A berth in the US Open Cup has been a long time coming for West Chester United.
A combination of losses and rule changes kept the amateur side from the Philadelphia area out of the Open Cup for four straight years—but all of that changed in 2016. For the first time in club history, West Chester United will play a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup match when the club takes the field against Fredericksburg FC on Wednesday.
Initially founded in 2008 as an over-30 team, West Chester quickly rose to prominence in the United Soccer League of Pennsylvania–a league that features Open Cup winning teams like United German Hungarians and Ukrainian Nationals, among other storied teams such as Vereinigung Erzgebirge and Phoenix SC. A majors team was soon created, and now West Chester has an expansive youth program and an under-23 side that is aiming to play in the NPSL next season.
West Chester founder Vince D’Ambrosio had big plans for his club. “The idea was always to enter cups and win as many trophies as possible. That give us a lot of soccer to play, and the trophies attract many high-quality players.”
In such a historic and soccer-rich region of the country, a more cautious person may have had lesser expectations. Instead, coach Blaise Santangelo and his team defied caution and began to win trophies, specifically in USASA Open Cup competition.
United won its first Eastern Pennsylvania Open Cup championship in 2011. The club followed this up with another victory in 2012. A historic three-peat was achieved in 2013, and a fourth title was earned in 2014.
The organization earned its trophies, but it struggled to take the next step forward–qualifying for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. To do so, West Chester would have to win its region.
Fresh off its first Eastern PA Open Cup championship, United experienced USASA Region I play for the first time. That experience would prove short-lived, as United fell 3-1 to the Maryland Bays in the first round. In its second attempt a year later, West Chester hosted but lost to New Jersey side Icon FC.
After failing to qualify for the 2012 and 2013 editions of the Open Cup, a rule change for 2014 kept United out of the competition due to USASA changing its qualifying format. Another loss in its next qualifying attempt, again to the Maryland Bays, kept West Chester out of the 2015 tournament.
Things finally changed for West Chester in its next go-around. After winning its fourth-straight Eastern PA title, United got past FC Motown and Newtown Pride to win its first Region I championship. The club even went on to win the USASA National Championship. This time it was US Soccer’s turn to deny West Chester, as another rule change yet again modified the qualifying format.
“We lost four straight years, and then in the fifth year we finally won a regional game. We had our sights set on the Open Cup. We found out we weren’t getting an automatic bid prior to the USASA Open Cup finals. The guys were bummed,” Santangelo said.
The team pressed on, however. Under the new qualifying format, West Chester would have to win three games to get in. After beating two Philadelphia teams, United was prepared to play Southie FC out of Massachusetts. Another update came down from US Soccer, but this time it was to say that United had qualified for the 2016 US Open Cup.
“The guys were really stoked,” said Santangelo. “They were ready to go and confident to play Southie FC. But we were happy to hear the news. Our guys felt vindicated–we felt that we should have been in the tournament anyway.”
West Chester features players that are full-time college coaches. Some run youth programs. Others have jobs in marketing, sales and accounting. Some are even in medical school. Regardless of their situations, every United player is ready for this new opportunity. Whether it means taking off work or missing class, all of United’s players will be on the bus to Virginia on Wednesday.
“It’s a really big honor to be a part of this tournament,” Santangelo said. “All of our players made commitments to step away from their everyday lives.”
The opponent is Fredericksburg FC, a team in the National Premier Soccer League. Unlike West Chester, Fredericksburg’s roster features mostly college players. Santangelo knows that the team they will face will be young and good, but he is hoping that his squad’s experience together will be a factor that leads to victory.
In addition to just wanting to win the game in front of them, a massive opportunity looms if West Chester can advance to the second round. If they win, United will get to host the pro side from the USL, and Open Cup giant killers, Harrisburg City Islanders.
Santangelo said, “That would be the highest honor we could achieve as an amateur club. To host and to have Harrisburg come to our venue would be monumental. It is all very exciting, but we have to take care of business first.”
It may have taken five years and multiple heartbreaks before finally making the US Open Cup, but winning a game and hosting a pro team would more than make up for it.