For the first time in the long history of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a team from U.S. Club Soccer has qualified for the tournament proper. Based in the vast central valley of California, Stanislaus United Turlock Express defeated the Bay Area Ambassadors in a play-in game by a score of 3-0 to secure their ticket to the big dance. Up next for the Express is a date with the Fresno Fuego of the PDL this Tuesday.
Founded in the early 2000s as an organization dedicated to making high-level organized soccer available to the less well heeled in its community, the Express offered mainly the children of agricultural workers and other related fields an opportunity to play futsal, or indoor soccer. One of the chief architects of the club was current technical director of soccer Antonio Reis, who recognized that vastness of the talent in his community and wanted to provide them an avenue to perhaps play professionally.
“We have a community based club that caters to the local kids. We don’t charge to play, so many of our players stay with us a long time, even after returning from going to college.”
Reis is proud of all the players that have come through his system, and he embraces the father figure role he takes on for many of his former and current players.
“They are all my sons and they are all very good. Some of the kids have been with me since they were 7 years old. Many kids grew up in our club playing futsal, and some have gone on to play in Fiji, and Mexico, and in Germany. Today, many of our kids travel throughout our area and to the Bay to play with other clubs and in tougher leagues.”
A deep appreciation for the success of the Express warms Reis, and he is quick to point out that despite the minimal coaching and training resources the club can provide, the players have grown into a tight knit group of young adults.
“They are all a big part of our local culture. We have the clown, the leader, the serious guy, the excitable guy, we have all of that. But what makes us good is the teamwork and the overall belief the kids have for one another.”
Reis may often refer to his players as kids, but the team that will play in this week’s Cup match against Fresno Fuego has a maturity built from age and experience. The bulk of the current team won a U-18 California state title four years ago, and the nucleus of the side knows what it means to be successful. The team captain is Gerardo Ramirez, who Reis credits as the cohesive force that keeps the young group of men together as a unified squad.
“Ramirez is the leader and keeps the spirit high and he helps out the guys when they make mistakes. He helps keep a nice atmosphere around the guys and they are all great friends.”
The team’s goalkeeper, Javier Rosales, was instrumental in the Express weathering an opening match salvo from the Ambassadors, and still being able to regroup for the historic win. A long time member of the club, Reis marvels at how far Rosales has come despite the long odds of success.
“He has been very good for us. Sometimes we wish he had better days, and sometimes he saves our butt. We try to have excellent coaching at all levels, but we don’t have enough to really train these guys completely. He is definitely a hard worker and is doing great with the limited amount of goalkeeping coaching we can provide.”
Reis leads the team into training four times a week, and is often flooded with requests from local players wanting to join the club. Part of that enthusiasm to represent the Express comes from the low fees to play, but much of it is a product of that familial environment that Reis has instilled in the club. From youth teams on up to the senior U.S. Club Soccer team, players don’t often stray from the opportunity to play the game they love. And even with the odds clearly stacked against his team this Tuesday, Reis knows his players will enjoy every moment of their US Open Cup experience.
“I think we will provide a nice game. Our players are very excited to play Fresno. Now, we aren’t going in there thinking we can kick their butts, but we also don’t think we are going to get out butts kicked!”
Robert Jonas writes for Centerline Soccer and you can follow him on Twitter @RobertJonas.
MORE: Check out the rest of the 2012 Meet the USASA series