This is the ethos of the Open Cup in one short gesture. In one fleeting moment it’s all there: a coach turning and waving his arm toward a group of young men playing only because they love it. Running in circles to cool down before heading home for a bite food, some sleep, maybe a beer. Chasing dreams because they’re there to be chased. They’re worth the time and the effort and the sweat. The blood, too.
(The anxiety of the penalty shootout - Virginia United won by the odd kick over World Class Premier Elite)
Ask any one of the squad what was or what is their biggest dream and they’ll tell you: to be a pro player. Short of that, they now have the chance to play against the pros.
Founded as Salvador Woodbridge in 2008 by cousins Fredis Guerrero, a large man with a ready smile, and Jimmy Ramos – smaller, with a thoughtful mind – changed the name in 2015 to Virginia United. The team plays in the amateur Woodbridge Virginia Adult Soccer League and won four regional qualifying games at home, in Manassas VA, about 20 miles south of DC, to reach the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – American soccer’s national championship and a tournament, like no other in this country, where nine-to-five guys can take on the big boys.
Chance for Glory
It’s Virginia United’s first run at the tournament and a chance to make their mark.
“We want to prove that we have talent in the Hispanic leagues,” said Guerrero, who hopes to recreate the magic that NTX Rayados, near Dallas, conjured last year when they stormed to the Fourth Round and a date with eventual champions Houston Dynamo. “There are leagues and teams like ours all over the country and there’s lots of good soccer there.”
Ramos, his co-founder, agreed: “We want people to recognize that when we have an opportunity, there are small communities out there with real talent and something to show. We are a Hispanic-based team from a Hispanic-based league and we’re here to show them what we can do with a chance.”
(Virginia United are playing in their first Open Cup and meet Richmond Kickers - a former champ - in the First Round)
It’s been a grind to just get into the 2019 Open Cup proper – the 106th consecutive running of America’s oldest soccer tournament. United suffered through their four qualifying games, winning all of them at home at their Howison Homestead in Manassas, home of the historic First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War in 1861 (right around the time Europe’s immigrants were introducing a curiosity called football on shores farther north).
It’s worth noting that for an Open Division team like Virginia United to capture the 2019 Open Cup they would have to win 12 games in total, including qualifying and the tournament itself -- and likely five of those games would be against opposition from Major League Soccer (MLS) – the top-tier of pro ball in the States and the league that’s produced the last 18 straight Open Cup champs. Last year’s winner, Houston Dynamo, only had to win five games to lift the trophy. As much of an opportunity as the Open Cup is, the field isn’t totally flat.
As Virginia United kept winning (they beat Centro America FC and Super Delegates from Maryland in the first two qualifying rounds), more and more locals showed up to offer their support. “I’ve never seen these guys nervous before a normal Sunday League game,” said coach Romero, trim and fit with full-sleeve tattoos and a commanding presence among some of the teams’ younger players (ages vary from 40-year-old Karl Gibbons to kids barely out of high school). “But they were nervous for these Open Cup games when people started coming out.”
United beat Christos FC in the third qualifying round. It was a result no one saw coming. After all, Christos – out of Baltimore County and the powerful Maryland Major Soccer League – rampaged to the Fourth round of the 2017 Open Cup, even leading MLS’ D.C. United briefly before losing out 4-1. “We were missing some guys,” said Pete Caringi III, free-scoring Christos striker and veteran of the last two Open Cups. “But they had a whole bunch of people out for the game and I have to admit it, they could really play. We didn’t get it done on our side, but they could play.”
(The decisive penalty from Bernardo Majano - who scored from the spot three times against World Class Premier Elite)
By the time United faced World Class Premier Elite of that same Maryland Majors, nerves were jangling in both camps. It was a cold April day in Manassas when the opening whistle blew, and it was a case of win-and-you’re in or lose-and-go home.
“Even if we lost the game, I would have been so proud of what we did,” said Guerrero, who founded the club just for fun ten years ago – for something to do and to see if it might grow. “But we won. We had to suffer for it, but that’s how life is. You suffer and then you enjoy it later.
Twice Virginia United went down in a game that needed a penalty shootout to decide it. Kay Banjo, speedy striker for World Class Premier, scored both goals and twice Virginia United’s Bernardo Majano had to keep his nerve and pull the team back from the penalty spot. The drama of his second spot-kick – in the dying moments of overtime – is hard to match. His first effort was saved. He chased down the rebound and, somehow, bundled the ball over the goal line in an almighty scramble for the ages.
United by Penalties
It was only fitting then that Majano, having scored from the spot twice in the 120 minutes of play, nabbed the fifth and final penalty in the shootout to send Virginia United through to the first Open Cup.
“From back when we started this thing, the goal was always to get into the U.S. Open Cup because it was something I knew from being around the game in this country for a long time,” said Guerrero, pulling himself away from the huddle of friends, players, well wishers and family members.
(Friends, family & well wishers celebrated Virginia's United's first trip to the Open Cup)
Next up for Virginia United is a First Round Open Cup game, broadcast live on ESPN+, against USL League One side Richmond Kickers, the longest-operating professional club in America and the 1995 U.S. Open Cup champions. “It’s like one of those feelings where you think you must be dreaming,” said Guerrero, shaking his head with a big grin. “But it’s real.”
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Real indeed. Real as can be. United are on their way to the U.S. Open Cup, where dreams are the fuel. The players earned their celebrations, which may have gone on late into the night. But not too late. It’s Sunday after all. There’s work tomorrow. And for the all those dreamers in the amateur ranks, chasing the big boys with a knife between their teeth, the alarm buzzer comes quicker than you think.