Fox Soccer will be at Starfire Sports Stadium tonight for one reason: “Hoosiers.”
Or maybe “Rocky.” Or “The Mighty Ducks.” Or “Rudy.” Pick your underdog sports story – but this time as reality TV.
In this case, the role of Goliath will be played by Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer. David is Cal FC, an amateur soccer club with a buddy-can-you-spare-a-dime budget and a roster full of guys who hoped to become professional soccer players but ended up as waiters or valets or real estate salesmen.
Except, former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda decided that shouldn’t be the end. So he created a club and started rounding up players who needed a second chance.
Then he entered his team in the U.S. Open Cup – the nation’s club championship, open to all amateur and professional teams with membership in U.S. Soccer.
An amazing story started to unfold for the team based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles.
There was a win over the Kitsap Pumas, a professional club and defending champion of the Premier Development League. This a win over the Wilmington Hammerheads of USL-Pro. And last week, an upset of the Portland Timbers from MLS, the top league in the United States and Canada.
“My message (before the Portland game) was simple: ‘This is what you wanted,’ ” Wynalda said. “… ‘You guys want to be professional soccer players. … There they are. That’s not the reserves. There will not be an excuse after this is over. That’s who you wanted to play, that’s who you got. Go get them.’ ”
They did. Their reward was another step along the tournament road and another shot at an MLS club.
So, Cal FC has become the little club that could.
But could do what?
Possibly succeed in MLS, if given the right professional environment, according to their coach.
“I think this team would be very competitive in a week-in and week-out schedule,” Wynalda said in a conference call Monday. “Obviously, we’d need a little bit more depth, and that’s part of it. But … if I had the resources to pay these guys what they deserve, this could and should be an MLS team.”
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid called Cal FC a high quality developmental team, but he seemed skeptical that it is of MLS quality.
“Eric’s never lacked for confidence,” Schmid said. “So he’s just expressing confidence in his team.”
At this stage of his players’ careers, Wynalda said, confidence is just what they need.
“When I first started this, they were so beat up and so in doubt about whether this was going to happen for them,” he said. “I think that believing in them and being one of the guys that believed this was going to happen was one part of it. But I think that they believe in themselves now is probably the coolest part about all of this.”
Even as belief replaces doubt, other obstacles remain.
The players’ dependence on those day jobs makes their training schedule seem more like a suggestion. The sister of one of the players volunteers as team trainer. Funding comes from an unconventional combination of sources.
“Some of it has come out of my own pocket,” Wynalda said. “There are things that you’ve got to play for. I’ve just basically told my agent, ‘Just book me so I can get appearances that can allow me to generate some income that I can dump into this team.’ That’s the way we’ve handled it. … There are several fundraisers that are on Twitter (who) have actually just contributed money. They’ve figured out the link and been very generous. There’s a lady, I think she donated $2,000 to our cause. I wanted to call her personally and tell her, ‘You have no idea how much this means.’ ”
Whether the Cal FC journey ends tonight or further down the line, Wynalda knows the clock is ticking on his creation.
That’s the way he wants it.
“If these guys aren’t with professional teams in August, then I didn’t do my job,” he said. “The idea was to showcase them. Well, first to find them, give them a chance, and then let them play. Let them show us what they can do. … There’s six or seven players who have standing offers to be pros when this is over, and I have every intention of letting that happen.”
Sounders goalkeeper Michael Gspurning has traveled to California to get a second medical opinion on the hip injury that has kept him out since May 2. … Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said Schmid likely had multiple motivations for his weekend comments implying that the U.S. Open Cup draw is rigged. Hanauer indicated it is not the club’s position but he “100 percent” supports Schmid’s call for transparency in the draw process. … CONCACAF will stage the draw for its 2012-13 Champions League today. The Sounders qualified by virtue of their 2011 Open Cup championship.
CAL FC (USASA) AT SOUNDERS FC (MLS)
7 p.m., Starfire Sports Stadium, Tukwila.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel. RADIO: None.
ONLINE STREAMING: SoundersFC.com.
NOTES: This is a fourth-round match of the U.S. Open Cup. … Seattle has won the past three Open Cup titles. No club has won four in a row. … This is the 99th edition of the tournament, making it the oldest annual team tournament in the United States. It is open to all amateur and professional clubs affiliated with U.S. Soccer. … Cal FC is an amateur club created and coached by former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda to give players a second chance at professional careers. … Cal goalkeeper Derby Carrillo tried out for the Sounders and played for the Kitsap Pumas. … Cal FC entered the tournament in the first round and advanced by beating Kitsap, 3-1; Wilmington, 4-0; and Portland, 1-0. Seattle joined in the third round, and defeated Atlanta, 5-1.
QUOTABLE: “Their team is comprised of a lot of players that still have ambitions to play professional soccer. … Their average age is probably 22 or 23 or so. I think (defender/midfielder) Mike Randolph is their oldest guy at 26. Technically, they’re a much better team than, say, Atlanta was. Individually, their players are very good technically, and individually they can cause you some problems, for sure.” – Sounders coach Sigi Schmid on Cal FC.
NEXT: If the Sounders advance, their fifth-round match would be June 26 on the road against the San Jose-Minnesota winner. Seattle returns to MLS play June 16 at Montreal.