A mist covers the field as a few dozen young men emerge from the dark shadows near the touchline on a Thursday night in February. They wear workout gear with mismatched logos, from the college and pro teams they’ve played for and the teams they now coach.
By the time assistant coach Roger Tucker blows the whistle to start warm-ups, the group has swelled to about 40. The rondos start and, eventually, small-sided games that go deep into the night with the temperature dipping well below freezing.
It’s here, out on the training field, a few times a week, where Blaise Santangelo has managed to build one of the top amateur programs in the U.S.
“What we do is we leave a lot of this up to the on-field play and let the ball be the coach,” Santangelo said about the group of players in their 20s and early 30s. “Most of these kids have played high level soccer and have had great coaching through their youth and college careers.
‘Get Out of the Way’
“You kind of have to get out of the way and let these guys make decisions on the field and I think that's a really big, huge part of our success,” he added.
On March 21, 11 of these players get the chance to start in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against the Ocean City Nor’easters in nearby Wayne, PA (7:30 p.m. ET and streamed LIVE on the Bleacher Report app and B/R Football YouTube channel). Others will watch from the bench, ready to jump in when called upon. Many won’t even be on the team, but they’ll have played an important role in the run-up to the competition.
West Chester United won’t win the Open Cup, but that’s not the point. For amateur teams like the Predators, making the Tournament Proper, via the arduous Local Qualifying path, is about more than adding another shiny object to the trophy case.
It’s the opportunity to play on a bigger stage against, potentially, a professional team. To be the next big underdog Cupset splashed in lights. A win over Ocean City would mean a date with pro side Maryland Bobcats FC (NISA) and an upset there would put them one step closer to a date with a USL Championship side and possibly, after that, one with MLS’ Philadelphia Union.
Those are the spoils on offer for the likes of West Chester United when they reach the oldest competition in American soccer.
The journey there is filled with dozens of games and even more nights like this one, on a cold Thursday, when the only eyes watching are those of the coaches who’ll pick the side.
A Tape Measure and a Dream
The West Chester United journey to being in elite amateur company has come as an outgrowth of Santangelo’s endless passion and dedication to the sport. A father of five and owner of a successful landscaping company, he often shows up to official soccer meetings with a tape measure hooked to his belt.
“I’m just an average guy,” Santangelo likes to say. “I wear a tape measure on the job so why wouldn’t I wear it even if I’m meeting with the sporting director of the Philadelphia Union?”
When he tells you he sees what he does as saving young men’s lives, it’s not hyperbole. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, when college programs shut down and most area fields were unavailable, Santangelo opened his program and provided opportunities.
Two success stories from the height of the pandemic are Chris Donovan and Dane Jacomen, college players who were able to keep playing with West Chester United and, eventually, turn pro. Donovan signed last year with MLS’ Philadelphia Union and Jacomen joined Loudoun United of the USL Championship. New York Red Bulls goalkeeper AJ Marcucci, a former Connecticut College Camel and DIII All-America selection, and Atlanta United defender Aiden McFadden followed similar paths through Santangelo’s workshop.
“For some of our younger guys still looking to do something in the game, it's an opportunity to play and hopefully get scouted,” said veteran midfielder Michael Gonzalez of the club that operates year-round in the National Premier Soccer League, USL Of Pennsylvania and USL League Two. “For some of the older guys like me, we put in our free time to this club because we love the game and we don’t know how many more chances we’ll have to still play at this level.”
Gonzalez, who played his college ball at Lehigh and Penn State, was involved in the Philadelphia Union’s youth setup in its infant stages and remains close off the field with one Jimmy McLaughlin, who was the Union’s second-ever homegrown player.
Jimmy Mac Back to Beginnings
McLaughlin, now 29 and retired from the pro game, has rejoined West Chester United for this year’s U.S. Open Cup campaign.
“This club’s been fantastic and they've put something really special together,” McLaughlin said. “And the Open Cup in general is just an opportunity to challenge yourself against the best level in the country.
“That's it for me, man,” he added. “I just want to see what we can do, win a couple games, play against a pro team and kind of get that adrenaline rush a little bit again.”
McLaughlin has history in the Open Cup. He was part of the FC Cincinnati team in 2017 that, before becoming an MLS franchise, made it all the way to the Semifinal as a second-division USL Championship team. They knocked off MLS’ Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire – a game that drew 32,287 fans (the second-largest crowd in the Open Cup’s Modern Era).
That game was broadcast nationally on ESPN.
McLaughlin, who remains as humble and hard-working today on the amateur training field as he was as a pro on live national TV, scored the third kick in the shootout win over the Fire before Mitch Hildebrand’s clinching penalty save.
“Blaise [Santangelo] is a legend, man, and he's got so much passion, he puts everything into it and he's changing the lives of a ton of guys,” said McLaughlin. “It's really special what he’s built. He's an incredible person and I hope to continue watching it grow.”
Betzwood Bomber, a Blue Jay and RFK
Santangelo’s history in the area’s soccer goes way, way back.
He grew up one of seven children in the Betzwood neighborhood near West Norriton and played high school ball at Archbishop Carroll for late U.S. Men’s National Team legend Alex Ely, who was an Open Cup winner with the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals of the 1960s.
- READ/WATCH: Remembering Philadelphia’s Ukrainians
“When the Flyers were winning Stanley Cups in the ‘70s we had a street hockey team we called the Betzwood Bombers – and we’d play other towns,” Santangelo said. “I think it was really just another reason to fight.”
Santangelo played many sports, but the soccer pitch was where his toughness and work ethic really paid off.
“I always had older brothers and we were all about doing the work and all that, you know, working hard on the field, being a dog,” he remembered. “We maybe were not the most talented, but we certainly had heart.”
Elizabethtown College men’s head coach Skip Roderick still remembers the first time he watched Santangelo play on a recruiting trip. “What I remember about him then is that it was like 95 degrees, and everybody was walking,” Roderick said. “And there was that energizer bunny [Santangelo] all over the field.”
Santangelo ended up attending E-town and he forced his way onto the field part-way through his first season with his relentless work in training. “I would work so hard in training people would get pissed at me,” Santangelo said. “But training for me, I would say at the time, was my game.”
The classroom was a different story and Santangelo ended up leaving school to play for the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals – a legendary club in the area with its own fields and clubhouse – while taking classes at Montgomery County Community College.
It was with that ‘Ukies’ team in the mid-1980s that he got his first taste of the Open Cup (still known then as the National Challenge Cup) and had a chance to play at RFK Stadium. “It was totally empty,” Santangelo remembered. “But it was back in the day when the Redskins were really good so it was really cool to be in the locker rooms and play on that field.”
The Open Cup still holds just as much mystique for Santangelo today, as a coach, as it did when he was playing. The local Ukrainians won the Cup four times in the 1960s and five-time winners Bethlehem Steel remain tied for the most wins in the history of the competition (all between 1914 and 1926). Local side Uhrik Truckers also won the Cup back in 1936.
Keeping Proud History Alive
“I see it as our job as holders of that history,” Santangelo said.
That explains why when the team traveled to play Birmingham Legion for a Second Round match in 2019 they wore the logos of all of the other teams from USL of Pennsylvania on their jerseys.
The league was founded in 1959 and remains one of the top amateur leagues in the region. One of the league’s founders, Werner Fricker, later became president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and is a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
The Predators won the USASA trophy named after the late Fricker for a second time last August in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Fricker played for the United German Hungarians and was a long-time president of the club that still competes in the USLPA. Fricker’s grandson, Werner Fricker III, is an administrator for the club, and was awarded administrator of the year honors by Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Soccer Hall of Fame last fall.
“A lot of what we do we model after UGH and the success they had,” Santangelo said.
For Roderick, who’s coached dozens of future coaches at Elizabethtown over his long career, it’s been a joy getting to see Santangelo carve out the path he has both in his business and family life – and now with the West Chester United program.
“When he was a player for me, he was always the first to practice, the last one to leave,” Roderick said, thinking back on days long ago. “And it's the same way with his work, with his business, and now with West Chester United.”
It’s precisely that dedication, shared and passed on to his young players, that will fuel West Chester United when the 108th Open Cup Proper kicks off with dreams and history on offer.
Matthew Ralph is managing editor of Philadelphia Soccer Now, contributor to TheCup.us and Communications Director for Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer. Follow him at @MattRalph_ on Twitter