As Cal FC returns to U.S. Open Cup play on Saturday at San Francisco City FC, they do so with a bigger target on their backs than any of the other 43 amateur sides entering this year’s tournament.
Such is the burden for a team that wrote one of the competition’s best Cinderella stories in 2012 as they downed two professional sides, including a 1-0 victory over Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers to advance to the tournament’s fourth round.
Everyone considers Cal FC a professional team. The positives are that we have a ton of guys that want to be on the team. The negative is that we’re not going to be overlooked by anybody. All of a sudden we go from being David and become Goliath. - Cal FC head coach Ross Greaney
While that team, led by former U.S. international Eric Wynalda, was classified as an amateur side, it was more a collection of talented out of contract guys that serendipity brought together for an incredible run. Following their 5-0 fourth round exit to Seattle Sounders FC, a majority of the Cal FC players found their way into professional contracts.
Many, including former U.S. youth international Danny Barrera, followed Wynalda to the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks, helping that side to the league’s Spring Season championship the following year. Goalkeeper Derby Carillo and midfielder Richard Menvijar have parlayed their success into continued call ups for the Salvadoran national team, with both playing in a friendly against Argentina last month.
Three years on from that run, Cal FC is a very different team, but still has the goal of trying to help players move on.
Busy with the increases in Fox Sports’ soccer coverage, Wynalda isn’t on the bench and personnel wise, Barrera, who scored four of the team’s eight goals in 2012, and Jesus Gonzalez (another Silverbacks alum), are the only two players that remain who were part of the historic run.
After stints with Atlanta, the Carolina Railhawks and San Antonio Scorpions the last few years, Barrera has returned to the team as a sort of “general manager”. Working in concert with new head coach Ross Greaney and owner Michael Friedman, the trio had little trouble recruiting another set of talented players to suit up for this year’s tournament.
“Because of the 2012 run, we actually have agents calling us, trying to get players in for the Open Cup,” said Greaney. “We’re in a unique situation in that we’re a pretty high profile amateur club that exists to give chances to guys that are just on the cusp of professional soccer, or have gotten there and been square pegs in round holes for teams.”
Cal FC's magical run in the 2012 U.S. Open Cup ended at Starfire Sports Complex at the hands of Seattle Sounders FC, but the legend of that run continues to prove a powerful recruiting tool for the Oxnard, California-based club.
Though the team did take part in last year’s Open Cup, the roster wasn’t quite as strong as in 2012. The club took a 6-1 Second Round shellacking from LA Galaxy II.
Along with Barrera, the re-tooled crop of Cal FC talent includes former San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Jake Hustedt and a list of players that have featured in USL or NASL the past few seasons: midfielder Abraham Villon (Oklahoma City Energy), defender Edgar Espinoza (Atlanta Silverbacks), forward Luis Gonzalez and defender Conor Hearn (both Orange County Blues).
As he rounded off the list of players he helped recruit this year, Barrera, who is again hoping to parlay an Open Cup run into another contract, said he feels that the talent level is actually higher than that of the team in 2012, though the mantra and approach remain the same.
“This team changes from year to year as far as guys going pro and coming in and out,” Barrera told ussoccer.com “The atmosphere that we put out from this team is that we’re here to be serious, enjoy ourselves and we’re a bunch of good players that can play at a high level. Everyone’s unselfish and it doesn’t matter who’s getting the goals as long as we’re winning games, we know that ultimately pushes us to more exposure.”
As he’s taken the tactical reigns of the side this year, Greaney agreed with Barrera’s assessment of the talent level, but lamented the fact that because most of the players are in search of contracts, day jobs keep them from training together more than a few times a week.
“A head coach of a professional team has to look at the situation and think these guys can come together and play well and imagine what they could do with daily training together,” Greaney said. “[For us] it’s a short term proposition, but I really believe, if you had all these guys together for a long time, you could make an excellent USL team.”
Cal FC players celebrate knocking off professional Division 1 side Portland Timbers of MLS in the Third Round of the U.S. Open Cup at then JELD-WEN Field in Portland, Oregon.
The Cal FC name now carries with it pressure and expectations that Greaney and his team will have to deal with, beginning with Saturday’s “Play-In” match at San Francisco City FC.
“Everyone considers Cal FC a professional team,” he said. The positives are that we have a ton of guys that want to be on the team. The negative is that we’re not going to be overlooked by anybody. San Francisco is going to look at this as a professional team coming in to do their job and all of a sudden we go from being David and become Goliath.
“The players we get trying out and not making the roster, that luxury, I don’t think we’d trade that to maybe alter San Francisco’s mindset in any way.”
Meanwhile, Barrera says that any pressure on his team is good for each player in the end.
“We’re all guys that have been in big games here and there,” he said. “We should want some pressure in these matches; we want more pressure games when we get back to the pros.”