Every year, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup includes a new batch of amateur clubs hoping to be the tournament’s latest Cinderella story. And every year, TheCup.us introduces soccer fans across the country to these teams that have been the heart and soul of this competition for more than a century. This year, we are expanding our annual “Meet the USASA” series to include the USSSA and US Club Soccer. We bring you “Meet the Underdogs.”
For the third year in a row the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup will kick off in the State of Colorado. This year, it will be Boulder-based Harpo’s FC of the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) hosting the Kansas City Athletics of the United States Adult Soccer Assocation (USASA) on April 25. The game will be played at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park Field No. 20, just outside of the home of Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids.
Harpo’s FC, which is sponsored by a local bar, Harpo’s Sports Grill, will be making its first-ever appearance in the US Open Cup. Founded in 1997 as a rec-league team, Harpo’s has gradually grown into one of the regional powers in the Colorado Amateur Soccer League (CASL). Just in the last few years they have won the City of Boulder Men’s D-1 title four times, and won three CASL D-1 championships in addition to multiple tournaments, including last year’s state cup.
In 2014, they were 35-2-4 in outdoor games. With their outdoor success, they decided to take their game indoors. They joined the Premier Arena Soccer League (PASL) and their winning ways continued. This past season, under the name Avery Brewing FC, they were Rocky Mountain Division champions (7-1-0) and the Brewers finished as the 2014-15 National Cup runner-up in the second-tier indoor league (behind the Major Arena Soccer League).
Johnny Freeston, the club’s owner and manager, says the team has come a long way since their ‘beer league’ beginnings.
“Admittedly, when the team started it was just a group of guys who just wanted to keep on playing after high school and college,” said Freeston. “In those early days, there was probably more drinking than playing, but could still ball.”
Freeston arrived in Boulder around 2005 and eventually found himself in a leadership role. In 2012, he decided they had enough talent on the roster and in the area to start challenging for trophies. For Freeston, who works in sales and handles all the financial aspects of the club, an appearance in the US Open Cup has been a couple years in the making. After a number of years living up to their rec-league roots, the team started to get older and having families. And with players training on their own and living their own lives, it was about changing the team’s mentality.
“It was all about creating a culture of winning and a brotherhood,” said Freeston. “I think we’ve done that, and it’s shown in the results.”
Harpo’s brotherhood starts with their captain, Dan Campbell. The California native moved to Boulder to work on his MBA after playing soccer and getting a degree from the University of California-Davis. He met a few players and was brought into the fold and over time has become the veteran leader that the team needs in midfield.
One of the main goalscorers is Boulder native Shane Wheeler, who is hoping that playing for Harpo’s and making a run in the US Open Cup could help him earn a pro contract. He has been on trial with a number of pro teams, but has yet to catch on. Freeston describes him as a ‘diamond in the rough’ and has high hopes for his confident number nine who scored two vital free kick goals to help Harpo’s qualify for this year’s tournament.
Another player to watch is Justin Geibel, another outsider who has joined the Harpo’s family. Freeston describes him as the team’s horse who never stops running. Geibel followed an interesting path to end up in Boulder as he grew up in Massachusetts and played college ball at Vermont before ending up in Australia playing for Brisbane Strikers, a lower division pro team. (Brisbane Strikers reached the Round of 16 of Australia’s FFA Cup last season) The 29-year-old brings a veteran work ethic to the midfield, both for the outdoor and indoor teams.
The last few years have seen various amateur teams having trouble securing venues for the tournament, and that was a challenge for Harpo’s as well. They originally planned to play at the University of Colorado’s Pretnup Field, but they learned that the field would be unavailable due to some field maintenance. Luckily for Harpo’s, one of their center midfielders, Sean Sullivan, works in the ticket sales department with the Colorado Rapids. The Kentucky native, who played his college ball at Siena College in New York, was able to help his team find a new home field at Field No. 20 at the Dick’s Sporting Good Park facility in Commerce City, Colo.
On Saturday, they will host the Kansas City Athletics, which will be making its third appearance in the Open Cup (2010, 2012 and 2015) after qualifying through Region II of the USASA. The Overland Park, Kan.-based team has enjoyed relative success in the national tournament, beating Real Colorado Foxes (PDL) 3-1 back in 2012, and giving NSC Minnesota Stars (now Minnesota United in the NASL) all they could handle in a 4-2 loss in the opening round in 2010. The Athletics thought they had qualified in 2013, but they were forced to withdraw after they were ordered to replay their tournament on short notice after the Dearborn Stars filed a protest over the size of Kansas City’s home field.
The matchup is unusual in that these two teams are quite familiar with each other having faced off twice in the USSSA qualifying tournament a month ago. The two sides first met in the opening game of group play where Harpo’s cruised to a 4-1 win over the Athletics behind a free kick goal by Wheeler and a hat-trick by Kyle Luetkehans. Harpo’s ultimately secured their entry into the 2015 US Open Cup after defeating two-time defending champion Colorado Rovers 3-2 in the semifinals thanks to a dramatic free kick from 25 yards out that deflected off the post and into the back of the net.
The win put them into the championship game against Kansas City. However, since the Athletics had already qualified for the Open Cup through the USASA, and were just participating to get game experience ahead of the tournament, Harpo’s was awarded the spot as the last remaining USSSA team. The two clubs would square off in the Final to crown a champion and it was the Athletics getting revenge with a 3-1 win.
“It was very interesting circumstances which saw us play (KC Athletics) twice at the USSSA National Cup and those experiences were valuable with each team earning a win,” said Freeston. “However, it’s all about the here and now. Both sides will be better prepared for this rubber match. We expect a top quality battle and we’re excited for the opportunity to face them again.”
The third meeting will take place on Saturday at 4 p.m. MT with the winner traveling to Provo, Utah to take on the BYU Cougars in the First Round on May 13. The team that emerges from the opening round will earn a road date with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, a professional team out of USL on May 20.
Harpo’s are the fourth amateur club from Colorado to qualify in the modern era (1995-present), and the previous three were undefeated in their opening game (Boulder Rapids Reserve, Real Colorado Foxes, Colorado Foxes – all PDL). To carry on that tradition, Freeston plans to build on his club’s past successes to make their inaugural cup run a memorable one.
“To be successful we never lose, we either win or learn, and always strive to improve. Our team motto is Brothers, Character and Excellence. Onwards and upwards!”
Robert Wilson also contributed to this article
Josh Hakala is a sports broadcaster and the creator/senior editor of TheCup.us. You can reach him on Twitter @USOpenCup or on his personal account @JoshHakala. Anyone interested in contributing (writing, research, website design), sponsoring TheCup.us, or if you have any questions or have some historical information about the US Open Cup to share, please email him here.