A year ago, FC Denver lined up three straight shutout victories over local amateur competition and qualified for their first Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. At the time, this was a benchmark achievement for the 13-year-old club that had largely excelled at the highest level of local leagues but never truly competed outside of the Denver area. The club’s 2018 qualification was just the first step toward growing FC Denver into what then player-coach Drew Melin hoped would be a club that garners national recognition.
“I think eventually our goal is to get to a higher level,” Melin told TheCup.us in 2018. A year later FC Denver has used their 2018 US Open Cup matches to springboard into another successful qualification run in 2019 and now is a club growing in all directions.
After reaching the Second Round of the 2018 US Open Cup and nearly knocking off the professional Colorado Springs Switchbacks (USL Championship), FC Denver’s players, coaches, supporters, board of directors and president/founder Eric Fulton were all struck with a newfound belief that they could compete at a higher level. Fulton described it as an “opening of doors to new opportunities to connect with the larger soccer community, engage with new people, fans, sponsors and general awareness of who we are, along with all the memories . Opportunities that two years ago we would not have foreseen.”
One of the most unexpected opportunities that arose from their US Open Cup exposure was when a group of parents approached Fulton with a proposition to form a youth academy. Despite being one of the leading large metro areas for professional and college soccer talent development, the Denver metro area has a limited supply of roster spots within elite training programs. FC Denver hired a former semi-professional player and USSF Youth B-Licensed coach Pete Bunting to head up their new youth academy starting with the under-19 men’s side. Later that summer, FC Denver launched a women’s team, signed a lease to play their Colorado Premier League and Open Cup games at Metropolitan State University’s soccer-specific stadium in downtown Denver and even received a shout out in a local magazine’s Best of Denver 2019 list.
Fulton admits that without the legitimacy that playing and advancing in the US Open Cup provided, many of these developments would have never happened and definitely not this quickly. Fulton added that he hopes to “develop and continue this institution for the city, one that will last long after his time with the club.”
In order to keep the momentum in the club’s favor, qualifying for the 2019 US Open Cup was made a top priority.
FC Denver’s route to the 106th edition of the tournament through the Open Division Local qualifying competition was no cakewalk. The club’s opening round match on Sept. 23 was a rematch against the team they beat to punch their ticket to last year’s Open Cup. And just like last year, FCD earned an extra time shutout with the lone goal coming late in the second period of OT from Alex Bernhardt. On Oct. 21, FC Denver eliminated two-time US Open Cup participant Harpo’s FC 3-2 in a penalty shootout following a physical 1-1- battle.
A little more than a month later (Dec. 2), FC Denver knocked off Aurora, Colo.-based GAM United 4-1 in their first-ever match at their new home stadium in downtown Denver. At this point, FC Denver was the last Colorado team, and the last United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) team standing but they would have to wait for confirmation that they would be competing in the 2019 competition. Weeks later, the US Soccer Federation released the format for the 2019 U.S. Open Cup with a record number of professional clubs but a ten-year low number of tournament seeds available to Open Division clubs. This meant one more qualification match was required. On the road in El Paso, Texas against Southwest FC.
Flying down to El Paso midweek, early into the local league season, is no small task for an amateur club but one that tests their merit as a 2019 US Open Cup participant. FC Denver was fortunate to maintain the majority of the players that played in the previous Open Cup tournament, including the entire starting eleven from their 2018 second round matchup against Colorado Springs Switchbacks. In the words of Eric Fulton “we have been there, we have been tested.” Southwest FC proved to be a formidable test, scoring three goals on Denver before conceding a single goal right before the half time whistle.
Down by three, FC Denver managed to pull a goal back just before halftime and it may have been a sign of things to come. In the second half down 3-1, FC Denver’s recently-hired Under-19 coach and first team assistant coach, Pete Bunting and head coach Drew Melin made several tactical adjustments.
“We changed formation to go a bit more narrow and tighter, and it stopped them from playing the way they wanted,” said Melin. The well-timed adjustments and substitutions paid off one goal at a time eventually equalizing in the 78th minute. After the game went to extra time, Denver continued the momentum and Cesar Castillo scored the fourth unanswered goal in the 103rd minute sealing the victory and qualification to the 2019 US Open Cup.
Now officially qualified into the First Round of the 2019 tournament, FC Denver is confident with both the draw and state of their club. Another trip to west Texas, to face the Midland-Odessa Sockers (NPSL) on May 8 will be another strong test that they should be ready for. The addition of Bunting to the coaching staff is a large point of confidence for FC Denver.
“We would not be coming back from El Paso without Pete’s tactical eye,” added Fulton but the largest area of strength is the strong roster of returning players led by Alex Bernhardt, Peter Jacobson, Tyler Chauncey and Castillo, who scored a hat trick in last year’s 4-2 opening round win over Azteca FC.
No player is more integral to FC Denver’s success than forward Cesar Castillo. The diminutive forward has a next level dribbling and finishing abilities developed at college soccer powerhouse UC Santa Barbara. After college Castillo was on pre-season rosters with MLS franchises Chivas USA and the Colorado Rapids but at a time with smaller rosters and no USL developmental loan options Castillo is a player that fell through the cracks.
In 2015 Castillo moved back to his hometown of Gypsum, Colorado, a blue-collar “down valley” town near Vail, Colorado. Back home Castillo joined the indoor arena soccer team Freedom FC where he became a bit of a local legend in the Vail Valley leading the national PASL indoor league in goals scored. Castillo’s indoor goal scoring records did not go unnoticed as he was recruited by the USA Arena Soccer National Team as well as by Fulton to join FC Denver. On April 14th Castillo made his debut and scored for the Arena National Team in a 6-2 victory over the Brazilian National Selection at the historic Corn Palace Arena in Mitchell, South Dakota.
Still a key player for Freedom FC and the Vail Valley soccer community, Castillo regularly drives the 110 miles across the Rocky Mountains to join up with FC Denver. In his two years with FC Denver, Castillo has scored in all five Open Cup matches, including a converted penalty kick following the Harpo’s draw. Castillo should be a key player to watch in the matchup against Midland Odessa Sockers.
FC Denver kick off the 2019 U.S. Open Cup at Grande Communications Stadium in Midland, Texas against the Midland-Odessa Sockers FC on May 8. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN+, giving the Denver side some additional national exposure.