This is not what Sounders fans want to see tonight.
A Cinderella team from Southern California is all that stands between Sounders FC and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, as they attempt to win the oldest ongoing American soccer competition for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year.
This is not what Sounders fans want to see tonight.
That opponent, Cal FC of the United States Adult Soccer Association, is the ultimate dark horse:
-- They're not exactly tearing it up back home in Ventura County, where they currently sit 10th out of a dozen teams in their league, La Gran Liga de Oxnard.
-- Up until last week, they were taking the pitch in 2010 Chicago Fire uniforms--replica uniforms, the kind you can buy at the souvenir stand--complete with the logo of Best Buy, then the MLS team's sponsor, now on the verge of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
-- They don't have a regular training ground, and it's difficult to get players (and coaches) together to practice anyway, as they all have day jobs.
-- In the United States Soccer Federation's hierarchical structure known as the U.S. Soccer Pyramid, this is a fifth-division team.
But they've caught fire at the just the right time, winning three times on the road--in Bremerton, Wilmington, N.C., and Portland, each victory more improbable than the last.
Last Wednesday's result was beyond improbable--it was the biggest, ugliest black mark yet in a Portland Timbers season surprisingly (but not unpleasantly) full of them through the first three months. The second-year MLS franchise and Sounders' Cascadia Cup archrival thoroughly dominated the numbers, outshooting Cal FC 37-8, putting 15 of those shots on goal to the visitors' three, and holding an 11-3 advantage in corner kicks. Any time you dominate a team to that extent, you should win by a comfortable margin.
But Portland didn't, falling 1-0. Cal FC dragged the match into extra time and broke through five minutes in, as 5-foot-8 forward Artur Aghasyan took a defense-splitting pass from a falling Danny Barrera, raced downfield, charged at an onrushing Troy Perkins, and chipped the ball over the Timbers keeper, who has six inches on him. It was the first goal ever scored by a U.S. Adult Soccer Association club against a Major League Soccer team in U.S. Open Cup play.
Adding to the improbability: Aghasyan, a 24-year-old veteran of the Premier League--the Armenian Premier League--was playing out of position, at right back, as Cal FC coach Eric Wynalda, watching his exhausted, undermanned side cramping all over the field in extra time, scrambled to rotate fresh legs into the match.
The Timbers could have averted their humiliation with 10 minutes left in the second half after Cal FC's Richard Menjivar handled Brent Richards' cross into the box, resulting in a penalty kick. But Kris Boyd, the Scottish Premier League's all-time leading scorer and the Timbers' highest-paid player this season at $1.25 million, blasted the ball high over the crossbar, one of several shots on goal for Portland that went over it instead. Of the Timbers' 15 shots on goal, 14 were directly at Cal FC keeper Derby Carillo.
The crowd of 5,489 at Jeld-Wen Field (less than one-third of capacity), particularly the Timbers Army supporters group, started out savaging Cal FC players unmercifully, but as the match stayed scoreless into the second half, shifted the focus of its ire and gradually turned on the home team, chanting "Care like we do!" and "This is bullshit!" Before the first 15 minutes of extra time, a lone bugler stood and played "Taps." After the lone goal, the chant was "You call this MLS?" To their credit, the Army stood and applauded Cal FC players after the final whistle, serenading them with "You deserve it!" and "Beat Seattle!"
After pulling off the biggest U.S. Open Cup upset in the Pro Era--since Major League Soccer teams joined the competition 17 years ago--can they?
We'll find out tonight (7 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel; live video stream on SoundersFC.com), at what should be a sold-out Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, where the Sounders took care of business last Wednesday, dispatching the Atlanta Silverbacks 5-1 in a third-round match originally scheduled to be played in Georgia. The Sounders paid the Silverbacks an undisclosed amount to give up their home-field advantage and move the match here.
Seattle didn't break through until the 44th minute, as rookie Andy Rose scored his first goal in a Sounders uniform, but racked up four more goals in a 19-minute span of the second half to improve to 14-0-1 in U.S. Open Cup play over the past four years. Two other midfielders, rookie Alex Caskey and veteran Ozzie Alonso, scored as well, and forward Sammy Ochoa, playing his first meaningful minutes this season, put the cherry on top with goals in the 62nd and 66th minutes.
The Sounders, who held out regulars Fredy Montero and Brad Evans and played Eddie Johnson for just the first half against Atlanta, should be well-rested, and well-positioned against a club without a single player who could make their roster.
But this is no ordinary amateur team. Wynalda--a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame who saw action for the U.S. in three World Cups, became the first American to play in Germany's Bundesliga, and scored the first goal in MLS history before becoming an analyst for ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel, is not only the coach, he's a co-owner. He created Cal FC a few months ago to give another chance to local players who had come up just short in their dreams of becoming pros.
This club has talent: it includes nine players with professional experience, two who made MLS rosters. Aghasyan, with one goal in each of the three U.S. Open Cup matches, spent two months with Real Salt Lake last season. Defender Mike Randolph, at 26 the team's oldest player, made 39 appearances for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 and '08.
Midfielder Eder Arreola, Rose's teammate at UCLA, was a first-round draft pick by the Houston Dynamo this year. Carillo, defender Jesus Gonzalez, and midfielder Diego Barrera all had tryouts with the Sounders, as did forward Danny Barrera, Diego's younger brother, who previously represented the U.S. in the Pan American Games, played for the U.S. national U-17 and U-18 teams and spent time with a first-division side in Serbia. He was the star of the Cup's first two rounds, scoring two goals in a 3-1 win over Kitsap Pumas and two more in a 4-0 blanking of the Wilmington Hammerheads, and has set up three others.
At this point, these players believe in themselves. More important, they believe in each other. For the past two weeks, a club that plays to prove a point, not to collect a paycheck, has prevailed against daunting odds, and after shocking Portland, Sigi Schmid's crew had better take them seriously.
If the Sounders can succeed in turning Cal FC's coach back into a pumpkin tonight, a new challenge awaits in the quarterfinals, three weeks away. Seattle would go on the road to face the winner of tonight's fourth-round match between the San Jose Earthquakes--one of two teams to beat the Sounders this season--and the North American Soccer League's Minnesota Stars.
If San Jose wins, the match would be June 26 at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium, which held 60,000 fans when the 49ers called it home from 1946-70, but has been demolished and rebuilt with a much smaller seating capacity of 9,000. If the Stars, who won 3-2 at Real Salt Lake (the other team to beat Seattle) last week, can pull off their second straight upset, the match would be held June 26 in Blaine, Minn., north of Minneapolis ... unless the Sounders can come up with another offer a lower-division team simply can't refuse.