The FIFA international break, for a soccer addict like me (I watched seven soccer matches last Sunday, beginning at 6am and ending at 10:30pm because I clearly have a problem) is somewhere in between a welcome detox and a mind-numbing stretch of boredom. Yeah, there was some soccer worth watching. That US-Mexico game was really entertaining. With the exception of the first 20 minutes of the USA looking hapless in the 5-3-2, and Tim Howard getting hurt, and the USMNT losing. Other than that, it was great.
But in the middle of prime MLS playoffs time, with the Rapids within sight of their second ever MLS Cup, taking a week off from domestic soccer is kind of a downer.
Which is why on Sunday I loaded some folding chairs and some bagels and my two kids into the car to go see the Colorado Amateur Soccer League (CASL) Fall 2016 Cup Final between local rivals, FC Denver and Harpos FC.
CASL has 20 teams in it’s Open Amateur Division. As a member of USSSA (United States Specialty Sports Association), CASL league champs get the chance to enter the Lamar Hunt Open Cup. Harpos were USSSA’s representative to the first round of the US Open Cup in 2016 and 2015. Both times they were knocked out by USL’s Colorado Springs Switchbacks in the second round.
But Harpos has a fan following and a lot of love because of both its success and its open acknowledgement that, as a soccer team that emerged from a Boulder area bar, their opponents take to regard them lightly. Hence their cool hashtag, #bullshitpubteam. In this game, one could have pegged FC Denver as the underdogs, owing to Harpos FC’s appearances in the Open Cup raising their national profile, especially after their surprise 2015 run. But that might be presumptuous. FC Denver carried a 4-2 record, equal to Harpos 4-2, and both teams outlasted some real talent in the CASL League and playoffs.** Even though FC Denver haven’t qualified for an Open Cup, it feels appropriate to add and emphasize the word “yet”.
It was a beautiful day to be outside, and the quality of soccer was higher than you might expect for two teams located in the sixth tier of the US Soccer pyramid .* For highlights, check out Patrick Shea’s fantastic site, Current of Colorado. You can even catch a glimpse of me on the sidelines. Feeding a bagel to a six year old.
Harpos controlled possession and applied constant pressure through the first 20 minutes. FC Denver found a rhythm and had some chances later in the half. At the 81st minute, Harpos player Santiago Velez delivered a curling cross that Ben Donovan slammed home a goal off a corner kick, and saw out the victory to take home the trophy.
Harpos Owner/Manager Johnny Freeston told me “We had greater possession and knew that if we kept creating opportunities then one would eventually go in. We enjoyed scoring on a corner kick after working on them in training.” Freeston was optimistic about the Spring season, saying that Harpos had already signed five new players, signing off by saying “We are always moving Onwards and Upwards!!”
Meanwhile FC Denver’s manager and president, Eric Ridgeway Fulton, was clearly disappointed by the loss. “Harpos did well and congrats to them,” said Fulton, “but we are better than we played yesterday. It's tough to leave the field, especially after a final, feeling that way.” Fulton thought that perhaps the short field length, maybe 75 to 80 yards instead of the typical 110 yards, had an adverse effect on his teams performance.
FC Denver Head Coach Tyler Whitesides agreed about the challenge presented by the shortened field. Said Whitesides, “Having the goals nearly 20 yards closer to one another really hindered the spacing in-behind, which didn’t allow for through balls in the final third to be as effective as they would on any other occasion. FC Denver didn’t work the channels with diagonal runs and were not effective in breaking lines with a pass. Those things are a credit to Harpos.”***
Ace podcaster, local soccer guru, and malted beverage aficionado Richard Terry really enjoyed the tightly contested match, and thought that Denver were unlucky to bag the late equalizer, but added “if you don’t score, you can’t win.” Sage words, Terry. Of the game, Terry also said, “Fantastic to see these two sides battle it out in the CASL final and it says a lot about grass roots soccer in Colorado.”
I couldn’t agree more with that last sentiment: there is truly something beautiful about grassroots. While I really like the atmosphere and convenience of going to DSGP for a Rapids game, with its comfy seats, giant video screen, and merchandise shop, local soccer is often of a really high quality. The players have a tremendous amount of commitment and heart, since they work a day job and don’t earn a dime for their efforts on the pitch. They really appreciate fans coming out and supporting them.
Whitesides feels the same way. The FC Denver coach told me “When you coach guys you know who are not there for the money, but for love of the game, it changes the way the game is appreciated. I love soccer as a game, but I love it more when I am with people who are there because of the same reason. It is organic, it is raw, and makes the football romantic in me fill with hope and joy when I watch it.” Ditto for me, Tyler.
I’ll add to that the sense of excitement that I get from seeing little teams that, someday, might get a crack at the much bigger teams. There may someday come a time when a team like Harpos or FC Denver can play their way up and into a head-to-head with a big time professional side, whether that comes about from an institution of promotion/relegation, or simply by knocking off a bigger team in the US Open Cup. The ball the two teams kick around still round, and the goals are the same size. As unlikely as it is, a CASL League Champion might pull a ‘Hoosiers’-like upset on the LA Galaxy or the Colorado Rapids, should they get a chance to square off.****
Someday, not too far in the future, perhaps teams like FC Denver and leagues like CASL will become as beloved and ingrained in America’s nascent soccer culture as the small teams have in places like England, Germany, and Argentina. Organized soccer began with teams like these 150 years ago in England, when a few dozen men gathered to watch teams like Stoke City and Nottingham Forest kick a ball back and forth, not for sponsorship dollars or £92 million transfer fees, but for the pure love of the game.
You might want to get on the bandwagon sooner rather than later, though. Before the crowds obscure your view. And before Richard Terry drinks all the beer.
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* Technically, USSSA isn’t even listed on the pyramid. So feel free to tell me their actually in the 5th tier. Or 37th.
** Originally this article stated that FC Denver was 6-0. There are two FC Denver teams: Premier and United, and I mixed them up.
***/**** These comments were added after the original publication of the article. Thanks to Tyler for sharing his insight.