Every year, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup gives clubs around the country an opportunity to write some soccer history of their own.
Debuting NPSL side FC Tacoma 253 took their first opportunity earlier this year, improbably using the club’s first two competitive matches to qualify for the 2015 edition of the tournament.
Having launched last September, the club which has ties to Italian Serie A side Fiorentina and was founded in part to provide cultural exchanges to Italian players, used locals to dispatch last year’s NPSL Northwest Conference Champion Spartans Futbol Club 2-1 on February 20. The lone win earned Tacoma a one-game playoff with the Southwest Conference qualifying winners San Diego Flash, who were thrashed 6-1 by the NPSL upstarts on March 23 in Tukwila, Washington.
Two wins and we’re already living a dream. It’s really unexpected what we’ve done for the first year and we don’t want the dream to end. - FC Tacoma 253 head coach Filippo Milano
To keep the dream alive, the club will have to beat the Kitsap Pumas, another local, lower league side that have found immense success playing in the Cascadia shadows of four-time U.S. Open Cup winners Seattle Sounders FC.
The Bremerton, Washington-based side was founded in 2009 by Robin Waite, one of the former owners of the Sounders USL First Division team, who took his USL ownership rights to Kitsap County to begin a Premier Development League club on the other side of the Puget Sound.
One of the key differences in how Waite’s club operates in comparison to other PDL clubs is payment. In effect, the Kitsap Pumas are one of the league’s few teams that identifies as professional.
“Being able to pay players was the primary emphasis when we started,” Waite told ussoccer.com. “We went down to the league AGM in Tampa and people asked, “Where the hell is Kitsap?” and it’s still true to some extent. That gave us a leg up to get started.”
Competing with a number of other PDL teams in the area, the extra incentive Kitsap could offer proved beneficial, with the club qualifying for the Open Cup in each of its first four years of existence. In 2011, they reached the tournament’s third round, where they lost a narrow 2-1 decision to eventual champions Seattle Sounders, but went on to win the PDL North American title later that year. Last season, they finished as runners up, falling 1-0 to the Michigan Bucks in the league’s title game.
The PDL's Kitsap Pumas have carved out a winning tradition since being founded in 2009.
The club’s professional stature and history of success should make them favorites in Wednesday’s first round match in Mount Tahoma, Washington, but a lack of competitive games for his team to this point will certainly make the match against FC Tacoma 253 a bigger challenge.
“We haven’t had everybody together until recently,” Waite said. “We’ve had practice games, but at the same time it’s difficult to figure out who is in your starting group if you don’t have everyone together, practicing against each other.”
To prepare, Kitsap has taken part in a couple of small tournaments, scrimmages and most recently fell 1-0 in a friendly with the University of Washington last Saturday.
In contrast, FC Tacoma 253 has played more than half of their inaugural NPSL schedule, albeit going 1-5-1 along the way. Despite the record, Milano pointed to a few key players that he expects to step up in Wednesday’s first round Open Cup match.
Chief among them is captain and attacker Matt Shaxton. A product of Cal-State Bakersfield who now works construction, the Englishman struck in March’s 6-1 qualifying victory over San Diego. Gareth Vaughan, son of former Cardiff City midfielder Nigel Vaughan tallied a goal and assist in the team’s previous qualifying match, while former Venezuela youth international Pedro Millar brings more high-level experience to a match full of pressure.
One of the club’s cultural exchange prospects is 23-year-old left back Marco Dugo, who joined the side in March after most recently playing for Italian Serie D side Atletico San Giuliano.
“For players like Marco, it’s about getting exposure in the States and coming here is really helping them,” said Milano. “Football in the states is growing fast and for European players coming here, it’s a great opportunity to get visibility in Italy. The fact that Marco is doing well, I might say this guy might be able to move up professionally because he’s doing well here.”
Although only in its inaugural season as a club, FC Tacoma 253 has already found success by qualifying for the 2015 U.S. Open Cup.
More exposure for Dugo and FC Tacoma could come with a first round victory as the winners are set to face USL’s Seattle Sounders 2 in the second round the following week. Meanwhile in Kitsap, a shot at Sounders 2 has Waite excited, although it’s not the same side that dispatched his team in the 2011 tournament.
“We played Seattle straight up in 2011 and only lost 2-1,” said Waite. “Ultimately, a benchmark is to get back and play an MLS team in this competition, but a chance against Seattle’s second team would be a very good step for us.”
While the history and methods between the two Cascadia sides are different, FC Tacoma 253 (named after the city’s area code), are honored to come up against a side that’s as well-regarded locally as Kitsap.
“Washington state is the Sounders, but after the Sounders, the Pumas are very well known and have been successful,” Milano said. “In a small community like Bremerton, they’ve been very popular and have done very well on the field. They bring good players, they play good football and it’s a big opportunity to play them. The difference is that they’re professional and we’re not. We want to compete very hard, we know we’re the underdog but everything can happen in 90 minutes.”
“Makes me think that maybe we are actually doing something well,” Waite said of Milano’s comments. It’s always a question: What are we doing? What can we do more of? We always think we’re doing a good job, but we can do so much more. The fact that another club within the soccer community thinks we’re doing a good job is satisfying. We wish them well save for next Wednesday.”
|Head Coach:||Cameron MacDonald||Filippo Milano|
|Affiliation:||USL Premier Development League||National Premier Soccer League|
|Stadium:||Gordon Field||Mount Tahoma Stadium|
|Appearances/Record:||5th appearance: 2009-2012; 2015
|1st appearance: 2015