Among the tens of thousands of tourists and day-trippers that swell Ocean City’s population each summer, you’d hardly notice a couple dozen soccer players here or there. They mix right in with the throngs on the boardwalk.
But every year they come, among the best collegiate players from every corner of the country (and globe-wide), for fun and sand and dramatic sunrises, sure, but mostly to join up with one of the best amateur clubs in America: The Ocean City Nor’easters.
“For me this is not a business,” said Giancarlo Granese who bought the bankrupted South Jersey Barons in 2004 and moved them to Ocean City from “the middle of nowhere.”
For Soccer & City
Granese immigrated to New Jersey in the mid-1970s from a small town near Naples, Italy that claims to have the best chestnuts in the world. His passion for soccer, for his adoptive city and his Nor’easters is palpable. “This isn’t a business for me. It’s about the game, about togetherness and family…and most of all it’s about Ocean City.”
This year the Nor’easters begin their Open Cup account on March 21 on the road against West Chester United SC (streamed LIVE on the Bleacher Report app and B/R Football’s YouTube channel).
The club’s been in existence, in one form or another, for the last 27 years. They once competed in the Premier Development League (PDL) and now they’re in USL League Two – an all-amateur summer league whose sole aim is to groom top-class college players to take the next step up and into the professional ranks.
That next step is taken quite often from Ocean City, a club with pedigree and no trouble attracting the cream of the collegiate crop. Veteran goalkeeper of the 2012 squad, Tyler Miller, is now lining up with D.C. United in Major League Soccer (MLS), and a whole host of Nor’easters alumni dot the Division II USL Championship ranks.
But there’s something more than just boot-camp going on at the Shore.
The players, who last year hailed from five continents and 17 different countries, all live together in a house mere steps from the ocean. They play their home games in the heart of tourist season at Carey Stadium (aka ‘The Beach House’) – there’s no soccer field closer to the ocean in the whole country.
Joining up & Joining in
The Nor’easters become, in a very real way, a part of the community that grows from a population of just over 10,000 in the off-season to ten times that in June, July and August when the sun shines brightest.
The players get recognized on the two-and-a-half miles of boardwalk and they mingle in the community in a way that most amateur summer-league players don’t.
“I think we win because of the togetherness we bring as a family and as a city and a club,” said Granese, who runs the Nor’easters as a labor of love with his wife and his son (and General Manager) Giancarlo Jr.
“All the kids who come in have host families looking out for them and every summer there’s a huge connection between the people of the town and the players,” he added.
Proven Results on the Pitch
That family feel has translated into big success on the field. This year will be the team’s 11th trip to the Open Cup – and they’re reigning Mid-Atlantic division champions of USL League Two. They are perennially up among the best teams in the league, alongside the likes of Des Moines Menace and the Flint City Bucks out of Michigan.
The Nor’easters have also become known as giant-killers in the Open Cup by knocking off a raft of professional teams since they first qualified, as the Barons, back in 2002. In 2009, they earned a date with MLS royalty D.C. United, which ended in a 2-0 loss. And again, in 2013, they beat the second-division Pittsburgh Riverhounds before losing – just barely – to Philadelphia Union.
The club, who return to the Open Cup this year for a second straight appearance, last pulled off a Cupset in 2018 when they knocked off USL Championship (second-division) side Charlotte Independence 3-1 in the Second Round.
“There’s a big tradition here at the club,” said current head coach Matt Perrella, still just 31 and getting his coaching legs under him after a journeyman pro career as a goalkeeper that saw him bounce around the American lower leagues. He’s a native of nearby Brunswick, New Jersey and most recently played for the Florida Tropics indoor team.
“The Open Cup is something that’s been important here for years,” said Perrella
Cup Logistics a Challenge Every Year
Despite that fact, the tournament poses a huge personnel problem for the Nor’easters and all USL League Two teams. As a summer league, making use of primarily college-affiliated players, the timing of the Open Cup’s First and Second Rounds leaves coaches scrambling for numbers.
“It’s a gamble every year,” said Perrella about the First Round game which falls in late March – over a month before the club’s league kick-off. “We’ll have to call in some of the older boys from previous seasons.”
“We’re going to bring in the best guys we can who I think can make game-changing differences,” Perrella said of having to put together a team that will bear little resemblance to the side he’ll run out when the USL League Two season kicks off in May.
“Balance is key. Getting the fit right,” he said. “But that takes time.”
Perrella plans to tap his connections in the NAIA college system (he played at Rider University in Jersey) and create a “blue-collar” group to get “a positive result” against West Chester United in the First Round.
A Weird Tournament
It’s an understatement when he admits: “the Open Cup is weird” and “we can only do what we can do.”
Such are the coach’s selection issues for the Cup opener, that he’s bringing in his old Riverhounds teammate Keasel Broome, a 31-year-old goalkeeper with roots in Barbados, to keep things as tight as possible.
Perrella, who isn’t willing to say his days between the posts are totally over, never had the kind of moments in the Open Cup as a player that he hopes to as a coach. And that’s something that motivates him now.
“Coaching is another chance for me after never having really had things work out the way I wanted to – or being able to get those big moments in the Cup as a player,” said the coach whose CV includes assistant briefs in southern Africa, under the tutelage of former Zimbabwe and Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, and with Drexel University’s women’s team. “
I was one of the guys sending 500 emails as a college kid trying to get to play for the Nor’easters,” Perrella said on the eve of the 2023 Open Cup. “Now it’s a new chance.”
Warm-up for the Summer
If the Nor’easters get a run going in the Open Cup, and that overlaps with the League Two season, there’s an issue of balance to consider.
“We don’t own these guys,” Perrella chuckled about keeping the players focused when the sun and fun of summertime on the Shore beckons. “But they’re here for a reason. And I see myself in more of a mentorship role and less as a disciplinarian. It doesn’t work for everyone. They’re kids and they’ll see what they can get away with in a good way.
“I’m an open personality and we’ll have to find the right fit,” he added.
In all, it does feel and sound a bit like a family – special, imperfect and worth protecting.
“It’s nice to see a lot of our boys go on to the pros,” said Granese, who Perrella calls a “hands-on owner in the best sense.” He watches a new group of boys come to town every May and speaks of them like a proud papa might.
“Just when you lose faith in the young people of the world, these guys show up and they’re smart, sharp, good and quick,” said Granese. “And I can’t help think: this country’s in good shape after all.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.