Since last week's stunning overtime upset of the Portland Timbers, Thousand Oaks' Cal FC has become a cause célèbre, drawing worldwide attention and comparisons to “Hoosiers” and “Rocky” while opening doors to professional careers for its best players, the whole point all along.
That was this ragtag band of amateurs' third successive U.S. Open Cup victory over professional opposition, and Tuesday night they'll look for No. 4 against a true powerhouse: three-time defending tournament champion Seattle Sounders.
Eric Wynalda, the Hall of Fame striker who put the side together, can't wait. And he won't be surprised if his team again does the unthinkable.
“We match up much better against Seattle than Portland,” Wynalda told ESPN Los Angeles. “A lot of people are saying we have no chance in hell, but from a practical standpoint -- from a game, a matchup -- I'd play Seattle 10 times before I'd play Portland again.”
That's about approach. The Timbers are a direct, battling team. The Sounders prefer a flowing brand of soccer, with possession and passing -- the pretty stuff, which is Cal FC's aim, too.
“The game will have an ebb and flow to it,” Wynalda said. “Two very technically sound teams. It's not going to be a case of just sitting back and trying to hold them off.”
That's what was required in last week's third-round clash. Portland took 43 shots and created more than a dozen good scoring opportunities, but Artur Aghasyan's counterattack goal five minutes into the extra period made Cal FC the biggest upset victor in the 99-year-old competition since MLS clubs arrived on the scene in the mid-'90s.
Cal FC has the talent -- more than a half-dozen players have been in camp with MLS teams, several others have pro experience in lower divisions or foreign leagues -- but nearly everyone on the roster has fallen through cracks while pursuing their dreams. Wynalda, who has extensive coaching experience and covets a chance to run an MLS team, created the team merely to provide them opportunity.
“If these guys aren’t with professional teams in August, then I didn’t do my job,” he said in a conference call Monday. “The idea was to showcase them. First to find them, then give them a chance and let them play and let them show what we can do.”
They impressed by beating Premier Development League champion Kitsap Pumas, from Bremerton, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle, and then routed the Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads, from the third-division USL Pro, the L.A. Blues' league. Last week's win was unexpected, but it rocked American soccer, and Fox Soccer Channel, for which Wynalda is an on-air analyst, snapped up the rights to the game against the Sounders, the first tournament game this year on national TV.
“It's the first time some people who've heard about us will be able to see us play,” Wynalda said. “And they're curious. They want to know who these guys are, what's the big buzz about. And I don't think they'll be disappointed. At some point, 40 minutes into the game, someone's going to see us do something, and they'll look at someone on the couch and say, 'Wow, these guys are good.' ”
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, whom Wynalda credits for his playing career, understands what his team is up against.
“It's not a Sunday morning pub team,” Schmid told The Seattle Times. “It's not a bunch of guys who roll out of the bar and walk out onto the field to play. These are all guys who still see soccer in their future.”
“He’s got a bunch of guys who for one reason or another just didn’t work out because of timing or they just missed, but they’re technically very good players,” Schmid told The Sporting News. “They’re young and eager and they still have that dream, and that’s what makes them a good team. What Eric is doing for them, and what they’re doing for themselves in this competition, is they’re putting the spotlight on themselves, and for maybe two or three of them that will make the difference.”
Wynalda says “six or seven” players already have received offers, and there are whispers of top-tier European interest in star forward/midfielder Danny Barrera, whose twisting volley in traffic set up Aghasyan's goal last week.
But first things first. Wynalda's plan: Give the Sounders all they can handle and perhaps advance to a June 26 quarterfinal, possibly against the San Jose Earthquakes -- another MLS team.
“People think on paper we don't have a chance. Everyone wants to use the 'underdog' approach. I just think I'm a firm believer that talent is a great equalizer. If you've got it and you can play, it will decide games. You can run all day and you can be organized, but if you can't make the plays that take all of 1½ seconds to win a game, you can't [win]. And some of my guys can.
“I'm really looking forward to seeing them on this stage. They're going to bee able to compete. That's the bottom line. If people are making the assumption we're going to be overmanned and outmanned, I think that's a little naïve.”
WORTH NOTING: Wynalda was in Monterey on Sunday and Monday for a golf event, collecting an appearance fee to help fund Cal FC and its travels. “I’ve just basically told my agent, 'Just book me so I can get appearances that can allow me to generate some income that I can dump into this team.'" There also have been several fundraisers online. ... Cal FC trained Saturday, Sunday and Monday in advance of the game. “That's a record, three practices in a row,” Wynalda said. “That's never happened before.” ... Barrera (Thousand Oaks/Westlake HS), goalkeeper Derby Carrillo (La Mirada/St. John Bosco HS and Cal State Dominguez Hills) and defender Jesus Gonzalez have been trial with the Sounders. ... Aghasyan was voted the Open Cup's Player of the Round for the third round. Barrera won the honor in the first and second rounds.