Perhaps it is a sign of the strength of soccer in Southern California that three of the five amateur teams left in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup come from the region.
USASA teams PSA Elite and Chula Vista FC have survived alongside PDL team Ventura County Fusion to the third round of this year's tournament, which kicks off Wednesday. For PSA Elite, the road to this round was "bittersweet" for coach Jon Spencer.
PSA Elite beat the Orange County Blues 2-1 in the second round, the club where Spencer was the general manager in 2014, and the veteran coach and scout discussed his emotions in last week's win during an exclusive interview with The Goat Parade.
"[It was] sweet because we won, it's always nice to win, bitter just because I know some really nice people at that club and wish them the best as well," Spencer said. "Unfortunately when we started on this journey I didn't think we were going to see each other. It just happened that way, early on in the tournament."
PSA Elite have reached the third round of the Open Cup for the second consecutive season, and are starting to carve out a niche as a regular fixture in the United States' oldest soccer competition. Spencer credited the vision of club owner Alex Lujan in trying to make a bigger mark.
"Five years ago, Alex and I were talking and I said, ‘Alex, you need to get your team qualified for the U.S. Open Cup. I'm going to help you do it.' So we started working on that, I was involved the first couple of years. Last year I was not involved nearly as much just because of my focus with the Blues, but we are obviously working together again this year.
"And kind of the main goal is to create an opportunity for more amateur teams to have an opportunity to progress in the tournament and hopefully be able to play pro teams and hopefully we can beat a couple of them and see where we can go. We would love to win the tournament, but we also have to be realistic about the teams we're playing in the Cup competition," Spencer said.
Still, for those who are more familiar with the professional teams in the U.S., amateur teams have different obstacles that are seldom encountered at the higher levels. Spencer discussed a recent situation in which a player who told him the night before a game that he would be ready the next day then called him just before kickoff, telling him he could not overcome an injury in time for the game.
"So we're dealing with stuff like that," he explained. "We made adjustments, it wasn't easy, it's tough to get everyone on the same training field. Technically we haven't trained all together on the same field, week in and week out, for six months, like teams like the Blues, MLS teams."
PSA Elite, comprised of local college players and other local players looking to stay involved in the game (and in many cases, looking for a shot at a pro deal), were knocked out by eventual champs Seattle Sounders in last year's tournament. This time around? There's reason for optimism, if not overconfidence, with the next game up against the aforementioned Ventura County Fusion, themselves a fixture in the Open Cup in recent years.
For Spencer, the game should be one of the highlights of the third round.
"This will be a tough match, a tricky one, because you have two amateur teams. The stakes are high. We definitely are not taking them lightly. For the people who know soccer in Southern California, they would probably look to both of our rosters and say, ‘Oh, you both have top prospects, professional prospects out there.' They've got a great group, they're good on multiple levels. They've got some experience and also some really young guys. I would like to say the same goes for our group."
The winner of the game will not only get to face the LA Galaxy in the fourth round, certainly a mouthwatering match-up for any lower-league team, but there is the bigger incentive of the cash prize awarded to the team in each division that advances the farthest in the Open Cup. For the amateur teams, that prize is $15,000 this year, and one would think it would be money well-used for the team that secures it. With either PSA or the Fusion guaranteed to advance at least one more round, the winner of that game could very well end up taking the money this year.
Spencer downplayed the money as a motivating factor for PSA Elite, however.
"We're not playing for the money. We're playing for the love of the game. There is something to be said about being the best amateur team [in the Open Cup] and being the team that progresses the farthest in the tournament. That's a pretty big deal. And that's our goal."
He added: "I also would not be surprised if one of those other three [amateur] teams upsets a pro team...Our second and third divisions, NASL and USL are both very top leagues but a good team with good prospects and some veterans can do some damage and advance."
"So hopefully we're the one that can do that this year. We've got a great group. These guys are enjoying it as well. They haven't been together a long time but they enjoy the process and the fun that's there."
PSA Elite plays Ventura County Fusion at the Ventura College Sportsplex in Ventura on Wednesday at 7 pm PT in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup third round.
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