The order was indeed a tall one Tuesday night for Christos FC, which quickly became Baltimore’s latest soccer darling with an impressive run through three rounds of the 104th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The amateur club, sponsored by a Ferndale liqour store for 20 years, was up against Major League Soccer’s D.C. United in addition to sweltering heat at packed Maryland SoccerPlex.
Playing in front of a spirited fan base sporting fluorescent green T-shirts, Christos did everything it could to keep up — opening the scoring and showing no fear throughout — before surrendering a tying goal to Julian Büscher in the 35th minute and a go-ahead goal to Lloyd Sam in the 81st in falling to D.C.’s pro team, 4-1. Büscher added his second goal in the 90th minute, and Ian Harkes scored in the closing minute of extra time to secure the win.
In the losing effort, Christos, which was looking to become the first amateur team to advance past the fourth round since MLS teams began competing in the tournament in 1996, made Baltimore proud with a tireless and gutsy effort.
Having played for Christos and also coached many of the current players at the youth level, coach Bryan Bugarin was impressed and not surprised by the team’s spirited run. He said in the end, conditioning came into play in the latter stages with his team showing tired legs.
“Honestly, coming in just like everybody said we don’t really have the pressure. It’s pressure on them — they are the MLS team. As far as soccer-wise, we’ve never gone into a game saying we can’t play with anybody,” he said.
Boyds — "I couldn't ask for anything more from those guys. It's a culmination of two [youth] age groups I got to coach that all came together to play. So I watched these guys play their whole lives — since they were teenagers. I knew what they could do, and it was great for everybody else to see what they could do."
D.C. United, which is last in the MLS Eastern Conference with a 4-7-3 mark, has won three U.S. Open Cup titles — its most recent coming in 2013 — in addition to four MLS championships. United, whose starting lineup mostly consisted of their younger reserve players with three league games coming up in the next 10 days, advance to the tournament’s Round of 16, set for June 28 with the draw to take place Thursday.
D.C. United coach Ben Olsen said he couldn’t help of becoming a temporary Christos fan with its spirited play.
“They came with a bunch of energy, commitment, and they have a few dynamic players,” he said. “It’s really a no-win situation. Expectations are to win and win big. But I give [Christos] a lot of credit. I have a lot of love for Baltimore, and their group should be very proud of the effort they showed tonight.”
Christos had already pulled off one upset win, 1-0 against the pro side Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer League, and was the last amateur team remaining in the tournament.
But a side that was mostly in it for fun and rarely had time to practice looked right at home staying touch for touch against D.C. United for most of the 90 minutes.
While Christos wisely committed extra players in back, it also showed no fear against the pro team. It was Christos that had the game’s first quality scoring chance — Collin Fisher’s header off a corner kick in the seventh minute was tipped over the crossbar by D.C. United goalie Travis Worra.
Then in the 23rd minute, after Levi Houapeu (UMBC) was taken down at the top of the penalty area, Mamadou Kansaye (UMBC, McDonogh) placed the ensuing free kick high to the left of Worra to give the amateurs a stunning 1-0 advantage.
“That goal is a great moment for them, and the Christos fans have a lot to be proud of,” Olsen said.
D.C. United became more persistent with its push in the latter stages of the half and was able to level the game at 1 when Büscher turned around a defender, then hit a heavy left-footed shot that Christos goalie Phil Saunders (UMBC, Perry Hall) got his fingertips on but couldn’t keep out of the far corner.
Christos pressed in the closing minutes of the first half, Houapeu unable to settle a chance on the left side in the 42nd minute, but the game stayed tied at halftime with the Christos fans sending their team into the break with a standing ovation.
D.C. United attacked persistently early in the second half — Lamar Neagle hitting the crossbar in the 61st minute but the Christos defense didn’t budge. In the 69th minute, Christos had a dangerous counterattack when Elton Joe sent a low cross from the right side that Worra came out to deflect with Houapeu closing in fast. Sam, who just entered the game, buried his chance from 20 yards, and D.C. United stayed clean the rest of the game.
The Christos players savored the special run, and their fans came along for the ride Tuesday in Boyds. The recent publicity gained by the team’s success turned the game into an event with an overflow crowd.
In reaching the fourth round in the single-elimination format, the Ferndale-based club outscored its first three opponents by a 5-0 margin. The attention and quickly developed support was reminiscent of UMBC’s improbable run in the 2014 NCAA Division I College Cup semifinal showing.
By 6 p.m. Tuesday, much of the SoccerPlex’s stadium parking lot was filled with optimistic fans from Baltimore, their grills lit and cold beer flowing on the 90-plus-degrees evening.
The players will now return to their families, their day jobs and have plenty of stories to tell with their fans making sure to give them one final standing ovation after the final whistle.