On a cool night in Aurora, Kyle Firebaugh and Luke Elbin stand at the end line, arms folded, studying the passes and movement of 22 men on a plastic field. They are debating whether this guy is all the way back from injury, or that guy is going to give them what they need in the midfield. Kyle is a former player and coach, and current board member, for FC Denver. Luke is the General Manager. And normally on most squads, I suppose they wouldn’t be so involved in trying to decide the matchday eleven for the team’s upcoming clash against Indios FC, because the head coach would be doing that. However the head coach, Drew Melin, is busy on the field, playing as the starting center back.
This is how it is for the high level amateur teams that are trying to make it into the US Open Cup: it’s all hands on deck if you want to get through. This weekend is the last match of the three round US Open Qualification process. An original pool of 102 amateur clubs have been pared down to just 28 remaining teams. But only 14 will go on to the 2018 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, one of the oldest soccer tournaments in the world.
Club President Eric Fulton founded FC Denver eleven years ago as a place for adults to play soccer at a high amateur level in the local area. They maintain two top-flight squads, designated as ‘United’ and ‘Premier’, plus an over 30 squad. Kyle and Luke created a healthy rivalry, and then a friendship, in the years they battled each other as the head coaches of each of those respective squads. FC Denver operates a non-profit organization. And while other local clubs like Colorado Rush and Azteca have squads that extend down to competetive youth levels, FC Denver are content for now with having a solid senior team.
That senior team that Elbin has put together for this run at the US Open Cup is an even mix of veterans and youngsters. On the experienced side, you have guys like forward Cesar Castillo, a native of Vail, who played college ball for UC Santa Barbara and was even a reserve for Chivas USA a few years back. “He’s little, quick, plays in tight spaces with the ball, deadly finisher,” explains Elbin. He’s not at practice on this night; it’s too far to drive. But he’ll be there on Saturday.
Player/Coach Drew Melin is a tall, skinny defender, but with the ball skills and composure of a much smaller man. His scarecrow body-type brings to mind Peter Crouch in his younger days. He played with Colorado State in college.
Drew pairs up at center back alongside Joel Miller, who Firebaugh describes as “the best player in Colorado Premier League, for, like, the last eight years.” And although he does have a calm demeanor on the ball and big, solid, prototypical center back physique, I can’t fully get over the fact that Miller is wearing swirly black-and-blue yoga tights. Miller, at 32 years old, is the elder statesman and captain of the team, but Firebaugh emphasizes “He’s aging like a fine wine.” Miller played Division II soccer for Goshen College back in the day.
Just as I ask Elbin and Firebaugh about youngsters, a player clad all in black takes a hip-high swinging volley at a rebound, missing a highlight-reel golazo by just a few inches over the crossbar. “That’s Alex Bernhardt. He’s a winger. He’s been fantastic. Physical, competitive, feisty as hell. And this is on the record: he can be a pain in the ass at times. We expect big things out of him Saturday afternoon.”
A quick flash in a blue t-shirt darts diagonally to start an attack, and Elbin points to him. “Lashaw Salta. We picked up this summer, he’s a tremendous athlete, two-way player, attacking wide defender.” In the previous 30 minutes of practice, the guy had literally been everywhere on the field, scooping up errant passes and making darting, stick-and-move jabs through defenders.
A big man bats away a cross with his head, going up and over the top of Bernhardt with abandon. Elbin grins. “Kyle Heppenstall. He joined us last winter. He showed up to a drop in, which is where we end up picking up a lot of players. And I asked him where he played on the pitch, because we were looking for a holding midfielder. He said ‘I don’t care, I just want to win 50-50 balls.’” All three of us laugh. Elbin continues, “I was like, ‘I love this guy. You’re my holding midfielder.’”
Throughout practice as I stand just beyond the end line, I nervously dodge an occasionally errant shot as it whistles by, or take three steps back as a defender boxes out and muscles the ball away from the ball carrier, shepherding it safely out. This team may play three tiers below Major League Soccer, but the talent and the physicality don’t show it. And the pure passion for the game is every bit the same as you’d see at the professional level.
In 2017 FC Denver made their first appearance in the US Open Cup Qualifiers. “Last year we played against Azteca” says Elbin. Azteca beat FC Denver 3-1 in the first round, then knocked off well-regarded Harpos FC in order to make it into the full US Open. Elbin continues “We played ok. We learned our lessons. We put that loss on the board, and we made it our goal this year to make a run. We know we have the talent, and if we prepared better, we could do some damage.”
Up to now in the Open Cup, FC Denver have done some damage. They knocked off UPSL side Gam United, 3-0, on a rainy afternoon in September. Elbin tells me “We kind of overwhelmed them with our experience. We’ve played in some big matches in the Silver Mug Tournament against Colorado’s top teams like Harpos and Azteca.”
Then in October, they outclassed another UPSL team, Ft. Collins United, 1-0. “We came out strong and confident. We stretched them, and played well in tight spaces too,” Elbin explains. “I felt like we deserved that result. And now we’ve built up to this: going up against a side we’ve heard about all year.” The final test before them is Indios FC, who finished the UPSL Fall season in 2nd place with a 5-4-1 (WTL) record. It goes unsaid, but for a team from the older and more established Colorado Premier League, beating teams from the new upstart UPSL carries an added degree of satisfaction.
If FC Denver can win one more game, they’ll have the winter off until the Open Cup starts up again, when the weather warms up. They will join one other Colorado amateur side, the winner between Harpos FC and Azteca, both of whom have been to the US Open Cup before; Azteca in 2017, and Harpos in 2016 and 2015. For either Indios or FC Denver, it will be their first time in the US Open Cup.
FC Denver’s match against Indios is this Saturday November 18, 2:30 PM, at Aurora Sports Park. Azteca square off against Harpos at 3 PM, also on Saturday; that game takes place at Broomfield Commons. Tell your friends. See you there.