This is the third 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.
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