Scrapes, Dents & One-time Wolves: Cal United Strikers Born Anew from Amateur Roots

NISA side California United Strikers FC transformed from its old days as a successful amateur outfit to become one of the country’s shiniest new professional clubs.
Dennis Pope

California United Strikers FC is one of the 2022 U.S. Open Cup’s big success stories.

A rare blend of front office and on-field talent, business connections and moxie, the club has transformed from regional amateur champions to one of the country’s newest and shiniest professional clubs.

 

 

The road to success in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) has had its share of potholes, flat tires and wrong turns for Cal United Strikers. But they’ve emerged as a professional club that wears the dents and scrapes with pride.

With a new NISA season underway and wins in the Second and Third Rounds of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the rearview mirror, setting a date with L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer (MLS) in the next round, the fresh club is embracing its short but colorful history.

WOLVES LIKE US

L.A. Wolves FC was created in 2014 by Yan Skwara, who led the then Torrance, California-based club to back-to-back runs in the U.S. Open Cup in 2015 and 2016.

Backed by partners Peter and Bronwyn Capriotti and Michael Collins, the team narrowly missed an opportunity to play L.A. Galaxy in the Fourth Round of the 2016 competition and entered 2017 with a new head coach – none other than U.S. Men’s National Team legend Eric Wynalda.

“Eric was the catalyst for our intent,” Collins said. “That was a magical year and that was the kick start.”

LA Wolves during the 2016 Open Cup. Photo Joe Walsh 

L.A. Wolves blistered through the 2017 campaign, winning the UPSL Spring Season National Championship and the USASA Region IV Amateur Cup while working once more in Open Cup qualifying and through to the tournament proper.

“That was a special group of players and coaches and staff and supporters that worked hard together for a three-year window to get the team to the Open Cup tournament where it was able to make a reasonably-deep run the last two years,” Skwara added.

A 1-0 loss to Orange County SC in a Third Round match at Ruben S. Ayala Park in Chino Hills, California, ended the run. It was Wynalda’s last deep Open Cup run as a head coach after leading Cal FC to a famous win over MLS’s Portland Timbers in 2012.

L.A. Wolves rebounded from the defeat and finished unbeaten in league play en route to winning the UPSL spring campaign. They then headed out on a road trip to Wisconsin for the USASA National Amateur Cup finals. 

“We had that incredible run where we were state champs and we were regional champs, went on to nationals and lost a semifinal to Lansdowne [Yonkers FC]. That was tough,” Collins said.

Wolves lost a heart-breaker in overtime to Lansdowne Bhoys [the Yonkers, NY-based club’s name at the time] in the national semifinals at Heartland Value Fund Stadium in Glendale, Wisconsin. Bavarians SC went on to win that National Amateur Cup.

“Big disappointment,” Skwara remembered. “We went there to win it but we did not execute and that’s soccer. We had to take it on the chin and fly out of there with the third-place trophy.”

THE NEXT MOVE

Led by the Capriotti family, the majority ownership group wrangled resources and moved forward without Skwara or Wynalda.

“To this day I’ll say that we had a really strong thing going with L.A. Wolves. We could’ve made a left-hand turn, we could’ve made a right-hand turn (and) a right-hand turn was taken by the sponsors of the Wolves and management,” Skwara said. “All I can say is ‘Thank you’ and ‘Congrats’ on becoming a professional club.”

Collins said: “Bronwyn [Capriotti] and Pete and me saw that this is the start of something really special and said, ‘Let’s move it to the next level’, which was professional and we started looking at how we could get into a professional league.”

What was intended to be an ascension in the North American Soccer League (NASL) went south when the league collapsed in late 2017 and its clubs scattered.

Lacking a place to play, the club returned to UPSL as OC Invicta FC and claimed the title with almost exactly the same roster that featured for L.A. Wolves a few months earlier.

“These guys went from playing for the Wolves to that little, probably-should’ve-never-been-the-name Invictus or Invicta – I can’t remember – but somehow we were successful with that for a very, very short stint,” Collins said.

Branding and marketing for California United FC debuted in 2018 and the club tossed OC Invicta FC onto the scrap heap of history.

The new teal, black and white color scheme would carry the club into a new league (NISA) but first the club returned to win one more UPSL title in Fall 2018, giving the group of players three amateur titles in four seasons wearing three different badges.

“We have still a few of the players that have been there since L.A. Wolves, so all this has been a long time in coming,” said California United Strikers FC midfielder/defender Gonzalo Salguero, who has teamed with Duncan Capriotti, Xavier Fuerte and Kevin Garcia-Lopez since their time as L.A. Wolves.

A partnership with Orange County-based Strikers FC youth academy, one of the biggest in the region, created the iteration we know this year in the Open Cup – California United Strikers FC – in 2019.

NISA NIGHTS

The core of players gave Cal United Strikers the edge in the first NISA-sanctioned event, the 2019 Fall Showcase, where the club finished top of the league’s western conference with 11 points from five matches.

The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll but the new club stayed committed to NISA, playing in every league event since its inception.

“We went from being a club without a league, and at the 11th hour NISA came back into the picture, and now we’ve played in every league match as a member of the original eight clubs of NISA,” Collins said.

 

 

Cal United finished second to Detroit City FC during NISA’s 2021 Fall Season, posting a 9-6-3 record (33 points) but well behind the league champs – who’ve since graduated to the USL Championship (the second pro tier in the U.S.) and join Cal United Strikers in the 2022 Open Cup’s Round of 32.

This year, the club is back in NISA and off to a 1-2-0 start after defeating L.A. Force 2-0 on Saturday, April 16. They’re widely regarded as one of the top sides in the league.

“I think a lot of the players are excited to be back for this season and back in the U.S. Open Cup because we missed the last one because of COVID,” Salguero said. “Now we’re going to play an MLS team.”

But it was the 5-1 victory over San Fernando Valley FC (UPSL) in the Second Round of the Open Cup that brought back memories of the fight to get respect and ultimately, the long, winding road toward professionalism.

“You don’t ever forget where you came from,” Collins said. “We’re very, very grateful for our experience with Yan Skwara and L.A. Wolves in the early days of the UPSL. I’m proud to be part of it all as the Capriotti family helped grow one of the best clubs the UPSL has ever produced.”

Pope is a sports writer based in Southern California. Follow him at @DennisPope on Twitter.