US Open Cup / West Chester United

National champs West Chester United in local US Open Cup qualifier

Photo: Courtesy of West Chester United

It never feels fair when a rule change works against you, but West Chester United Predators are persevering anyway.

This Sunday, the amateur club will take the field in West Goshen, Pa. to face the Philadelphia Sierra Soccer League’s Salone FC in the second round of local qualifying for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

But if not for a change in the format of the nation’s oldest national soccer tournament, West Chester United would already be qualified.

This past June, the club won the United States Amateur Soccer Association’s national championship, the Werner Fricker Cup, defeating two-time U.S. Amateur Cup champion RWB Adria 2-1 in the final to become the first Philadelphia-area team to win the tourney since United German Hungarians in 1999.

In years past, the championship would have been accompanied by an automatic berth in the U.S. Open Cup. But a rule change meant West Chester United must now play local qualifiers for one of the 36 Open Division slots for clubs that aren’t professional teams in the top three divisions.

West Chester United Predators head coach Blaise Santangelo, USASA Region I Coach of the Year.

West Chester United Predators head coach Blaise Santangelo, USASA Region I Coach of the Year.

“My guys were all bummed because we didn’t get an automatic qualifier — of course the year we win it they change the rules,” says head coach Blaise Santangelo, who was recently named the USASA Region I Coach of the Year.

But Santangelo took the rule change in stride. “I told my guys, ‘You know what, don’t worry about,’ because we knew going in there was going to be a change. I said to the guys, ‘Look, it’s not important, getting qualifying to the Lamar Hunt Open Cup. Getting that national title, you’ll remember that forever. And then we’ll win our way into the Hunt Cup proper. Cause you get into this thing and you lose the first round, nobody remembers that. But you still won the title, you know?”

So, coming off an Oct. 17 first round win over National Premier Soccer League side Junior Lone Star 2-1, West Chester United will continue to play its way through to earn that slot in the 2016 U.S. Open Cup.

Regardless, the situation demonstrates just how far this club has come in a fairly short period of time.

West Chester’s path to the US Open Cup

West Chester United SC (WCUSC), founded 1976, is the largest youth soccer club in Pennsylvania with recreational and travel teams for boys and girls beginning from 3 year olds through U-18. In 2009, it launched, along with Spirit United SC, the Penn Fusion Academy, an elite youth development program that has seen players join the Philadelphia Union Academy, as well as receive call-ups to U.S. youth national teams, with players moving on from the youth level to join college programs at the Division 1, 2, and 3 levels.

In 2008, Karl Zandi began the club’s elite adult men’s soccer program for Over-30 players aimed at winning local league, state, regional, and national championships. Success quickly followed, with the team winning the Inter-County Soccer League Over-30 championship five years in a row beginning in 2008.

Five years ago, the club started an Open (or Majors) men’s team — the Predators — to compete in the United Soccer League of Pennsylvania (USLPA), home to storied clubs such as Ukrainian Nationals, United German Hungarians (UGH), Phoenix, and Vereinigung Erzgebirge (VE). Success came quickly, with the team winning the Eastern Pennsylvania Soccer Association State Open Cup championships in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

West Chester United wins Werner Fricker Cup

Team captain Justin McCall lifts the Werner Fricker Cup. Photo: Michael Fricker.

On June 21, the Predators team defeated Connecticut’s Newtown Pride 3-2 to claim its first USASA Region I championship and a place in the USASA’s national championship, the Werner Fricker Cup, named after the former U.S. national team player and captain of the 1965 National Amateur Cup winning UGH team who, as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, led the bid for the U.S. to host the 1994 World Cup.

On July 17, WCUSC won the national semifinal over southern California’s Chula Vista, who had defeated PDL side FC Tucson and then upset USL side Arizona United in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup before USL side Sacramento Republic knocked them out.

The next day, West Chester United Predators went on to defeat two-time U.S. Amateur Cup champion RWB Adria 2-1 in the final.

Labor of love

So, you’ve finished your college soccer career — maybe you were even an All-American — but haven’t secured a professional contract. After getting a job, what do you do next if you still want to compete at a high level and continue your development as a player?

If you live in the Philadelphia area, you join a team in the USLPA, which Santangelo says is recognized as one of the best adult amateur leagues in the country.

“That’s something that’s been unreal to me,” says West Chester United left back/midfielder Kevin Glenn, who played college soccer at Immaculata University before graduating in 2011 and works as a budget analyst for the research administration at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I played at a small Division 3 school. I graduated, got a job, and I was sitting around playing co-ed ball up at YSC and in Sunday leagues that are nothing like this level of competition that I’m playing with now in the USLPA. I feel lucky. I’m playing the best competition of soccer that I’ve ever played.”

The team honored at PPL Park before the Union's US Open Cup semifinal against Chicago in August. Photo courtesy of Blaise Santangelo.

The team honored at PPL Park before the Union’s US Open Cup semifinal against Chicago Fire in August. Photo courtesy of Blaise Santangelo.

The high level of play is important in the development of players on the team who have been exposed to the professional environment, too. Haverford School and FC Delco alum Jeremiah White played for the team his professional career, which included stops in Serbia, Greece, France, Denmark, and Saudi Arabia, as well as MLS. More recently, players like Mark Fentrow, who played at Penn State before being selected by Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2012 Supplemental Draft, and Jordan LeBlanc, who played at Old Dominion before being selected by Montreal Impact in the 2013 Supplemental Draft, have become important members of the team.

“It’s interesting because there have been guys like Mark Fetrow who played at Penn State, was drafted, didn’t get a contract — he didn’t know what he was doing, he was just starting coaching local high school teams,” Santangelo explains. “We brought him on two years ago and he just couldn’t believe these things were out there. Some of these players have become better soccer players out of college than they were in college. They’re maturing, they’re starting to reach their prime.

“So these guys, we all go to work and do our jobs and then go to training a couple times a week and try to go out on the weekends and be competitive,” continues Santangelo, who runs his own design and landscaping business when he isn’t coaching and says the players also pay their own registration and training fees. “There’s a lot of high quality soccer even at the amateur level, and that’s the beauty of the tournament, it allows the amateurs to have a chance to get in and participate in such a tournament.”

The level of play is heightened through the club’s participation in cup tournaments. In addition to local qualifiers for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the team has been competing in the EPSA Open Cup and Amateur Cup over the past month (losing to Phoenix in the Amateur Cup last weekend) while also playing games in the USLPA. “With the three cup tournaments, we’ve been playing cup games for the past month now, every Sunday,” says Glenn.

The cup tournaments lead to a certain amount of familiarity between the clubs. When they played Junior Lone Star last month, the opposition included former teammates of Glenn when he played at Immaculata and in other local leagues. West Chester has faced Sunday’s opponent, Salone FC, in earlier cup tournaments. Glenn says, “It’s nice soccer community, and I think it raises the competition level a little bit more just because we’ve competed against one another. It makes the relationships stronger.”

The team has had a busy schedule, which Glenn says is exciting but requires dedication, particularly for an amateur side.

“Everybody’s obviously involved in some other form of work, whether it’s a day job or coaching, or they’re still a student, and some people have families and children,” Glenn says. “So, everybody is coming out in their free time. We’re training two nights a week and coming out and playing on Saturdays and Sundays. So, it’s a labor of love, we’re all all doing it for fun.”

While the bulk of West Chester’s players are in their 20s, the team also includes some veterans such as 37-year-old Matthew Cox, a La Salle High School and St. Joseph’s University alum who played professionally Switzerland and Malaysia. “He’s got a day job, he’s a gym teacher in North Philly,” Glenn explains. “He comes out and he can still run with anybody on the field. We’ve got players from 21 through 37 that are still playing, and playing well.”

Though players on the team may have played outside of the region in their earlier college or professional careers, Santangelo says most players have local connections. “We have a lot of guys who are local talent, guys who came from FC Delco teams, a couple guys from Maryland Bays who grew up in Baltimore, Virginia Beach, but most of the guys are local guys that either went to college here or played youth ball in the area.”

The club’s footprint is local, but Santangelo says its goals are national. “We’re just trying to become one of the top amateur clubs in the country.”

From the past and for the future 

Santangelo, who played for the Ukrainian Nationals in the mid-1980s after playing in college at Elizabethtown, has a deep appreciation for both the history of the USLPA and of soccer in the area.

The jerseys worn by West Chester United players in the Werner Fricker Cup honored their fellow USLPA clubs. Photo: Blaise Santangelo.

The jerseys worn by West Chester United players in the Werner Fricker Cup honored their fellow USLPA clubs. Photo courtesy of Blaise Santangelo.

“When we had jerseys made going into regionals, I made sure below the names and numbers we had all the crests of all the participating USLPA teams running across the bottom of the numbers so that we would represent them, and we actually wore those in the final when we won the national title,” he explains. “There’s a tremendous amount of really good soccer [locally]. Maybe the guys don’t compete in Open Cup play, but this is such a hotbed for soccer. You look at what Bethlehem Steel did and move forward to what the Ukrainians did in the 1950s and 60s, and UGH…I think it’s important.”

That sense of history informs what the club is trying to do now. “Years ago in the 1990s,” Santangelo explains, “teams in the area like UGH, those guys were training three times a week, they were like the pro teams in the area. MLS wasn’t in the area yet. So, that’s kind of what we’re trying to do.”

Santangelo says the recent expansion to include a U-23 team, which allows college players to continue to train and play at a high level for 10 to 12 weeks over the summer, will play a significant part of club’s future success as a pipeline into the Majors. “A lot of our U-23 players are doing really well in college this year. Hopefully we’ll have a lot of success moving forward.”

The U-23 team also is an important part in allowing the club to replicate the model of older USLPA clubs as something a player can participate in for a lifetime.

“Our U-23 program is starting to bridge the youth up into the adult soccer. That’s a really wonderful thing. For years, our fellow clubs — UGH, VE — that’s what they do. Kids, when they’re done playing, they play college, they come back and they spend their life playing Open, Over 30, and Over 40 soccer, and they spend a whole lifetime in the club. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here as well.”

Santangelo adds with a laugh, “The only difference is we don’t have a clubhouse, and we don’t have a bar.”

Win or lose on Sunday, Santangelo has good cause to be proud of his team’s achievements. “We’re relatively young. Teams like VE and Uke have been around for a lot of years; we’re in our fifth year of Open Cup play, we’re really in our infancy. To be able to have four state cups, a regional cup, and a national cup going into our fifth year, that’s pretty good.”

West Chester United host Salone FC in the second round of local qualifying for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup on Sunday, November 15 at the WCUSC Turf Field in West Goshen, Pa. Kickoff is at 5 pm. The team hosts Vereinigung Erzgebirge in the semifinals of the EPSA Open Cup on Sunday, November 22 at 2 pm.

4 Comments

  1. Really cool article. Congratulations.
    .
    As an aside and because I am an ass…
    .
    …. wouldn’t it be cool if someday West Chester United decided it want to play at the highest level in the country and set a coarse for that to happen after securing the necessary investors and building a new youth academy and and and…. Wait a minute. Or how about VE or UN… outside the city. Wait a minute…. Infrastructure? Check. Incentive for producing professional players? hmmmm.
    .
    Wouldn’t it be really cool if that was allowed to happen.
    .
    Wouldn’t it be really cool if Coventry United in northern chester county tried to do the same thing… because I’m sure West Chester United and Coventry United could come to really dislike each other over time… thereby providing a real Darby someday similar to UN or VE… if they both tried to join the highest ranks of the game in this country. Let’s do that.
    .
    Wait a minute. Wouldn’t it be really cool if… Nah… we don’t want promotion and relegation. Insular works better.
    .
    Nevermind.

  2. This would be very cool. Lots of things would need to happen. Investors, sponsors, facilities that can serve as stadiums (even if they were very small) and so on.

    We’ve seen how grass roots efforts can make a difference. Look at small NPSL clubs in Detroit, Nashville and Chattanooga. They have opened eyes in our world. They get real support. If those roots can continue to be planted around the country in smaller communities, it will hopefully get too big to ignore.

    The one small thing that can be done is to support these teams. Most don’t charge admission and players pay there own way. Free entertainment is just a short drive away! And I know these local clubs would love to see new faces in the stands or along the sidelines. Going from a dozen or so family/friends to a couple hundred would make a difference. And if they all donated a few bucks for that afternoon of soccer entertainment, small steps can be taken to acquiring that first jersey sponsorship. Sponsors are hard to acquire when no one is there to see the logo. Next thing you know, that small local club has enough money to not charge players. Field rentals, player registration/insurance, ref fees are all covered. Then the club can start investing in merchandise to sell. Before you know it, they improve existing infrastructure to accommodate more fans. Then they can use some more profits to contribute to youth development in the club and get rid of the pay-to-play model.

    I could go on. I think we all know the possibilities that exist.

    • Agreed on a micro level 100%. I’ve taken in Lone Star games. The problem though is the glass ceiling on the macro level.
      .
      It is the Nashville’s and Chattanooga’s FC USA clubs and I believe San Francisco that lend hope to the possibilities you speak of. Always though is the MLS ceiling saying you can’t be part of our club.
      .

  3. Great article, Ed.

    Nice to hear about local soccer clubs like this. Gives me hope for the future of soccer in this country and what it can become.

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