NTX Rayados pose for a team photo in 2018. Photo: Tito Salas
Deep in the heart of (Dallas) Texas, you’ll find one of the best kept secrets in American soccer.
NTX Rayados find themselves back in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup for the seventh year in a row, the longest streak of any open division local entry in the Modern Era (1995-present). While they have qualified for the last seven tournaments, they have only participated in six of them. A 2016 disqualification, which was handed down the night before their first round game, is the only interruption of their record streak.
Their success is no secret to fans of the Open Cup, but the details of the team’s approach to the Open Cup may surprise some.
Tito Salas helped found NTX Rayados in 2011 and the following spring in 2012, he and his squad got their first taste of what it’s like for an amateur team to play in the US Open Cup.
“Back in 2012, we learned so much from that experience,” said Salas.
Back then, Salas had recently graduated college and was just looking for a way to continue playing competitively. You might think a former college soccer player would bring that competitive fire with him to his new team and institute mandatory practices to work on tactics and mold the best possible team. After all, the tournament is serious business for amateur teams now that the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is increasing prize money and revamping its travel expense policy to help amateur sides get to away games that require expensive, long distance travel arrangements.
But Salas, who is married with two kids and works full time as an assistant principal in the Dallas Independent School District, takes a very pragmatic approach to organizing his team ahead of the Open Cup every year.
“We don’t practice,” Salas reveals. “We just can’t. We’re with our families, we have jobs. We’ll be lucky if we can have five players get together. Our practices consist of league games on Sunday.”
For NTX Rayados, they have only managed to play five league games in the spring season of the North Texas Premier Soccer Association due to a variety of weather-related postponements. As of now, they are 4-1-0 and sit in second place. Despite playing fewer league games than he would like, Salas is still optimistic about his team’s preparation for the US Open Cup.
“We still feel good about it,” he said. “These next couple weeks we plan on having a couple mandatory scrimmages.”
Not all of the players on his squad work full-time to support their families, but they still have their own difficulties getting together with the team. Seven players on the roster, all of whom grew up in the area, are currently away from Dallas at college. But they all want to answer the call of the Open Cup for Rayados.
“For things like the Open Cup, they will make the effort to come back and play,” said Salas.
Salas wouldn’t have it any other way either. He doesn’t believe Rayados exist to fight for glory in the Open Cup. His ultimate goal is for players who spend time with the team to go on to college and make a better life for themselves. He’s dedicated to helping them in any way possible.
“This is kind of the norm: you come here, you play here during the summer … but we expect you to move on and play in college. That’s something that I really am proud of,” said Salas. “Whenever you move on, let me know how I can help you.”
It’s the same for Salas year in and year out. He is willing to let his roster turn over every year, even if it’s detrimental to the team; though there’s no evidence that’s actually the case. In fact, if you pressed him, he might tell you that ends up benefiting the team in the long run.
“We take the positives out of everything,” he said. “We lose (players) for good reasons. We’re known, we’re pretty well known.”
Salas does sometimes wonder what his team might be capable of if they had a dedicated practice facility and used it to try and take the team to the next level. But he still maintains everything Rayados do is about more than just winning and advancing in the tournament. His expectations for the tournament are just as pragmatic as his approach to the team’s ultimate purpose.
“I’m satisfied with the guys going out and giving it their best. My expectation is for us to go out there and give everyone a good night of soccer, whether they’re there for us or not.”, he states, without skipping a beat.
All of that said, Salas still has a roster stacked with local, homegrown talent and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the team to make a run in this year’s tournament.
Up front, Salas has a variety of options to help supply the goals. Veteran forward Alberto Rodriguez grew up with Salas and has been with the team since 2011. Salas also expects big things from forward Mohamed Sesay.
“(It’s the) first time he’ll see Open Cup action, but he’s played with us. We’re going to be relying on him a lot as well.”
There’s also midfielder Christian Okeke, who supplied the 85th minute game-winner in the team’s final qualifying match against CD Motagua New Orleans. Even center back Javan Goncalves-Toledo scored a spectacular overhead kick in the team’s qualifying victory over Celtic Cowboys Premier.
NTX Rayados will open their 2018 tournament run on May 9 when they will host a game for the first time. They will face off with first-time entry Fort Worth Vaqueros of the National Premier Soccer League at Richland Community College (Field No. 10) in Dallas.
No amateur team can boast an Open Cup qualification record to match Rayados’ these past seven years, but they are still missing a signature win in the tournament itself. In fact, technically speaking, they are missing a win. Their lone trip to the Second Round occurred in 2014 when they defeated the PDL’s Austin Aztex in a penalty kick shootout after a thrilling 4-4 draw.
Cal FC’s 2012 victory over the Portland Timbers (MLS) is etched into Open Cup history, La Maquina FC took the Los Angeles Galaxy to extra time in 2016 and Baltimore’s Christos FC made national headlines last year for their valiant effort against D.C. United. All three of those teams pulled off their magical Open Cup run in their first trip to the tournament. Sometimes, in the Open Cup, the ball just needs to bounce your way.
Tito Salas’ priorities may lie in accomplishments off the field, but perhaps this is the year his Rayados can get over the hump and bring their story into the national spotlight.