The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Dallas, Texas-based NTX Rayados find themselves competing in their seventh US Open Cup in eight years. To put the streak in perspective, no other Open Division Local (Open Division teams not in USL League Two or the NPSL) team in the Modern Era (1995-present) has more than four consecutive appearances. But there will be some new faces leading the way as the current generation. The club’s current qualification streak began eight years ago when player-coach Tito Salas and some of his college teammates were looking for a way to keep playing competitively outside of their college season. Salas, now 31, has recently been reflecting on his role in Rayados’ current run.
“I really would hate to be on the sideline without being able to play.” He says before clarifying “We’re just happy to still be a part of it.”
The “we” he spoke of included himself and teammates Alberto Rodriguez and Kevin “Cody” Ellis. Salas says if you were to look at every team photo since the club’s qualification streak began, those are the three faces you’d see in every single one. While he obviously still has that competitive fire burning in him, he also recognizes that he can’t go on forever. He says, with a hint of jest in his voice, that as long as Ellis – a constant on Rayados’ backline over the years – is playing and competing, he’ll be there as well.
But Rayados haven’t made it this far without being able to change things up from time to time. Salas, Rodriguez, and Ellis are all over the age of 30 which means if the club wants to continue their historic streak they’ll need to get young in a hurry. So Salas has gone and found himself a “new generation”. He’ll be bringing seven players who have never played in the Open Cup with him when the team travels to Arkansas Wednesday to take on Little Rock Rangers (NPSL). Four of those players are expected to start or feature prominently during the match.
Anchoring the back line is 6’3 center back Mariano Fazio, who is Argentine by birth but grew up in Spain. On his right at the fullback spot will be Carlos Valdez. Just ahead in the holding midfield spot is England-born Henry Sach, who also grew up playing in Spain. And then there’s midfield playmaker –the No. 10 if you will – Lucio Martinez. All four join Rayados from Richland College, which just won the 2018 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division 3 title in November. They trailed Nassau 1-0 at halftime before scoring six unanswered goals in the second half to capture their second national title in three years. (The women’s team completed the sweep by winning a national title if their own)
Martinez scored twice in the championship game and Fazio added one himself as both were named to the All-Tournament team.
The new generation hasn’t missed a beat since November. Rayados have won six of their seven league games to date and Martinez and Fazio each scored in Rayados’ win over FC Maritsa last month when the team secured its qualification.
“There’s pretty much an expectation,” Salas says of the new crop of players. “They’re pumped. They’re excited.”
Qualifying for the eighth year in a row was not easy for NTX Rayados. They almost didn’t get out of the opening round when they found themselves down 2-0 in the second half against the UPSL’s Dallas Elite FC. After forcing extra time, NTX fell behind twice, only to find the equalizer each time and forced a penalty kick shootout. They would win the shootout 3-2 to advance.
After shutting out a fellow North Texas Premier Soccer Association side in Leon FC, 2-0, the Rayados found themselves on the brink of getting eliminated again, this time in Round 3. After a 1-1 draw on the road against Motagua of New Orleans, North Texas won an 11-round penalty kick shootout after Kevin Ellis, who missed the opening PK attempt, redeemed himself and scored what would prove to winning spot kick in Round 11.
The final round was far less dramatic as they cruised to a five-goal home win over St. Louis club FC Maritsa to punch their ticket.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a win or two from Rayados in the 2019 US Open Cup. Prior to 2018, the only thing the club had to show for their six trips to the US Open Cup was a thrilling penalty kick shootout win over the Austin Aztex (USL League Two) in 2014. Last year, they put their winless tournament history behind them as they earned wins over Fort Worth Vaqueros (NPSL), OKC Energy (USL), and FC Wichita (NPSL) before falling on the road to eventual champions Houston Dynamo (MLS) in Round 4.
Salas doesn’t know too much about his side’s opponents on Wednesday, but they’ll take the same measured approach as they have in years past.
“We’ll take this game first and then move on to the next game.”
If Rayados can defeat Little Rock on Wednesday, they’ll travel to Norman, Oklahoma for a rematch with OKC Energy FC. And if things break right, Salas and company may just pass the torch on to a new generation that can keep the club’s historic streak intact.