To casual soccer fans, the 2017 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup run of Christos FC may seem like an interesting anomaly for the Baltimore amateur side. But for Phil Saunders, TheCup.us Player of the Round for the Second Round, it says a lot about where he grew up and learned to play.
“I feel we’ve always had a lot of talent coming out of Baltimore, but we have a tough time getting seen, or getting opportunities,” said Saunders. “I think it’s shown the talent that’s coming out of this city.”
Saunders was voted TheCup.us Player of the Round for his performance against the USL’s Richmond Kickers, where he made seven saves and notched a shutout to carry his side to a 1-0 victory and a trip to the next round. Other players who received strong consideration were Charlotte Independence’s Enzo Martinez and Jose Angulo of Saint Louis FC.
TheCup.us Player of the Round is voted on by TheCup.us staff, and a select panel from the North American Soccer Reporters. With Christos FC forward Pete Caringi III winning last round, this marks just the fourth time since 2006 that a team has won back-to-back awards prior to the Semifinals. (Cal FC, 2012 / Seattle Sounders, 2007 / Dallas Roma FC, 2006)
Saunders started making waves long before 2017 in his hometown where he was an award-winning field player before racking up an NCAA semifinal appearance and championships in the Under-19 Maguire Cup, the amateur national championship and the Amateur Open Cup.
In high school, his Perry Hall team played in the state finals his junior year with him between the sticks. By his senior year, Saunders had already committed to play for the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) when he graduated.
“The other was Zach Kane who ended up going to Loyola , so we ended up having two Division I keepers at Perry Hall. I played the field growing up, so I said I’d be willing to play center back my senior year … and ended up getting All-State center back.”
The success continued for Saunders after high school. After his freshman year at UMBC, he rejoined his teammates on the Baltimore Bays for the Maguire Cup Under-19 US Youth Soccer National Championships. Saunders talked about that experience casually, saying simply “when we were 19, we got the team together and ended up winning nationals. So that was pretty cool.” He humbly doesn’t mention that he was awarded the Golden Glove award for his performance in the tournament.
His success continued in college, as UMBC topped the America East table in 2012 and 2013, and won three successive tournament titles from 2012 and 2014, moving on to the NCAA tournament each time. During their first two trips, the Retrievers fell in penalty kicks in the Second Round – first to Virginia, then to UConn. In 2014, though, the team thrilled tournament watchers with a run to the Semifinals, during which they took the scalps of a Who’s Who of college soccer powerhouses – Wake Forest, Maryland, Louisville, and Creighton – before falling to Virginia.
“I had a great career at UMBC,” said Saunders. “The coaching staff was great and they do everything for you.”
That’s when things got interesting for Saunders.
“Post-college, I didn’t get picked up by any MLS team, and I didn’t know a whole lot about going pro. But my dad’s from England, so I had dual citizenship,” said Saunders.
He ended up having a tryout with Crewe Alexandra in League One, but didn’t get an offer.
“I went to a few combines, and then I went to the Atlanta combine for Soccer Viza, and had few offers from a couple different countries,” Saunders explained. “Joe Funicello sort of took me under his wing and I had a trial in Iceland and it went well. I ended up playing there in the second half of the 2014 season.”
His team in Iceland, Bi/Bolungarvik, signed him again for 2015.
“It was a great experience, the level’s really good,” said Saunders. “We had ex-Premier League players on our team, guys from Scotland, England, France, they’re kind of from all over … It’s a summer season, it’s about 5 or 6 months long. There’s a winter league, but a lot of the international guys go home.”
The Icelandic First Division was pretty different from Baltimore, though.
“The practice field is right up next to the side of a mountain. The views were insane,” Saunders described. “It was definitely an awesome experience living there for two years. There’s only about 2,000 people in the town. I think there’s only about 300,000 people in Iceland overall, and most of them are in Reykjavik.”
Injuries that Saunders picked up in Iceland and while playing for the MISL’s Baltimore Blast convinced him to retire after the 2015 season. That’s when he decided to join Christos FC (the team is named after their main sponsor, a Baltimore County liquor store).
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“All the guys either played for the Bays or other teams in the area, like DC United Academy, or University of Maryland, UMBC, Towson,” said Saunders, who is also the head coach of the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, Md.
In fact, some, such as Pete Caringi III, Levi Houapeu, and Mamadou Kansaye, flirted with MLS or USL. But the coaches at Christos kept tabs on Saunders, and “they said if I was done playing pro I could just come over.”
He adds matter-of-factly, “last year we won the amateur nationals and Amateur Open Cup nationals. Winning two national championships in a year was cool.” To Saunders, winning is almost secondary to the team experience, saying “it’s like a family. We all call each other ‘brother.’”
Coach Andrew Dicea doesn’t mince words when he talks about Saunders’ important role on the team.
“Phil’s like the heart and soul,” said Dicea. “He’s saved our behinds on many occasions. He’s the backbone of our defense. He’s the leader, and he was with us from Day 1.”
Phil showed that in the game against Richmond, but he almost focusses more on the experience the team had on the road.
“First of all, it was a great experience. We met up at a Park and Ride and took a van down,” Saunders explained. “There’s no pressure on us, there’s no reason for us to be beating a pro team, so we just had a good time driving down. We had the same 20-minute warmup we always do. It was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve had in my soccer career, just going down there with a bunch of buddies and beating a pro team. It was a really, really cool experience.”
Coach Dicea saw the game a little differently.
“We were up 1-0 and they started throwing the kitchen sink at us. made a save on an upper 90 shot that he pushed out for a corner kick – there aren’t many people who are amateur who could do what he does. ”
Saunders did mention one unusual aspect of the Kickers game, that made Christos’ defensive effort even more impressive.
“The other crazy thing is that we didn’t even have two true center backs. One of them had a bad head injury a couple weeks ago. And the other guy had work. So we had a couple holding midfielders playing center back, but they did great in front of me.”
Coach Dicea has started thinking about their opponents in the Third Round, Chicago FC United (PDL).
“They beat the Riverhounds, that’s a feat in itself,” Dicea said. “It’s gonna be a tough match, but if we go out there and play our game we can beat anybody. If we go out there and play their game, from what I’ve seen on YouTube, they could put a waxing on us.”
“We’re flying out on a Tuesday,” Saunders said of the upcoming match Third Round match against Chicago FC United. “It should be another awesome experience going out there with the guys… We know if we go out there and play like we can play, we give ourselves a chance to win the game. I don’t think anything really changes. It’s not like we’re starting to practice or anything. It’s just the same old Christos.”
Still, this Baltimore team is quietly seeking to make a point. Jody Haislip, the founder and general manager of Christos, mentions the fact that Baltimore lacks a pro team, though he is holding out hope for a USL team in the near future.
“Each of these guys if they were in the right situation … would be able to play in USL or NASL,” said Haislip. “We need that rumor to become true and get a USL team here in Baltimore. That would help these local guys out.”
Saunders is understated when asked about the team’s prospects, but is embracing the club’s underdog mentality.
“It’s a great tournament,” he said. “We’re just staying humble, keeping that chip on our shoulder, and seeing where the ride takes us.”