There are some places where the crash and bang of the indoor game just make sense.
Cleveland is one. The hockey-soccer hybrid first brought its particular brand of electricity to that city on the Cuyahoga in the late 1970s – and right on through the late 80s with the old MISL’s Cleveland Force. All these years later, the thud of the dasher boards and the high-scoring, high-octane indoor game continues to keep Clevelanders filling seats.
No fewer than six members of Cleveland SC, the amateur side that competes in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and who booked a place in the 2023 U.S. Open Cup’s Second Round, line up – in the colder months – for the Cleveland Crunch in the arena leagues.
Bobi Cancar (it’s pronounced Bow-Bee, not Bob-Bee as his given name is Boban) is among that six. He grew up “five minutes from the big church,” the Sava Cathedral – hub of the city’s huge Serbian community.
He learned much of what he knows about soccer in the hustle and bustle of the city’s indoor arena, where many players from the former Yugoslavia brought their high technique to the American scene.
Roots in Serbia and 90s Crunch Triumphs
“I was born in 1991 and in that decade the Crunch won three national championships,” said Cancar, who’s parents came over from Serbia during their youths to settle in Cleveland. “We had family friends, Serbian guys, who were in that team and we’d get tickets from them and get to go onto the field after the games.”
One of those players was Zoran Karic, who grew up playing for Partizan Belgrade before emigrating to Cleveland and contributing in a hugely successful decade with the Crunch between 1990 and 2000. Another Crunch hero of those bustling 1990s was Hector Marinaro. He was “one of the best to ever play the indoor game,” according to Cancar and he also happened to coach several current Cleveland SC players (including Cancar himself) at John Carroll University.
“The indoor game is very technical, with much less space to play in,” said Cancar who works for a bank as an anti-money laundering agent, checking for suspicious account activity while he’s not playing for Cleveland SC and the latest version of the Crunch (in Major League Indoor Soccer/MLIS since 1988). “If you have a big touch, the ball will get away from you and you’ll lose it. So when the outdoor games come around, if you have that golden touch, it will open up space and time for you.
“You have to reset your brain a little when you switch from indoor to outdoor,” laughed Cancar. “Before the First Round game [Open Cup, against Lionsbridge] I thought to myself, ‘wow, I have to cover this much field?’”
Off the field, Cleveland SC’s players are some of the nicest guys you’ll ever have the pleasure of talking to. On it, there’s a grit, determination and never-say-die attitude that can cook over into chaos on occasion. Like it did in their First Round game in late March when Jannis Schmidt’s red-card made more tension than necessary of the last 20 minutes. But it’s all part of the vigorous spirit that’s helped the club win all three of their First Round Games since debuting in the Open Cup back in 2019.
Now they’re hoping to take it one step farther in America’s oldest soccer tournament.
They’d like to knock off a professional team. Travel is required in order for them to do it. And for amateur teams like Cleveland SC, that’s no simple matter. Who’s available? Who isn’t? There are families and jobs – and general life – to consider. And all those factors will weigh in the final accounting on Thursday April 6 when the Clevelanders head to the City Stadium in Virginia to take on third-division pros the Richmond Kickers – who just so happened to win this Open back in 1995.
Physicality, Grit and Experience
“I would call it a grit in the team,” said Benny Hrysko, a government and military contractor who’s been with the team for two seasons and took part in last year’s run to the Second Round. “Some of us have been playing with each other and against each other for 20 years, so we get together and we form a bond.”
“A lot of us have played together for a really long time,” echoed Chris Cvecko, a systems engineer who’s originally from Eerie, Pennsylvania but settled in Cleveland after playing college ball at Case Western. “We have a good chemistry and we see this next game for what it is: a big opportunity.
“We know each other’s personalities really well,” continued Cvecko, who scored the crucial goal – with his team down a man against Lionsbridge FC – to book a place in this year’s Second Round.”
The road to the Third Round – and perhaps a chance to play against an MLS side from the top of the American professional soccer pyramid – will be a tough one.
“We’ll try to get most of the guys down there a day early to avoid that travel day-lag,” added Hrysko, youthful and full of excitement for the possibilities, about the near 500-mile trip south. “But work is a factor for a lot of the guys. We’ll try to get as many down there early as we can, but there might be some that kind of trickle in.”
There’s something of a throwback quality to this Cleveland SC team, who can’t help but tell you why they play the game – some of them all year-round. “It’s simple,” Hrysko said. “We love the game, so we play it as much as we can.”
“We’re the underdog,” said Cancar. “But we’re going there [to Richmond] to win. We’re sacrificing time away from our families and our work, so we’re going to do everything we can when we’re there. We’re excited to play on grass in a stadium with fans – and I think it will bring the best out of us.”
‘We Can Hang With Anybody’
“We’ll be ready,” added Cvecko, a marauder up the right side who always seems to get into dangerous situations in the attack.” We’re ready to do it and give it a battle. We’ve been in this position before, we know about pressure and we believe, on any given day, we can hang with anybody.”
A win against Richmond could well bring a date with the biggest baddest somebodies in the American soccer scene – the top-tier pros of Major League Soccer (MLS).
“It’s always in the back of your mind, that possible Third Round game, where you might get to play an MLS team,” said Hryszko, allowing his mind to drift only slightly. “But we need to keep it together in our heads, so the younger guys can see that we’re focused and ready.”
“Richmond is the next game,” Hryszko went on in a kind of blunt incantation. “We win that and we advance. We go on as long as we can and we give it all we got.”
The veteran Cancar rounds out the feeling of pride among the guys. “Experience counts,” he said, a leader’s assurance in his voice. “And the Open Cup is the most prestigious tournament in North America, so to be able to represent the city of Cleveland, and our families who are from here, means a lot.
“We won’t let them down.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.