After brush with greatness in US Open Cup, Christos FC just wants to have fun

BALTIMORE, Md. -- The fellas of Christos FC do many things well. They coach. They found companies. They are marketers and statisticians. But the two things they do best are play soccer together and drink beers together.

On a recent Friday night, a handful of them were doing the latter. They ostensibly came together on my behalf so I could meet members of the team that reached the fourth round of the 2017 US Open Cup. They even took a 1-0 lead against D.C. United before falling 4-1, the furthest any amateur club has gone since Major League Soccer teams joined the tournament in 1996. But Larry Sancomb, the team's head coach who has known many of his players since they starred on his youth teams, just laughed when I said I didn't want to make the squad go to a bar less than 48 hours before their Maryland Major Soccer League season opener against the Barracudas of Banner Field. (The MMSL is billed as "been the state's premier amateur adult soccer league for nearly a century" and is full of former pros and local talent.)

"They'll be out anyway," he said.

So there we were, on the second floor of Crossbar, a downtown Baltimore beer garden about eight miles north of the liquor store that has been sponsoring the team since it formed 20 years ago. Center-back Josh Taylor, the oldest member on a team consisting primarily of players not too long removed from their college days, sat sipping on an emptying stein. There were backup goalkeeper Brad Benzig and full-back Aaron Rilling. Also there was Jordan Becker, a left-back who reached the 2014 NCAA College Cup Final Four with UMBC and spent last season with the USL's Rochester Rhinos before rejoining Christos after renouncing his professional status. The process involved sending a $50 bill to the United States Soccer Federation headquarters in Chicago. (The USSF doesn't accept cash. Eventually, he mailed a check.)

"I'm so happy to be back," said Becker, who rooms with Mamadou Kansaye, the man who put Christos up 1-0 against D.C.

They made a tight-knit group, with everyone on the team connected by no more than a single degree of separation. They grew up in the Baltimore area, playing for one of the two or three elite youth clubs, or went to college at UMBC, Loyola or one of the other schools in the area. The common thread is a love of the game, a desire to keep playing and a chip on their shoulders. Sancomb oversees the whole operation, coordinating a fluctuating player pool of about three-dozen while making sure there's a starting lineup ready to play each week.

Christos has been excellent recently, posting a 23-0-1 record the past two fall seasons of the Maryland Major Soccer League, but they gained a brief national profile during their run through the US Open Cup, the oldest ongoing soccer tournament in the U.S. (founded in 1913), which mixes amateur teams with those in MLS. The team earned a profile in the Washington Post and appeared on SportsCenter. The brief brush with fame changed everything -- Taylor says he got messages on Facebook from people he hadn't heard from in 10 years -- but equally, it changed nothing.

The story of Christos FC is about soccer in America, the type of team that gets overlooked but that is as important (if not more so) to the future of the sport in this country as any professional franchise. It's one about a talented group of guys who didn't make it as far as they wanted in the sport they love, for whatever reason, but keep playing anyway. It's about realizing that what you really like is playing with your friends and also that you like to play with a chip on your shoulder, especially if you get a chance to play against the pros.

And so, here were the boys, less than two days from the start of their amateur season and just two weeks from a 2018 US Open Cup qualification match against Aegean Hawks FC (the game is Sept. 24), hanging out, drinking beers and sharing memories about the evening they played D.C. United but also about that time they rolled up to a hotel pool in Chicago, 30-packs in hand, and spent the night imbibing while the team they were playing the next day watched in awe.

At Christos FC, it's important to not let the games get in the way of life.

Earlier that day, I met with Alex Bullington. He grew up playing with Kansaye, Pete Caringi III (whom everyone calls "Petey") and Geaton Caltabiano on the Casa Mia Bays. The crew won a USYSA national championship before heading their separate ways for college, only to end up back on Christos to keep playing as they transitioned into adulthood.

Bullington runs Arbit, a real-time polling app that has landed investment from NBA players including Steve Blake, Caron Butler and Ty Lawson. He founded the company with his Loyola teammate, Greg DiNardo, who is considering joining Christos this season. The duo work primarily from their apartment near the Loyola campus. They were preparing for an upcoming pitch trip to Japan, typing side-by-side at two desks in the living room, with a giant company banner hanging on one wall. Bullington says the team has been supportive of the app. The logo will feature on an alternate jersey this season, while his teammates will lovingly try to distract him during work phone calls on road trips.

Bullington plays on the wing for Christos. The camaraderie keeps him coming back despite the commitment. "You're not really sure how much longer you want to keep playing until you get out there and realize you can't give it up," he said. "The best part of playing college soccer was the guys."

Bullington and other players talked about how there's no pressure at Christos. In college, they were always fighting, whether for time, to be seen or to impress the coach. Now, though they want to play well and win, the priority is to have fun. As a result, they play loose and play free. When Christos goes up against a PDL team, which consist mostly of college players in their offseason, Bullington sees the fear on the other team's faces.

"They see this amateur team coming in, warming up 15 minutes before the game," he said. "I think psychologically that does a lot against them. Those teams are playing under a lot of pressure."

Since the Open Cup run, people are more aware of the squad. "I'll mention to someone that I have a Christos game," Bullington said, "and they'll be like, 'Wait, you're on that men's team?'"

That never occurred before the press that accompanied the match, and the would-be entrepreneur hopes the interest is reflected in the crowd size. Last season, they had about 15-20 fans every week. "Maybe this year we can get 100 people out to a game," he said.

Phil Saunders boasts the best pedigree of anyone on the Christos team. The former UMBC standout spent two seasons as a goalkeeper for BÍ Bolungarvík in the Icelandic First Division before returning to the Baltimore area, where he grew up. "A lot of us are homebodies," he said in a meeting room at Community College of Baltimore County Catonsville, where he's the head coach of the men's soccer team.

"I don't know what it is about this place, but you always want to come back. I love it. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. I've done my traveling."

Saunders played for Sancomb's U-15 Baltimore Bays team as a kid, winning the national championship in 2011, and he joined Christos when his former coach called following Saunders' return from Iceland. He has enjoyed taking the field with guys he has known for more than a decade.

"Team chemistry has been huge," he said. "We do go out with each other at night, but we've known each other for 10 or 15 years. We know how everyone plays. We don't need to go over a game plan for weeks before."

That chemistry is something he's trying to bring to the CCBC Catonsville Cardinals, a team he took over this season after serving as an assistant in 2016. The community college level is far from Division I, but Saunders is slowly making an impact.

"It's little things like showing up to practice on time or the mentality of working hard every single day for the whole practice," he said. "I had no idea that that stuff was an issue. That's been a bit of a challenge. It's a culture change for a lot of these guys."

Some of Saunders' college players watched that infamous Christos match against United, seeing their coach in a different role than they were used to. "After the game we were shaking hands, and the guys were going nuts," he said. "They've seen me play but not serious on the field. They were giving me smack for all the yelling I was doing."

During the Open Cup, Saunders admits he had more media attention than he ever did as a pro. It was a crazy month or two, with his social media accounts blowing up constantly. (Saunders started a Twitter account following the encouragement of a few teammates.) But things calmed down quickly, and he's back to coaching, working on a teaching degree and playing for Christos. A couple of months ago, he held a fundraiser for the Cardinals and asked Christos for help with the booze. They came through, no questions asked. "I was expecting a couple bottles," Saunders said. "There were just boxes and boxes of liquor."

Nearly everyone I talked to who is involved with Christos had some version of this sentiment: At least four or five players on the team could have made it in the pros if things had broken slightly differently. And who's to say they're wrong?

"There's a lot of talent that comes out of Baltimore that gets unseen," Saunders said. "A lot of guys like to stay in Baltimore, a hometown type of thing. Guys don't get looked at. They want to stay home. They have better opportunity working than they would being in USL and not getting paid a lot of money."

Bullington agrees: "A lot of guys feel like they didn't maximize their potential in college or could have gone further outside of college but weren't given an opportunity."

"We're guys who did something other than pro soccer," one of the guys at Crossbar said. So they joined an elite team of their friends and started kicking butt. The path they took to this point doesn't matter; what does is that they're here, and they're family because American soccer needs teams and stories such as Christos.

MLS is great and MLS is fine, but MLS covers only 22 markets (and counting), while USL and NASL fill another couple dozen. Christos and amateur squads like it around the country present another option for fans and players alike. This season, Christos launched a youth team using money from an Adidas sponsorship. Those kids will grow up dreaming of the pros, but when those bubbles pop, they'll remember an amateur squad that seemed like it was having a lot of fun.

The focus at Crossbar, however, wasn't the youth side or the upcoming game. It was about the present moment. They made an interloper feel like part of the gang. On at least two occasions, Rilling, the full-back, offered me his place for the night in case I wanted to stay and have more beers.

I left soon after the first round of shots. The cheerful banter of the Christos FC crew followed me down the stairs and out the door. They were impossible not to like.

Two days later, Christos beat the Barracudas 9-1 in their season opener.