Allegory of the U.S. Open Cup: Harpos FC
True: Conforming to reality or fact. Or conforming to a standard, measure, or pattern.
Real: Based on fact, observation, or experience and so, is undisputed; in other words, honest or sincere, not feigned
Can they exist separately - I'm thinking about the debate between the immovable object versus the unstoppable force - which one overcomes?
Suppose this as we venture up the dank cave and into the light; what is true in our beloved game of American soccer can also be false at the same time.
Let's start slowly, and tap-dance around the definitions above by using a subject (footballer) you're all too familiar with - David Beckham. David's a real guy. He's living, breathing, and currently existing. What then is true about David Beckham? Why don't we let Vancouver Whitecaps team President, Bob Lenarduzzi, take a crack at this:
"Not only was Beckham a good player, but a good looking guy, Spice Girl wife, it's the whole package. He got it as well. He went to play a friendly in Vancouver and he stood around to sign autographs. Henry (Thierry Henry) was a great player, but in terms of a role model in this league (MLS) he did zero."
Bob Lenarduzzi - Nov. 2015
Are Lenarduzzi's comments about Thierry Henry's contributions true or false? I doubt very much Thierry would agree with Lenarduzzi's outlook. How about the comments on David "getting it," as in, He got it as well. What did David get that Thierry didn't? I doubt very much that it was about scoring goals from the run of play.
Let's tackle the opposite of real then. What comes to mind: Imaginary? Invalid? Fake? How about nothing - that is to say, (no) thing exists. You might be thinking to yourself, what about, unreal or not real? Unfortunately, I theorize that both are attempts of the thinking mind (just doing it's job by the way), trying to compartmentalize through conformity, which is based upon our perception, which is based upon patterns we identify through our experience, which are based upon our beliefs. What is real, has also been (no)thing. There is no pretense in the real category - things simply are, or they aren't. Just as you are now, so too were you once not.
Now with a foundation in place, and my pontificating out of the way, let's talk about something real (and true) and much, much lighter! Harpos FC.
Nestled by the Flatirons - jutting rock formations pressed by the Gods - Jose Bueno (Real name - Real person) nervously paces, weaving in between Harpos FC supporters, much the way a three-year-old likes to explore the clothing racks at department stores (A playful activity I used to enjoy at the tender, yet salacious age of three. Thirty odd years ago I was notorious for defecating in my snug, husky-fitting corduroy trousers due to the apparent excitement and thrill of hiding from my mother inside the racks, while she and countless other women perused the sale racks for the season's hottest blouse, or so I've been told). Jose Bueno's frantic encircling could rival that of any wet hen about to meet her expiration date, but today's nothing of the sort. Today is the national title game of the Premier Arena Soccer League (PASL) tournament and we're waiting for its resolution through shoot out.
In the wintry shadows of the godly Flatirons, the Boulder, CO based semi-professional soccer team, Harpos FC, have huddled together - shoulder to shoulder, weaving their arms no tighter than an industry grade hemp knot - hanging onto every word of their coach, Steve Lepper, and Johnny Freeston - owner/manager and hawkish spirit animal of the team. With 28 seconds remaining in the title game, Harpos FC's Joey Matibag re-directed a ball goal bound with this forehead, just past the out-stretched digits of the opposing goalkeeper, leveling the score against the Rio Grande Valley Devils (Texas) at five a piece.
Among the many things about Harpos FC that I have come to appreciate over the past year, their incessant use of the huddle strikes me first. That, and their attitude for each other, especially in that exact moment as Lepper and Freeston wax emotive tactics.
In 2015 I contacted Freeston about interviewing Harpos FC before their U.S. Open Cup qualifier against Colorado Rush. Stock questions were up my sleeve; I'd interview them for a football podcast that I co-hosted with Jose Bueno, Flakoglost Futbol Pod, and then be on my merry way. But, as the Gods are emphatically aware, the law of attraction doesn't jive that way. And I'm sure if Jose Bueno would stop pacing he'd likely agree.
The Harpos huddle breaks and the inimitably tall, rabble-rousing forward, Shane Wheeler stalks over to the crowd, "C'mon!" he yells, clapping his hands together. "C'mon!"
Our response back is volcanic. "LETS GO HARPOS!" We scream and bang at the glass. The chaotic din of a thousand voices caroms off the white padded walls, hovering over the dense and dewless turf. I look over at Jose Bueno. He's a wobbly top helplessly running into screaming humans standing within a mere tongue lick's length from the glass. "H.A.R - P.O.S - HARPOS are the FUCKIN' BEST!" He sings.
Those around Jose Bueno are amused.
Nearly one year to the day I stood under the roof of the Holmesdale end at Selhurst Park, enjoying the predominant sounds of the male mating call for South London's, Crystal Palace (I am not a Palace supporter, but with the Crystal's and their high leg kicks, Kayla the Bald Eagle flying about before kick-off, and the supporters ceaselessly singing, every bit of it was authentic and felt like true community). One year later, in Boulder, to experience that same fervor and authenticity, similar passion for a team very much tied to it's own community - albeit on a minor scale, especially when 30 minutes away a Major League Soccer (MLS) game staring Steven Gerrard and Nigel De Jong, Shkelzen Gashi and Jared Watts ticked itself into the 90th minute - my love and support for a non-league, community football club was fully realized.
Jose Bueno tends to tell people in our football circle (or anyone willing to listen) why supporting community soccer in America matters, and why soccer fans should support the game at the grassroots level. When he's not met with a blank stare (And I assume the glances that Jose has received when talking about such a topic are uncannily similar to those that I likely received from some woman, who, while shopping for a blouse, was startled to find a three year-old stinking of maple syrup, secretly shitting his snug-fitting corduroy trousers) he's occasionally met with criticism for wasting his time and support on non-league teams such as Harpos FC.
"You should feel lucky just to have an MLS team in your backyard!" The dubitable will criticize Jose Bueno, road testing the one-liners they read earlier that day from the "comments section" of a soccer blog.
Other comments Jose Bueno faces border willful ignorance - as to how the game has evolved globally - especially in pockets where professional leagues don't exist, not to mention impoverished pockets. "How can you watch a bunch of has-beens?" They'll sometimes say to Jose Bueno. "Harpos doesn't even play in a minor league!"
Undoubtedly Jose will say something polite (or reference the non-league troubadour, turned household hero, Jamie Vardy) and I'm 85% paraphrasing Jose Bueno, "Harpos are special because they do the little things right, they play for each other, they win and lose together, they're always striving to become better, without regard for money."
Kind of hard to argue with Jose Bueno there, isn't it?
Freeston, Harpos' spirit animal, told me the first time we met, "One of the common denominators across our team, is that everyone is passionate about wanting to be successful together, realizing that it's not all about themselves, or the team, or even the club, you're playing for a bigger reason, and that's to enrich your life."
If I were to ask Jose Bueno right now, while he frenetically paces, waiting for the shoot out to commence, "Jose! Does Harpos FC go above and beyond?"
He would nod his head approvingly.
"Why is that Jose?" I would then ask.
Jose Bueno would then likely become frustrated with my haranguing. And not just because we're about to watch a shoot out that will decide the national title, more so because the answer isn't easily explained away by language. The answer to this labyrinth takes crafting. Thought. What is felt - simply, honestly - together as strangers, together as a community, is special. Whenever I hear somebody talk or tweet about Harpos FC, my limbic system warms with positivism.
I ordered the Golden Monkey, a Belgian-Style tripel from Victory Brewing then texted Freeston, letting him know that I had arrived at our meeting place, Harpos Sports Bar. Tripel's had a tendency to fall outside my comfort zone, but I felt brave and ready to tease my liver with something different, which later reminded me that being brave also meant opening yourself up to vulnerability.
I found a corner booth, shook salt on a coaster, and then spread my things out (one pen, Tascam recorder, piece of paper). I was ready. Eager.
In the corner pocket of the bar, Ex-Colorado Rapids and U.S. National Team player, Marcelo Balboa and Colorado Rapids media personality, Richard Fleming, graced an inaudible flat screen television for their weekly behind the scenes look of the Colorado Rapids - Rapids Report. Side note: In the fifteen minutes that I actively watched the inaudible Rapids Report I counted Fleming blink maybe ten times? Maybe. Fleming, I assumed, had impressively efficient tear ducts.
Quietly talking shop, Balboa and Fleming's furtive gestures about MLS's Colorado Rapids spoke volumes, Next Year?
Then I heard, "You must be Todd?"
"With two D's!" I say standing up.
It was Steve. He slid in across the booth. Undoubtedly he looked like a soccer coach, steely grin, fit. Within moments there was a beer in front of him. Balboa and Fleming waived goodbye over Steve's right shoulder as he took a sip. As much as I wanted to waive back - for no other reason than that's what you do when someone waives at you - giving off the impression that I had just waived at the television might be a put off to Steve. I cupped my tripel instead.
"Glad you could make it!" I tell him.
Freeston had texted, informing that Steve would also be joining us, and that Steve's perspective was, crucial! That word, crucial, snapped around my amygdala like an angry daddy with a rubber hose. Other than the time when my mother drug my father and I by our arms to the parking lot where the Trans Am was cooling down, saying that it was ‘crucial to get Todd out of Kmart because he shit his pants in the clothing racks again,' I wondered if there had ever been a time when the word crucial had been used in relation to me, but with an endearing spin?
Quickly Lepper and I find common ground between stories of international travel and soccer teams we followed. As Midwesterner's we played the name game, as there was a chance that we could connect ourselves through one or two degrees of separation. The dots on a Midwestern map usually goes like so; my Aunt Debbie who once lived in Iowa, but now lives in South Dakota, her son Stewart, my cousin, played soccer. And when Stewart turned thirteen and got his driver's permit, he'd pimp himself around Iowa on his little red moped, usually with a pretty little blonde girl strapped to his backside. This girl, whatever her name might have been, Dolly let's say, well Dolly's cousin Neil just so happened to live in the same Michigan town as Steve, where they were likely to have been each other's arch-nemesis' on the pitch.
Besides being a Michigander, Steve spent part of his adolescence growing up in Zurich, Switzerland where he became accustomed to watching the German Bundesliga and the English Premiership. Neil on the other hand had never heard of Switzerland because Neil wasn't real.
Then I heard, "You must be Todd?"
It was Freeston. Grinning like an alley cat. And no sooner than I blink - and I did the math, I out blink Fleming 78/1 - a beer appears in front of Freeston. He's mannered. Jovial. Gregarious.
In the time that Chivas USA, RIP 2004-2014, was laughed out of Major League Soccer, Harpos FC has managed to evolve from a bullshit pub team - their moniker not mine - playing in the City of Boulder D-1 men's league, to having a surplus of talent that rarely loses a game in the Colorado Amateur Soccer League (CASL) a member league of the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA). Under Freeston's managerial direction Harpos FC has been repurposed into a destination amateur team for many players who still want to play after leaving college.
"Attitude is everything to us." Freeston will motion towards Steve, "We look for what others might have missed (referring to other professional and semi-professional teams). But if someone's selfish or a mercenary, someone who doesn't get the bigger picture of what we're all about, and innately doesn't have the desire, then that individual is not for us. On the flip side seeing the guys that came to us between 2010 and 2013, when they were maybe a little more immature, now to see where they're at, at who've they've become - as men and leaders is pretty amazing!"
He'd never admit this but Freeston's attitude for life germinates the entire operation. With his high value on attitude and his appreciation for stoicism - an admirer of Marcus Aurelius's, Meditations - Harpos FC players (knowingly or unknowingly) embody these same values that are crucial to Freeston.
"Living for each other by playing for each other," Freeston will later say.
Studying the Harpos FC website, verbiage of brotherhood and character can be found in most the player profiles. Harpos FC Captain, Dan Campbell: "Brotherhood. I'd be playing soccer every Sunday somewhere, but there's no amateur team in the country that combines winning with a family atmosphere with such success at Harpos. That comes down to one man, the Godfather, John Freeston. He is why I love Harpos FC."
"Brothers. Character. Excellence. It's kind of our mission statement." Says Freeston after I bring this to his attention.
Another word came to my mind. Willing. Everyone had to be willing.
"Fortunately we have a great group of guys right now who put the team before themselves." Lepper and Freeston don't exactly say it but I get the sense that a pack mentality has developed over the past decade. "Whether that's playing out of position. Being a starter, non-starter. Being a squad player instead of being in the line-up. They do it for all the right reasons which is why I think we're having the success were having right now."
For the American soccer purist, the U.S. Open Cup - a tournament spanning 100 years - to many (myself included) is considered the quintessential domestic soccer competition in the United States. Based on sporting merit, it's the lone opportunity for a semi-professional soccer team from Boulder, CO to star as America's favorite tragic-comic character - the wily underdog. Not only do Freeston and Lepper accept this label, they relish it. Over the last three years they have methodically pieced together a group of guys whom they believe is primed for early round Open Cup success. To beat teams who, on paper, are supposed to be better than they are.
"Underlining the goals to the guys at the start of the season," Freeston confesses to me like I'm in need of some convincing, "We wanted to qualify for the U.S. Open Cup. And once we got to the Open Cup, we didn't want to beat or just play against amateur teams, we didn't want to beat or just play NPSL or PDL teams, I think we're good enough to face a USL team."
In April 2015 after defeating Brigham Young University (BYU) Cougars of the Premier Development League (PDL) in the U.S. Open Cup, Harpos FC then drew the United Soccer League (USL) side, Colorado Switchbacks in the second round of the Open Cup. Currently the USL carries a division three tag in the stilted US soccer pyramid.
On a waterlogged pitch in Colorado Springs, 60 miles south of Denver, Harpos FC found themselves down a goal to the Switchbacks in the first minute of the second round game. Freeston and Lepper remember feeling a sense of panic after conceding early, thinking, "What in the hell have we gotten ourselves into?"
Harpos FC would eventually grow into the game, showing well, hitting the post in the dying moments. The Switchbacks would go on to win 2-1, ending Harpos' Cinderella run. It's worth noting that the Switchbacks would have a successful inaugural season in 2015, making it to the USL's conference semi-finals.
"We made two amateur mistakes in that game that cost us, and they were both team mistakes, both were completely avoidable." I was willing to bet that if past moments were calculable, Freeston would have worked out the quantum quotient enabling him to turn back the clock. "I have to give props to our guys though, 100% for their character, they fought back, and we probably should have gone on to win that game."
The result against the Switchbacks in the U.S. Open Cup was an eye opener for Coach Lepper too. The one time executive director for St. Vrain FC, a youth soccer organization in the Longmont and Boulder area felt like they showed well, "That game against the Switchbacks, if anything, as a coach, it scratches that competitive itch. We went into halftime saying, ‘Hey we can do this! Let's just go out there and play our game. Who cares if we're a pub team! Who cares if we're a bunch of guys that aren't pros with jobs we have to be at in the morning.'" He'll later equate showing well in the Open Cup competition with the high level of skill and steady competition found playing in CASL.
We pause the interview because a tour of their legacy sponsor, Avery Brewing Company was in order. Prior to leaving, Freeston will entrust me enough to hold one of the club's heavier, shinier trophies that they won at the Vail, CO Open Invitational Tournament in 2012.
"This one was broken in half when we got it," Freeston hands it to me. "We made sure they fixed it before we got it back."
Now, here's where I'm faced with a serious challenge. I've always prided myself on my baby holding abilities, but holding trophies that you yourself did not help to win? Unforgivable. In the hockey community where I grew up (Jamestown, ND) the idea of putting your sweaty smelling paws (the smell of sweat soaked hockey gloves has a distinct smell, if you're unaware. The best analogy I can come up with is a leather wrapped taint, baking in the sun. This pungent aroma has the ability to arouse the olfactory senses of any hockey mom. And I'd know. Between the ages of three and seventeen, my mother would enter a room and say, "It smells like a locker room in here. Doesn't it?" regardless of occupant. I truly worry for the day when she ends up in a nursing home. The orderlies will refer to her as Sour Judy, as sour is her catch all descriptor for any and all biting smells) onto a trophy was sacrilegious. A curse. To hold a trophy that you did not win, you'd be banished to the fourth line. Oddly enough, I spent a lot of time on the fourth line.
My time holding the Harpos FC silverware was brief.
The practice field where Harpos FC train is windswept with leaves and gridiron markings. The actual turf however, fresh as a daisy-wrapped sanitary napkin. Training for Harpos FC starts when most in the sleepy Denver suburb (Superior) set their work-hassled eyes to Prime Time television, where on that particular evening, internationally renowned, and for what it's worth, Grammy winning recording artist John Mayer (Your body is a Wonderland) had proclaimed to the nation that he was (Still is, I think? Can't be too sure with these egomaniacs) an ego addict in recovery, or as he actually put it, A Recovered Ego Addict (Sorry Mayer, I'm calling bullshit).
Out in the cold of November, Harpos' players shake away the lactic acid by corralling themselves into games of keep away. There's a belief among Harpos FC that they are the hardest working soccer team between 8 and 10 pm in the entire world. No bullshit.
Lepper invited me out to watch their final Monday practice before the Open Cup qualifier against Colorado Rush. What I thought was an affable gesture over beers turned out to be a genuine offer, and to Lepper's credit, he followed through with an email providing practice plans, roster, the whole enchilada.
"Hey Todd? Is that you?" I hear Lepper calling out from the touchline, dividing his players into opposing teams. He's waived me over for a round of introductions. Never one to interrupt (a Midwestern thing) I found a light post to lean on. Lepper had this almost incredulous look on his face, as if to say, you drove all the way out here to lean against some pole? "Come ‘ere!" Then half-blipped into his whistle. "High intensity boys! Happy feet!"
We small talk while Steve has one eye and one ear on the scrimmage.
"They always do this." He says, putting his hands to hips. "Look at this!"
"What's that?" I say.
Whatever it was I wasn't seeing it.
"Oh. Our starters. Well, more so our reserves, they're kicking the shit out of our starters right now."
In mid sentence, after thanking me for coming out, Steve abruptly runs onto the field like some deluded Aston Villa fan that'd eventually chain himself to the goal sticks in protest. A corner kick didn't go as planned. Someone missed a mark.
"Hey!" Steve screams from top of his horse, he's pointing at players. "Hey! Run that again!"
And there it was. Something Freeston noted at our first meeting. "There's a continual process to want to improve. Having a mentality to win. Raising the bar, to be a little bit better than you were before."
They'll attempt five more corner kicks before playing on.
Lepper's opinion on soccer development in the United States is multi-faceted, nuanced. Yet from a community standpoint pretty straight forward, "Less focus on winning at the youth level, more technical development and allowing a kid a chance to play, whether that's getting rid of the pay for play model or getting more money into the game so kids regardless of economic levels are exposed to the highest levels of coaching, the highest levels of competition."
Coach Lepper's experience with the clipboard says that there's another gap where Harpos are beginning to find a glut of quality players. "There are U-18 academies and then there's MLS. Tens of thousands of players between ages of 18-22 will lose their way, or maybe they won't have the grades for college, or places to play because they need to work. There needs to be more of an opportunity for those players to play and develop in order to make a positive difference in this country."
Not only does Harpos FC attract ex-college players, but they're finding those who couldn't afford to attend university or a college program (and in many cases the 18-22 year-old crowd are starting to reach out to them). Gravity!
The last part of this spectacle begins with the image of Harpos FC's goalkeeper Zac Gibbens positioning himself in goal. He jumps up and down while his first opponent cozies up to the ball with his left foot. This image is, in my humble estimation, a prescient one. Which player would be the unstoppable force? Which reminds me, now seems like a good time to check in on my friend Jose Bueno (yours now too hopefully) who is wholly unaware that Harpos are about to lose this shoot out to Rio Grande Valley Devils.
"I can't do this Toddy." Jose says anxiously. "I hate this game!" He covers his face and turns away. As I eluded, Harpos lose in the shoot out, but Hot Damn there was some good theater in that game!
Afterwards, among the solemn faces, I experienced an honest emotion that caught me by surprise - a real tear!
Holy Shit! I remember thinking.
I couldn't remember the last time that had happened. I didn't want to. Allowing the moment to expand even though it felt like I had been punched in the gut, I let the feeling sit there, without feeling like I had to resist it; simply just appreciating that real life experience.
The thing about soccer (football) in the United States, at least the part that is marketed toward the hip, is that it's exactly what it promises to be. Step off the supporter bus, which you took from the local soccer pub, to the parking lot of a soccer specific stadium, where someone at the tailgate is waiting to place a beer into your hand, as if it were something you had earned after your weekly slaughtering at the keyboard. Then after a plate of questionable sausage from the grill you raise a soccer scarf over your head en route to your seat. This is just like the real thing! You think to yourself, trying to sing along with the crowd, hoping you'll see smoke bombs as advertised.
Well what's wrong with that? You wonder.
Nothing. Nothing is wrong with that.
So what then? You ask.
Remember our initial conundrum? The debate between the immovable object versus the unstoppable force? And which one overcomes?
Yeah, I thought you forgot!
I believe there is a perception problem in this country when it boils down to how great we could become as a footballing nation. The stance and role(s) that we supporters take, in my opinion, is crucial for the games development. I encourage you for one moment to reconsider your belief about what is real and what is true with our Americanized version of the sport. And furthermore, question why it is you believe what you believe. Because how you communicate that as a supporter, actually, really matters. Just ask Johnny and Steve and the rest of Harpos FC.
For what it's worth. I say the U.S. Open Cup competition is, and will continue to become an unstoppable force in this country because it is real and in theory, doesn't exclude teams from entering. While many hurdles are placed in front of teams at the non-league level, in theory, every team playing competitively, even just to qualify, still has a shot to access and win the tournament. Whereas a closed competition (the immovable object) can only be considered a true (and false) competition because it is exclusionary, not open.
The romantic in me wants to say that, like love, the unstoppable force will always find a way, regardless of someone or something's obstinate point of view. So as supporters, let's make the U.S. Open Cup something special, something real. By supporting the players from your communities that are about to participate on May 11th. Because without Harpos FC and their tireless work ethic, along with other non-league entities, the U.S. Open Cup could become meaningless, or worse case scenario...(no)thing.
The gauntlet has been laid down to the gentlemen. Everyone associated with the club - fans, friends, and players - the goal is quite clear for the coming year. Win the PASL National Title game and to be playing in the 4th round of the U.S Open Cup against the (Colorado) Rapids. Not on field 8, outside of the stadium, but inside the stadium against the Rapids. Johnny Freeston - a Real Spirit Animal - and an unstoppable force.
To live outside the law you must be honest - Bob Dylan