Vermont Green FC & the Lullaby of Burlington

The New Boys from Vermont are riding a wave of youthful exuberance in their first U.S. Open Cup – and the vibes coming out of Virtue Field are spreading far and wide.
By: Jonah Fontela

How about those kids up in Burlington?

Put the question to anyone with even a passing interest in soccer in the Northeast and they’ll know exactly what you mean. Vermont Green FC, the amateurs causing a sensation in this year’s Open Cup are those kids and what they’re doing up in Burlington is conjuring the rarest and most precious kind of Cup Magic.

Zach Barrett, 22, scored five minutes into the Open Cup First Round game at home against pro side Lexington SC. Five minutes after that, Nick Lockerman doubled the lead. "Sh*t, what do we do now?" Barrett asked himself at the time. "Up by two. Your heart is pumping so fast. You’re beating this pro team. The crowd is going insane.”

What he, and the rest of his team did, was calm down. Breathe. They trusted their training. And they trusted each other’s abilities. They may be unpaid amateurs, patched-worked together from their own colleges in the space of a few days in their off-season, but they know the game. “The chemistry was there," said Barrett. "You could tell.”

In the 48 hours they had to train together before kick-off, set pieces were the key. “It’s what you control when you come in on a Saturday and play on a Tuesday,” said Jacob Labovitz, who scored a crucial third before the half. Three of Vermont Green’s goals in the 4-3 win came from corner-kicks.

“It may have been 3,000 [fans], but it felt like 30,000,” remembered Barrett a few days after scoring the header at the back post that will stand as the first goal scored on Vermont soil in the 109-year-history of the U.S. Open Cup. “It’s a huge boost for us and it really raises the pressure on visiting teams.”

Scenes at Virtue Field

Though Barrett is unlikely to know it, busy as he was, there was a young boy behind the goal where he scored that historic first. He was watching the action while sliding on his butt down a huge mound of freshly plowed snow. It’s Vermont after all and several inches fell the night before the game.

Youth is the fuel that animates this Green Movement. The club’s regular season is the summer, when the scholastic calendar breaks (it’s why these early rounds of the Open Cup pose such a challenge). And the club is intimately connected to the recent emergence of the University of Vermont – on whose campus Virtue Field is located – becoming an NCAA soccer powerhouse.

“Vermont is traditionally big on hockey,” said Barrett, a Pennsylvania native who’s come to think of Vermont as home during his four years at UVM. “But you’re really seeing a soccer buzz here now.” 

“People were screaming and crying and jumping up and down – kids were staying up past their bedtimes,” said Tyler Littwin, member of the Green Mountain Bhoys supporters group, about the sustained energy of the game. “People, not huge fans and not overly effusive by nature, were saying that this was the best game they’d ever been to.”

A graphic designer with a past as an indie rocker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Littwin sees connections between this young soccer club, founded in 2021, and the local music scenes born of passion and DIY urges. “It feels like being at the best all-ages shows back in the day,” he said of Vermont Green games. “There’s no separation between the bands and the room and the crowd and the people putting on the show. The players are just as excited as the fans.

“There’s a communal feel,” he added. “As you move up the levels, you kind of lose that. Players in MLS can’t sign everyone’s shirt after the game, but these guys can.”

It’s a valid point. At least one kid went home with an autograph on his forehead in what looked like permanent marker. “My kids wanted to wear their Vermont Green shirts to school the next day – the whole thing is beyond words,” Littwin said.

One young fan goes home with a souvenir (on his head, on a school night)

This is Vermont. The land of aging hippies and warm mittens. Home of radical politics and welcoming communal vibrations. Everyone associated with this fresh, new soccer club is engaged in an all-hands-on-deck effort. A labor of love.

Senator Bernie Sanders, long-time champion of the underdog, tweeted out congratulations on the Green’s historic win to his millions of followers. “People like underdogs winning – and that resonates far outside our tiny city,” said Littwin. “They also like nice people doing nice things.”

Vermont is for the Dreamers

There may never have been a club more perfectly tuned in to a local frequency. The jerseys the players wear are made from 100 percent recycled materials and the messaging is all about justice, equality, and ecological responsibility.

The first 45 minutes of the First Round game were fueled by adrenaline. Vermont Green were up 3-1 when the halftime whistle ended it. There were 45 minutes to go and fitness, for college kids recently back from their spring breaks, was going to be a factor. So was the fact that the Lexington players – who flew in from Kentucky as heavy favorites – were getting an earful in their locker room from head coach and former Inter Miami assistant Darren Powell.

“You could hear it through the wall in the bathroom,” Barrett chuckled about the tongue-lashing. “One of our guys could hear them fully getting screamed at.”

Vermont Green FC – a young club with young fans

Labovitz, scorer of the game’s third goal, was a college star at Fairleigh Dickinson and Virginia Tech. He spent the last two seasons with USL League One Pros Greenville Triumph – so he knows the quality of the Lexington players, especially veteran striker Cameron Lancaster who ended up turning the screws late in the game with a pair of goals.

“It’s such a great grassroots club going on here. And who doesn’t love the underdog?” said Labovitz, who saw enough of the pro game in two seasons in South Carolina to know he wanted something else. “It’s Vermont in March. It’s freezing and there are 3,000 people here. That tells you everything.

“Anything could have happened,” he added. “But when you know there are people who love the team as much as you do, that’s in the back of your mind. You know there are people out there who it would mean a whole lot to if you won.”

Amateur Joys and Challenges 

“All these players went home the next day and our attention turned pretty quickly,” coach Adam Pfeifer said, outlining the challenges his team still faces. “Who’s available to come back for the Second Round [against MLS NEXT Pros Carolina Core FC on April 3rd]? Getting field space is a thing – pulling all that together while doing other jobs is the challenge.” 

Pfeifer’s job when he isn't coaching Vermont Green is serving as the athletic director at New Hampshire’s Kimball Union Academy, known for its outstanding sports programs.

Even Pfeifer, who lives in the land of Xs and Os, recognizes the power of the crowd at Virtue Field. “You can’t let it affect your decision-making, but you have to let them push you on when your legs are tired. We often draw these kinds of numbers, but the energy was different that night.”

It took about 20 minutes for Pfeifer, formerly an assistant coach at Northeastern and head coach at Norwich University, to realize “we hadn’t won a championship.” The former playing star at Boston College had to remind himself that “we have another game to prepare for back here in under two weeks.”

Such was the energy around the win.

Coach Adam Pfeifer and his daughter share a moment after the win

The history and the meaning of the moment, however, hit him right away.

“My two little girls came down to the field when the game ended,” he said of his four-year-old (“terrified”) and his eight-year-old (“smiling ear to ear”). “It hit me pretty quickly, the history we made, and that my girls were going to be telling their friends all about it.

“It was the best feeling I’ve ever had on a soccer field.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.