SEATTLE - OCTOBER 04: Fredy Montero #17 of the Seattle Sounders FC holds the U.S. Open Cup trophy after defeating the Chicago Fire 2-0 in the 2011 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Final at CenturyLink Field on October 4, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Cal FC is not your typical amateur team -in more ways than one- but if they wish to continue their giant-slaying ways against the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday night would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports.
It's important to get one thing out of the way early on; Cal FC is not your typical amateur team. Though they compete in the recreational US Adult Soccer Association affiliated La Gran Liga Oxnard and have no suitable home stadium to call their own, these aren't your typical weekend-league players just looking to blow off some steam and keep fit; assembled by US National Team and MLS legend Eric Wynalda, Cal FC is a team composed of some of the country's best unsigned players, many of them just on the fringes of MLS quality and looking to prove themselves on a bigger stage. Their results so far in the US Open Cup make it clear that this isn't a team to be taken lightly; a 4-0 thumping of the third-division Wilmington Hammerheads and a shock 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers was more than enough to force the American soccer community to take notice..
At the same time, the rag-tag roots are undeniable; for Cal FC's win over the Hammerheads was carried out with the team clad in hand-me-down Chicago Fire jerseys. As it's currently composed, the team didn't even exist this time last year. Though he's been quick to give all of the credit to the players rather than himself, it's clear that Wynalda is making a point -that there's a severe problem with identifying and nurturing domestic talent in American soccer- and his message is one that the players have clearly taken to heart. And even if Cal FC's run ends tomorrow -which, to be clear, it almost certainly will- it's difficult to argue that Wynalda and his team haven't been at least somewhat convincing. Cal FC earned every bit of their historic win over the Timbers, weathering a near constant barrage of attacking play and making their one real chance of the evening pay off.
Still, when analyzing Cal FC's chances against the Sounders, it's important to take the entire picture into consideration rather than just the final score. Former Sounders trialist Derby Carillo put in a tremendous performance, but the Timbers did more than their fair share in terms of preserving the clean sheet. To manage 37 shots, win 20 corners and fail to score a goal takes a pretty stunning level of incompetence. The moment Portland's Designated Player striker Kris Boyd skied a penalty well over the bar and into Timbers Army, it was clear that nothing was doing for the home side that night. Though the Sounders have had their struggles with finishing at times this season, it's difficult to imagine a similar performance.
That's not to say Cal FC doesn't pose a real challenge. There's a very good chance they're a more talented team than the Atlanta Silverbacks, the second-division side Seattle defeated 5-1 last week. Cal FC have shown they are capable of weathering a storm, playing a highly-disciplined defensive game and scoring opportunistic goals. But after what happened last week in Portland, there's no surprise factor at play. With the next league game not scheduled until June 16th, there's no reason for the Sounders not to play a very strong lineup, and while it's true Portland couldn't manage to defeat Cal FC despite playing a very nearly first-choice lineup, the Timbers just aren't nearly as good a team as Seattle.
No matter what happens in Tuesday night's game -and no matter how you feel about Eric Wynalda- there's no way to deny how impressive Cal FC's run has been. Though his style of communication is not for everyone, Wynalda is likely right, to some extent, about a great many things. He's clearly right that these players are far too good to be playing for an amateur side despite there being three levels of professional soccer in the US. But Cal FC's win over the Timbers was newsworthy because it never should have happened. MLS teams shouldn't lose to lower-division teams in the US Open Cup, they especially shouldn't lose to 5th-division teams (no matter the composition of said 5th division team) and for such a thing to happen on the bigger team's home pitch was previously unthinkable. The win over the Timbers is a once in a generation upset; if Cal FC manage to knock the three-time defending champions out of the Cup, it would be one of the biggest stories in American soccer in recent memory. And when that's the case, it tells you how long the odds really are.