Last year, Northern Virginia FC (NoVa FC) did something rare. They lost.
In the Final Qualifying Round of the 2023 Open Cup, after a stellar run through three matches, they fell to West Chester United. That 2-1 loss – to a giant of the American amateur game – ended the Virginia club’s hopes of reaching the Open Cup Proper for a second-straight year, leaving them on the outside looking in.
Losing isn’t common for NoVa FC, who are based in Leesburg, VA and compete in USL League Two, the Major Arena Soccer League, and the Eastern Premier Soccer League. Stacked with talent through each team, NoVa’s a powerhouse competitor no matter what the competition.
A good example of the kind of dominance we’re talking about is the club’s 34-0-0 streak in EPSL play that stretches back to October of 2021. Regardless of the names on the roster, the system sets the players up to shine.
“I don't think it's certain players at this point, we just have a good formula in place that gets us the results with whatever 18 that’s available,’ said head coach Kareem Sheta, focussed on getting the right combination of style and talent – and players willing to work to meet the standard he sets.
“We typically don't have repeating starting 11s which is odd, but it's important to allow younger players to start and get the experience,” he added.
Changing Cast for NoVa
It’s a rotating cast of talent that’s stacked up trophy after trophy for the Virginia club.
This year, they won their division of the EPSL before facing a four-way playoff to decide the league champion. That playoff included some big (and historic) names like NY Pancyprian Freedoms and Fall River FC. NoVa FC took that title and then repeated as EPSL Champion.
Back in 2022, the club won the USASA Region 1 Championship before falling to eventual USASA Champion Bavarian United SC of Milwaukee in the National Amateur Cup Final. That same year, NoVa would win another division title in the MASL (and repeat again in 2023) and reach the Tournament Proper of the Open Cup, where they came up short against professional opposition in the Second Round.
Coach Sheta sees all this winning as a cycle. “Consistency from the group will always be the biggest contributing factor to success. Obviously with winning comes attention and when you hold the trophies you're going to have teams wanting to take something. That's good motivation for players to continue what they've started.”
The NoVa pipeline continues to generate success that replicates through roster additions, year after year. Sheta points to those trophies as bait to bring in more talented players each season. “Since we have had good success in the past few years, winning trophies and sending players on professionally, it has caught the eye of upcoming talent. That leads to more competition at training and in return our top percentage of players stays sharper throughout the year.”
Now veterans of the Open Cup Qualifying Rounds, Sheta and his NoVa look for the chance to jump into the Tournament Proper again and try to make it farther than they did in their debut in 2022. The coach is focused on making sure he has the right players ready for the moment this year.
“The approach for the Open Cup is just ensuring we have our top guys accumulating game minutes leading into each round of Qualifying. In the early rounds there’s more preparation getting schedules lined up and making sure we have the guys we want available.”
Thinking ahead has made Sheta’s team a force in Qualifying this year. After a tricky First Round match against Steel Pulse FC (MSSL) that ended in a shootout (3-1), NoVa’s been on a roll. In the Second and Third Rounds, they knocked out Germantown City 6-0 and DCFC (DCPL) 1-0. Through three Qualifying matches, NoVa FC have yet to give up a goal in the run-of-play.
Up next for NoVa: another east-coast powerhouse with a place in the U.S. Open Cup on the line.
The Next Step: Mighty Christos
That opponent is one of the best amateur clubs in the region – Christos FC. The Baltimore-based outfit – headquartered in a liquor store – punctured the awareness of most soccer fans in 2017, when they made a deep run into that year’s Open Cup with a win over pro side Richmond Kickers.
Then Christos led – if only briefly – MLS’ D.C. United in the Fourth Round.
That go-ahead goal (and the celebration that followed) by Mamadou Kansaye became the stuff of legend for amateur soccer clubs across the country. D.C. United would go on to score four goals and win the match handily, but that opener would be written about in national newspapers, show up on major TV sports shows, and shared repeatedly on social media. It contained all the essential magic of the Open Cup.
Christos is, for many, the gold standard for amateur soccer in the country. That standard is the one that clubs like NoVa FC are hoping to meet – and eventually, perhaps, surpass.
These two clubs are no strangers to each other, as both have teams playing in USL League Two; however, outside of that league, they’ve yet to face off. Coach Sheta is fired up for the chance to take on the Maryland side.
“Definitely looking forward to playing the Christos group – it's always a good battle between the two clubs. We have never met each other in any competition outside of USL2, so it will be good to match up our year-round groups. Should be a good entertaining game for people to enjoy.”To reach the U.S. Open Cup, NoVa will have to knock off one of the best amateur programs in the country, but Coach Sheta sees it as a challenge to overcome with his talented roster – one that will grow if they make it past Christos.
“Obviously every year brings new challenges and hopefully new opportunities for the group to perform. We are returning almost all players to the group and we are looking to add a good crop of graduating college kids if we advance into proper Round One.”
Another berth in the Open Cup will help validate the club and the team that’s been building over the years in Northern Virginia since 1998. And while you can rarely count the club out in any competition, Sheta knows there’s a ceiling on what can be expected of even the best amateur side in the Open Cup.
“For us it's the one competition we compete in knowing we won't win it,” said the coach, who led the team in 2022 when they reached the tournament and lost a slim 1-0 decision to pro side (USL League One) and 1995 Open Cup champions the Richmond Kickers. “For us it's just trying to get to [play] a pro team each year and provide some of the younger guys the platform to play on.”
22+𝙮𝙚𝙖𝙧𝙨 𝙤𝙛 𝙗𝙚𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙖 𝙘𝙡𝙪𝙗.— NoVa Fc (@NovaFc) September 17, 2020
700+𝙨𝙚𝙣𝙞𝙤𝙧 𝙥𝙡𝙖𝙮𝙚𝙧𝙨 𝙩𝙧𝙖𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙙 𝙬𝙞𝙩𝙝 & 𝙙𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙡𝙤𝙥𝙚𝙙.
12,000+𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙩𝙝 𝙥𝙡𝙖𝙮𝙚𝙧𝙨 𝙩𝙧𝙖𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙙 𝙬𝙞𝙩𝙝 & 𝙙𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙡𝙤𝙥𝙚𝙙.
“The future influences the present just as much as the past” #NovaFc #PlayToWin pic.twitter.com/WrxjU1vgUz
Now on the cusp of a return, just a win away from getting in, there’s everything to play for. As Coach Sheta said during last year’s run of trophies across many leagues: “expectations are to win for any club and any coach.”
Heading into this weekend’s matchup with Christos FC, that will be the expectation of every player within the NoVa FC program. They will expect to overcome the challenges of Qualifying, to win, and to advance into the U.S. Open Cup.Dan Vaughn is a veteran soccer journalist and the founder and editor of Protagonist Soccer. Follow him at @TheDanVaughn on Twitter/X.