West Chester United SC, known simply as the Predators, are getting stronger by the day. These hungry amateurs, their craft honed on long road trips in smelly vans, are set to meet full professionals Birmingham Legion FC of the USL Championship in the 2019 Open Cup’s Second Round on May 15.
“I think the sky’s the limit with these guys,” said defender Peter Nolan, formerly of GPS Omens, the Boston amateurs who came seconds from taking 1999 champs the Rochester Rhinos to penalties in the 2017 Open Cup Third Round. “We’ve put together as good a team as any I’ve played with. Hopefully, we can do the business.”
(Peter Nolan - a Finance professional - in action for West Chester. Photo by Matt Ralph at the Brotherly Game)
The man behind West Chester United’s success and dogged determination is one Blaise Santangelo. He drives the vans, washes the jerseys and pours his heart and soul into a club that now plays out of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The Predators regularly rank among the top amateur sides in the country, having won the prestigious Werner Fricker Cup as recently as 2015.
Road Warriors & Part-Timers
“West Chester SC has been around for 40 years, and we went to the Open level seven years ago,” said coach Santangelo, who played at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College and makes his living in the landscaping business. “The great thing about our program is we do have so much talent in our area. The Philadelphia Union [MLS] Academy is right down the road. And playing in the NPSL has helped out a tremendous amount. We’ve won the [United Soccer League of Pennsylvania], one of the oldest amateur leagues in the country, the last three years. We were 53-0-3 before we lost to United German Hungarians.”
The Open Cup is the perfect opportunity for a team like West Chester, last year’s National Amateur Cup runners-up, to test themselves against what else is out there – and what’s higher up the food chain. It’s tantalizing for these part-timers, who range in age from 18-year-old Alex Kades, a high school student bound for the University of Pennsylvania, to Nolan, a 30-year-old Finance professional.
(West Chester's players warm up before the First Round game in Baltimore. Photo by Matt Ralph at the Brotherly Game)
But just to get to this stage, the 2019 Open Cup’s Second Round, was a slog for West Chester. After having won four games on the road just to qualify for the Open Cup, racking up hundreds of highway miles and long hours, the men from West Chester opened the tournament proper against Maryland-based FC Baltimore Christos of the NPSL. And never ones to do it the easy way, the visitors needed extra-time and then a penalty shootout before being able to celebrate a berth in the Second Round
It was a slog from the opening whistle to the final PK, but @WCUSC edged out @fcbaltimore1729 from the spot to move on to the 2nd Round & @bhmlegion.#USOC2019 | 📺 Game Highlights ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/xBZVEWkhCu— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) May 8, 2019
“In soccer you have that unique opportunity to start from the bottom and work your way up,” said striker Chas Wilson, a 27-year-old high school teacher and the only remaining member from the last West Chester team to take part in the Open Cup (in 2016). “And being a committed soccer player and a full-time teacher is a very tough thing to do.”
It Only Gets Harder
It’s not getting any easier for the Predators, as they’re back on the road again for their Second Round meeting with the Legion, a team from the second-division of American pro soccer, with a raft of former MLS players in the line-up like Daigo Kobayashi and Edward Opoku (on-loan from Columbus Crew). A trip to Baltimore is one thing, but the 866 miles between West Chester and Birmingham is another matter entirely.
“It’s almost unfathomable to think we’ve been on the road every game. It’s not a motivating factor but it makes things difficult, with logistics and work. But Blaise [Santangelo] is a real-deal coach, plus he is good with logistics and he’s able to finance the team,” said Nolan, who scored in West Chester’s final qualifier and again in the First Round shootout in Baltimore. “And, because we’re young, we can get off the bus and not have any problem playing.”
(Santangelo's done with the gear and ready to roll)
“The night-job, the soccer, that’s the love-job,” said Santangelo, coach, van-driver and spiritual core, getting set for another long trip on a road that could end in glory or heartache – there’s no in-between in the U.S. Open Cup. He sees himself, and his team of talented and driven amateurs, as part of an Open Cup continuum. “A lot of the guys who’ve played in the Open Cup over its 106 years were masons and electricians and painters,” he said. “A lot of them were factory workers, but they stayed in the game.”
One thing is certain: pros or not, the Birmingham Legion should not underestimate West Chester United. These predators are hungry and they’re on the hunt. “For a lot of us it’s our first Open Cup,” said midfielder Chad Poarch, 21, who works the early shift at a local Dunkin Donuts and is desperate to go pro. “We just need to go out there and show what we can do and who knows what can happen?”