This is the second in a three part Burgundy Wave LongForm piece about the US Open Cup and Harpo's FC. Warning: some language may be inappropriate for younger readers and those who are against Promotion and Relegation in the United States.
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.
...to be continued...