Harpo’s FC celebrates a league game against FC Denver at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo. Photo: Harpo’s FC
On Saturday, Oct. 22, outside of Dick’s Sporting Good Park, the top two Colorado amateur teams line up for the right to represent the region in the 2017 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Defending their hold on this region’s Lamar Hunt US Open Cup spot, in what could be their third consecutive entry into the tournament is the ever-confident Colorado Amateur Soccer League (CASL) champions Harpo’s FC. Green with envy and ready to throw everything at the incumbent, this year’s final challenger is Colorado State Cup champions Azteca FC.
Both teams are representing the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA). They are two of three remaining USSSA teams in the qualifying tournament (Colorado Rush).
Over the past two years very few amateur teams around the country have enjoyed their time in the US Open Cup as much as Harpo’s FC. Johnny Freeston’s self-proclaimed “bull shit pub team” has used their Open Cup victories, and their narrow defeats at the hands of the professional Colorado Springs Switchbacks (2015, 2016), to grow their player pool and fan support. Over this time, the Boulder-based club has been a dominate force in every competition they have entered – until this year’s Colorado State Cup when they ran into Azteca FC.
Azteca FC has been a Colorado Amateur Soccer League (CASL) regular for years now either under the current name or their previous name Cruz Select. Over the years, Azteca has always been a collection of the top Hispanic players in the area that would compete in CASL, as well as other local Hispanic leagues and occasionally other tournaments across the Southwest with varying success while teams like Harpo’s were running away with the league.
In an interview with TheCup.us, Azteca captain and rightback Armando Chavira admitted “watching Harpo’s get to the level they did the last two seasons motivated us. If they can do it why not us?”
Turning that desire into a reality has been the work of head coach and team sponsor Andy de la Rosa. The owner of a successful stucco and plastering company de la Rosa has been able to acquire the team, formerly known as Cruz Select, and provide the resources needed to commit to tournaments like the Colorado State Cup, Las Vegas Silver Mug and now the US Open Cup. He has also helped grow the club’s growing sense of professionalism to the amateur competitions that they enter, much like ambitious teams like Harpo’s.
“(Harpo’s FC) made us step up,” added Chavira. “We used to go to games and rely on our talent but now we are training harder and more frequent… if it was up to Andy (de la Rosa) we would train every day.”
A lot of the players on Azteca have had experience playing in various professional, semi-pro and amateur teams across Mexico and the southwestern USA, so training four to five times or even seven times a week is something they were excited to return to. Balancing the demands of an aspiring soccer club and their day jobs with de la Rosa’s stucco and plaster business, or in the case of Chivara in an auto body shop, proved to be difficult. Putting in a full shift at work and then going out to the field and training to go up against the best amateur soccer players in the region made for long days, but quickly became the hallmark of the blue-collar team.
Hard work turned into results earlier this year when Azteca FC knocked off Harpo’s FC in the semifinals of the 2016 Colorado State Cup before defeating FC Denver in the final.
More recently, Azteca defeated FC Denver again in the opening round of this year’s US Open Cup qualifying tournament, and then picked up a win over Harpo’s FC later that week in CASL league play. Now this opportunity to play the top local team for the right to continue to the national level would be the perfect cap for a great season.
“For the younger players it’s an opportunity, said Chivara. “A lot of them deserve this chance, but for me personally, I appreciate all the hard work that myself and the older guys put in. All the training, all the paperwork. This could be our last chance and we are going to give it our all.”
Azteca FC head coach De La Rosa has also elevated the club in terms of recruitment. Prior to the State Cup, De La Rosa brought in two former Liga MX pros in ex-Chivas Guadalajara playmaker Omar Ledesma and ex-Club America center back Alfredo Duran to his squad. This move, while completely within the rules of the league, cup and the US Open Cup, has ruffled a few feathers in the local soccer community. The local league is filled with ex-NCAA players, and each team has a former pro or two on their roster. Typically these former pros have had opportunities at the USL level, lower division European clubs and occasionally a season or two in MLS but these signings are truly unprecedented in the local scene and indicative of the crazy competition among the Colorado rivals.
Harpo’s FC celebrates their 2015 US Open Cup First Round win over KC Athletics. Photo: Richard Laeming Wheeler
Now that the stakes have been raised, Harpo’s FC is anxious to get out on the field and defend their place at the top of the Colorado soccer scene. Club owner John Freeston says their best 18 players are ready to go for Saturday’s game and they have proclaimed that this qualifier is their top priority and would hold as much weight as all of the State Cup, League, everything prior to this game combined.
One of those previous wins came in the opening round of the Open Cup qualifying tournament when Harpo’s FC defeated another in-state rival, the Colorado Rovers, 4-1 after extra time. It was the third year in a row that the Rovers have been eliminated by Harpo’s FC in qualifying.
The most notable change for Harpo’s FC going into this game is that long-time goalkeeper Zac Gibbens has signed with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks (USL.) and midfield stalwart Justin Geibel moved back home to Vermont. Replacing Gibbens in net has been the job of Marc Herzberger who recently returned to Colorado from a stint working and playing abroad in Holland.
The playmaking duties have gone to two of the top local college recruits in the area now graduated and returned home to work in the area; Santiago Velez from Louisville and the University of Milwaukee’s Ross Van Osdol. Alongside established CASL league leaders Shane Wheeler, Dan Whittle, Ben Iames, Chris Salvaggione, Aaron Woodruff, Dan Campbell, Kyle Luetkehans, Edgar Olivas, and Sawyer Frank, Harpo’s are expected to continue their recent Open Cup form. However, with Azteca FC winning recent state cup and league meeting make this game tough to predict.
The game will be played at one of the secondary fields at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (Field No. 8) in Commerce City, Colo. The game will kickoff at 5 p.m. EST / 3 p.m. local time.