Baltimore-area Cinderella Christos FC set for U.S. Open Cup match with D.C. United

When the U.S. Soccer videographers came to film practice in Glen Burnie last month, the team that doesn't practice didn't really know what to do.

Christos FC has become the country's best amateur team in spite of its training schedule, not because of it, so the 10 or so players who showed up to North County High just kind of kicked a ball around. Pinnies were handed out. Overturned lacrosse nets became ad hoc goals. Three-on-three games were played — not leisurely, but not as if a team of unpaid 20-somethings were preparing to play one of the country's best professional teams, either.

The club turned 20 this year, with seemingly as many trophies to match. But only now are fans "finding out about this amateur team, that has a liquor store as a sponsor, that doesn't practice," as UMBC men's soccer coach Pete Caringi put it recently. Christos' run to the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, where it will face Major League Soccer's D.C. United in a single-elimination tournament game Tuesday in Boyds, has indeed made the Anne Arundel County discount beer, wine and spirits store into a character in a David-versus-Goliath soccer story.

It has also upended the notion of what can drive success in sports. Christos officials don't have the money to spend on roster moves or facility upgrades or first-class travel. Christos coaches never oversee regular full-squad practices. And the Christos players — most have gone pro in something other than sports.

But they're friends, all of them, some as close as brothers, and friends joke. One gag in particular illuminates the oddity of their new fortune: Some teammates, they jest, have spent more time doing media for Tuesday's game than practicing.

"With the team that we have, it's possible to happen again," co-coach Larry Sancomb said Thursday night of his team's U.S. Open Cup run, nursing a beer inside Christos. "But the probability of it happening again is probably not good."

Formed in 1997 by a group of Baltimore-area, fútbol-loving friends who wanted to get the gang back together on the field every week — Christos Discount Liquors provided the $1,000 required to join the second division of the Maryland Major Soccer League — Christos has become to amateur soccer what Serena Williams is to women's tennis. After merging with the Maryland Bays club last year, the team won the Werner Fricker Open Cup and the United States Adult Soccer Association Amateur Cup, both national championships.

That qualified Christos for the U.S. Open Cup, the country's oldest soccer competition. Nearly 99 clubs will have competed in the tournament this year; all but a few ever stood a chance. Teams in MLS, the top tier of America's soccer pyramid, have won the title 17 straight years. And Christos, pedigree aside, was closer to a No. 16 seed than a No. 1.

In its first-round match May 10, the team won, 3-0, against Fredericksburg FC, a fourth-division side. Next up were the United Soccer League's Richmond Kickers, a second-tier team with a 22,000-seat stadium.

Christos defender Chris Wilson remembers warming up in front of the Kickers' fan base pregame. Their supporters were amused but indifferent. They asked Christos players what they did for a living. They pointed out to one that the number on his shorts and jersey didn't match. It was like teasing a little brother.

"Their confidence was high," Wilson said.

But Richmond couldn't score, and in the 79th minute, Christos midfielder Geaton Caltabiano (UMBC, Mount Saint Joseph) did. When the score held, Kickers fans stayed afterward to shake hands, begrudgingly congratulating the pub-league soccer team that had toppled their professionals.

"We're kind of like 'Rocky IV,'" Sancomb said. "You go into Russia, everything's bad, but all of a sudden, in that 12th round, people are going, 'We like these son of a bitches.'"

The Balboa comparison isn't far off. The team's everyman appeal is as strong as the players are accomplished. (It's believed that each won at least one national title in their youth club or high school careers.) In his day job, Sancomb works as a mechanical engineer. Wilson is a data analyst at Johns Hopkins, where he played and is now working toward an MBA, and a statistician for the Ravens. Sitting beside them Thursday were Chris Panian (Stevenson, John Carroll), a compliance analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co., and Collin Fisher (Perry Hall), a plumber-gas fitter.

There's also an accountant; a regional sales representative at Under Armour; an X-ray technician who rearranges his night shifts at Mercy Medical Center around the team's schedule; and a bunch of coaches, including Pete Caringi III, an assistant at UMBC under his father.

Players range in age from 23 to 30, and they are very much millennials: Lately, an always buzzing group text keeps teammates apprised of matters ranging from who's playing pickup where to what's going down on a Saturday night.

"What we do on the weekends is, pretty much, go out to the bar," Fisher said. "Other teammates will call other teammates, and then, boom, you've got one big rager."

"Panian used to do that," Sancomb quipped. "Then he got a girlfriend."

Christos is less a social club than a selective fraternity. Among the team's bigger names are the younger Caringi (Calvert Hall) and Levi Houpeau (UMBC), both MLS SuperDraft picks, and Phil Saunders (UMBC), who played goalkeeper in Iceland's top pro division. They didn't have to try out for the club, but then, neither did Christos' benchwarmers. In Baltimore soccer, it's all about whom you know.

Back in the day, the parents of current teammates used to hang out, Sancomb said. He met co-coach Bryan Bugarin when he was 15, which is considered late for some players on the team; a few have been playing with or against each other since they were in grade school. Many moved on to play at UMBC. Others went elsewhere in Division I or Division III. All found their way home.

"Must be something in the water here in Baltimore," the elder Caringi said, "because we all like to come back and play here."

The challenge for an amateur team, of course, isn't playing here; it's getting to anywhere but.

For its third-round U.S. Open Cup match, Christos flew to Chicago on May 31 to face Chicago FC United, a team in U.S. soccer's top amateur level. Shawn Smith, one of Christos' co-founders, used an old airline voucher to bring his family to the game. Caltabiano, the goal-scorer against Richmond, was busy coaching and stayed behind. Because a successful GoFundMe campaign hadn't dispensed the $8,000-plus raised to finance airfare and lodging, players paid out of pocket for the trip.

They came back with the most profitable win of their careers. A 1-0 win netted Christos $15,000 — reward for being the tournament's last amateur team standing — plus a $12,000 travel stipend and a substantial apparel deal with Adidas.

Now fans the team never knew it had are asking Panian where they can buy Christos merchandise. They're recognizing Wilson by his team pullover at Qdoba and telling him they've bought tickets to Tuesday's game. During a taped appearance on Comcast SportsNet, Premier League standouts-turned-ESPN commentators Shaka Hislop and Steve Nicol wished them luck.

On Monday, Christos will meet at UMBC for a team talk. The next day, the club is due at the Maryland SoccerPlex an hour before kickoff. D.C. United is scoreless in five of its past six games. It is last in the league's Eastern Conference. It might not field its best starting 11. Still, a loss would be stunning.

"They train literally three hours a day," Bugarin said. "Every day, that's what they do."

Christos will seek strength in numbers. Busloads of fans are expected to fill the 4,000-seat stadium, and Christos old-timers are flying in for the game (not to mention the tailgate). The team itself expects to field a full roster for once, with the maximum 18 players dressed and another four allowed near the bench.

Even that, they know, might not be enough. Sometimes Goliath cannot be overcome. Glory has visited Christos often during its two decades in the sport; it is never why the team comes together nearly every Sunday on empty fields across Maryland.

"These guys," Sancomb said, "play for love."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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