Christos FC pose for a team photo after their 2018 US Open Cup qualifying match against Phoenix SC. Photo: Christos FC
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That could be the motto for Christos FC heading into their second straight Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Long a mainstay on the Maryland-DC soccer scene, the Cinderella team of the 2017 tournament has grown deeper roots in the area but hasn’t changed its approach because of, or in spite of, their recent success.
The Baltimore amateur side rode victories over Premier Development League (PDL) and United Soccer League (USL) squads in last year’s Cup to earn a shot at D.C. United of Major League Soccer (MLS). Christos ended up falling to their MLS foes in a thrilling match after drawing first blood and sending the Maryland Soccerplex crowd into a frenzy.
No Change in Attitude
How has the club changed?
“As a club we grew a little bit, we got more organized. We got deeper,” said head coach and club vice president Larry Sancomb.
Assistant coach and director of player personnel Andrew Dicea agrees: “We still expect to win, we try to play the best soccer we can, and most of the time we come out victorious.” He still says that there’s one difference – the opponents. “The only thing is that the bullseye on our back has gotten much larger. The attitude towards us is different – now we’re ‘the Christos from Baltimore.’”
Sancomb adds, “We’re gonna be a little bit better organized than we were last year … I think last year we were in five cars driving down, but I think this year we’ll have a team van to get there (to the Round 1 game against Reading United AC of the PDL).”
The team normally plays in the local Maryland Major Soccer League in the fall to avoid overload, according to Dicea.
“The cups are a bigger thing now. There are more teams in cups, out on social media more, people understand more what we’re doing. We could have had a team in the Majors, but it wouldn’t have been a Christos team. It wouldn’t be Christos quality.”
D.C. United scored three late goals to pull away from Christos FC in the Fourth Round of the 2017 US Open Cup. Photo: D.C. United | Tony Quinn
Still, qualification out of the Maryland-DC area is no cakewalk, in Sancomb’s mind. Citing the play of local Majors rival Izee Autobody FC, the club VP said “if they were in some other states they’d be qualifying through. They’re really athletic, there are very good players on that team. We played them five times and four were championship games. We have to play through tough teams from D.C., too, so it’s a grind.”
To qualify this year, Christos shut out D.C. area power Aegean Hawks 3-0 in the opening round of the open division tournament. In Round 2, they needed extra time to get past the aforementioned Izee Auto FC, 1-0. They punched their ticket to the tournament with a 5-1 home win over Phoenix SC (Philadelphia area).
New Challenges Off the Field
The biggest opponent for Christos may be life outside of soccer. Anyone who read about Christos last year knows that this club, that gets its name from a local liquor store, are not over coached.
“We don’t practice, we’ve never practiced, we’ve never had a tryout,” says Dicea. “We rarely have a kick around. Our guy are all working guys, some work nights, some work days, some have families. Still, they’re all talented and they do play a lot soccer. They have leagues or they’re playing indoors 2-3 nights of the week.”
In spite of the obstacles to getting all of the players on the field at once, Christos is taking on other challenges to build soccer in their area.
Sancomb described the initiative this way: “We’re trying to build a rec program that’s super affordable to kids across the state, but mainly in the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County area for now. We made a connection with a little rec program out of the Annapolis area called Arden.
“We’re really gonna build that into a program. We’re not about going out and stealing kids, we’re about developing kids in these programs… Back in the day there were a lot of guys, we had to go to the Baltimore County area to play. We want to make it an elite thing for low-income and working class families to make it affordable.”
Christos FC poses for a team photo after winning the 2018 Maryland State Cup. Photo: Christos FC
“A lot of us, I don’t think we would have been able to play soccer with the way the system’s set up now,” he added. “Christos isn’t looking to make money. If we make zero every year and the coaches are paid well and the kids are getting a lot out of it, I think it’s a success.”
New Faces on the Field
At the senior level, most of the players from the 2017 squad are returning, including forwards Pete Caringi III and Levi Houapeu, midfielder Mamadou Kansaye, and goalkeeper Phil Saunders – all of whom flirted with pro ball in the United States or Europe, though they’re not the only Christos players with that experience.
Caringi made a big impression in last year’s Open Cup when he scored all three goals for Christos in a 3-0 win over Fredericksburg FC (NPSL) and was voted TheCup.us Player of the Round for the opening round. The following round, Saunders was the Player of the Round when he made seven saves in a 1-0 road upset of the USL’s Richmond Kickers. Saunders also made a strong case for TheCup.us’ Lower Division Player of the Tournament, finishing third in the voting behind the FC Cincinnti duo of Mitch Hildebrandt (winner) and Djiby Fall.
Being in multiple cups at once was a challenge for the team last year, as players juggle work and family obligations in addition to soccer.
“We brought in some new guys. I think also we weren’t as deep as we needed to be – Petey (Caringi) got hurt in that game against D.C. and it really kind of affected us,” said Sancomb.
“I think we do set pretty high standards for the guys we accept for our club. We don’t accept just anybody,” said Sancomb. “There are some really good players that we could add that just don’t fit our mold.”
Character is a key qualification.
“I’m looking for a good guy that cares about the team more than they care about himself,” said Sancomb. “They can all play somewhere else and get more minutes, but they all sacrifice a little bit of their [playing] time for the next guy. We want those kind of characters.”
Phil Saunders of Christos FC makes one of his seven saves in a 1-0 road win over the Richmond Kickers in Round 2 and was named TheCup.us Player of the Round. Saunders was a strong candidate for Lower Division Player of the Tournament in 2017. Photo: Jessica Hendricks | Richmond Kickers
Luckily for Christos, they have been able to find players that fit their mold in the run up to the 2018 US Open Cup.
“Losing Collin (Fisher) – he was a different kind of player,” Sancomb notes with some regret. But his replacement, Malcolm Harris, was offered a spot at the Bradenton Academy in Florida, according to Dicea. Sancomb adds, “he’s been at a lot of trials, trying to play overseas. He was on that Final Four team at [University of Maryland Baltimore County].”
Chris Ports has also left the team. “He’s older,” Sancomb points out, “and his job at Under Armour has taken flight.”
Other new additions include Josh Patterson a Duquesne Unversity product who was selected in the MLS SuperDraft by the Vancouver Whitecaps. “He’s a strong kid and he’s helped us a lot,” said Sancomb.
Tyler Rudy, who scored a stunning free kick goal in Christos’ Nov. 19 Open Cup qualifier against Phoenix SC, one of the oldest active clubs in the country based in the Philadelphia area. “He played for the New England Revolution, Puerto Rico FC, Rochester Rhinos, and he was a four-year starter at Georgetown,” said Dicea.
Facing Reading United AC
“We know Reading will be young college guys with energy, and they’ll be athletic,” says Sancomb about his team’s First Round opponent, Reading United AC.
Dicea is cautious in discussing the game. “We have a game May 6 (the Werner Fricker USASA Open Cup Semifinal against Vereinigung Erzgebirge, another Philadelphia area team), so we’re not even thinking about May 9 yet.”
“It’s hard to prepare the team when you’re not seeing them but once a week, twice a week,” he adds. “Since we lost in the Amateur Cup (Quarterfinal) to West Chester United, we’re in just two cups (Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and the Werner Fricker Open Cup) instead of three. The message is just to keep mental stability, do the things you would have done in college to stay fit and be ready for the games.”
In the end, Sancomb is philosophical: “I think were gonna play Christos-style soccer and have a good time playing.”