspirations to go pro,” said the net-minder who was a busy young man in the dying moments of the win over Charlotte Independence when the home side poured on the pressure in a desperate attempt to get level. “So we just want to show what we can do to achieve that dream of playing an MLS team – and who knows what can happen then?”
Pros in Training
Coach Thompson has every faith in his players’ own professionalism. They may not be pros yet, but they’re ready for it. They know what it takes. He bristles when asked if it’s a tough job to keep all the boys calm on the big day. After all, they’re scouted hard and hand picked not just for their talent - character and experience both come into play in the year-long hunt by the Ocean City coaching staff. “Every time you go on the field, whether it’s against Charlotte or Manchester United, you’ve got to back yourself as a player,” he said. “You have to believe that you can man up and get it done.”
(Ocean City's Nor'easters have beaten 6 pro teams in their Open Cup history - and played MLS sides twice)
Man up, they may. But these are boys, some of them still in their teens. “That’s why we have our training sessions at 10 a.m. every day,” Thompson said with a chuckle, knowing the lure of the shore and the call of summer fun to youngsters. “We’re professional about what we’re doing and we expect a very high standard from the players. As long as they meet that and do what they’re meant to do, we don’t mind what they get up to. It’s the Jersey Shore after all and it’s a lot of fun here. They need to have their fun too.”
According to the players, spending so much time in close quarters helps their cause every year. “Our house is right on the beach and that’s great,” said Smir, the team’s outstanding goalkeeper. “After those first few days, everyone clicks. And you can see that spilling over out on to the field too.” Jones, when asked if they’ll all be sick of each other by the end of the summer, is quick with a joke and a smile: “Some of us are sick already!”
In all, it does feel like a family – special, imperfect and worth protecting. “It’s nice to see a lot of our boys go on to the pros,” said Granese, who watches a new group come to town every May and speaks of them like a proud papa might. “Just when you lose faith in the young people of the world, these guys show up and they’re smart, sharp, good and quick – and I can’t help think: this country’s in good shape after all.”(Some video footage courtesy of SNJToday)