Thursday, October 22, 2015

The U.S. Open Cup and Washington D.C.'s Golden Age

In 1985, the U.S. National Team (USMNT) failed to qualify for yet another World Cup, extending the country’s absence from the tournament to twenty-six years, while the shuttering of the North American Soccer League (NASL) left the country without a singular professional division one outdoor league. For American soccer, the mid-1980s may well have been considered the sport’s Dark Ages. When the sport did make headlines, the doomsday coverage wrote off the sport and its future in America. Though soccer may have seemed on the precipice of oblivion nationally, it continued to thrive within local leagues, as it had for decades, in cities throughout the U.S. It ultimately became the era that would produce some of the greatest American players in recent history and a period that saw Washington, D.C. usher in a “golden era” of soccer in the city and surrounding area, which culminated in the city’s first U.S. Open Cup championship courtesy of the area's most successful team, Club España.

Soccer in Washington, D.C.

D.C. United in CONCACAF Champions League action against Montego Bay United, August 25, 2015
Source: Author's collection

Soccer has been played in the nation’s capital since the late 1800s, with the city even becoming one of the first in the country to house a professional team when a representative club participated in the ill-fated American League of Professional Football in 1894. Even at that point of the sport’s history in the U.S., Washington existed on the periphery of American soccer, where it would remain throughout the first half of the 20th century. That is not to say that the city did not have viable leagues or that soccer did not enjoy periods of significant appeal, just that the sport never garnered the attention that it did in the industrial Northeast and that the city’s club never could measure up to competition from the likes of Fall River, New York, or even Baltimore in Open Cup competition.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the sport gained a significant footing in Washington. During and following the war, the city’s population boomed due to a wave of immigration from across the country that The Washington Post believed may “have brought enough new interest to Washington to make a general organization of the sport worthwhile.” The city fielded local leagues for decades prior, but it was this post-war boom, coupled with soccer’s and professional sports’ growth nationally, that gave soccer true vitality in Washington.

With this thrust in participation and popularity, Washington finally became a player on the national stage as The British Lions of Washington’s National Soccer League (NSL) became a dominant club locally throughout the 1950s and 60s while making extended runs in the U.S. Amateur Open Cup on several occasions. The British Lions’ success reached its pinnacle in 1969 when they captured the city’s first truly national soccer trophy by defeating Kutis of St. Louis 4-1 for the U.S. Amateur Cup.

In addition to the Lions, Washington became home to two professional clubs in 1967 during the nascent boom of professional sports: Britannica, a local NSL rival who joined the American Soccer League (ASL) and the Washington Whips, who were represented by the players of Aberdeen of Scotland in the United Soccer Association. (Rather than employ players available in America, the United Soccer Association imported entire clubs to represent various American cities for its first season.) By 1970, Britannica became the Darts, won an ASL title, joined the NASL, and were the 
sole professional club in Washington.

From that point on, soccer within Washington would experience a series of highs and lows, as several clubs came and went during the NASL’s lifetime, while the local leagues flourished and Howard University captured two NCAA National Championships. Professional soccer was a near-mainstay in Washington throughout the 1970s and 1980s, one that drew decent attendances, but never fully captured the city’s attention. The city’s apathy was a malaise that not even the magic of a Johan Cruyff led Diplomats team, or the ill-fated Team America concept could cure. By the 1984 NASL season, Washington was without a professional team, and professional soccer in the United States was on life-support. Though the loss of professional soccer and the collapse of the NASL left Washington without a nationally visible soccer representative, the vacuum was filled by local clubs who would usher in the most prosperous era in the city’s soccer history.

Dawn of the “Golden Era”

Following the demise of the NASL, professionals who were not playing in the Major Indoor Soccer League were suddenly out of a job and found themselves looking for a place to play. This meant that city leagues throughout the country became a viable, and sometimes the only, place to play. In the case of Washington, the arrival of former professionals only strengthened the already strong local leagues including the NSL, a league that President, Luis Del Aguila, claimed was “one of the best in the country,” in 1985. Aguila’s assertion may not have been far off. The Washington area was home to several strong leagues including the NSL, the Northern Virginia Soccer League (NVSL), and the Capital Soccer League. While each offered a different style of play, professionals and former national team players could be found plying their trade on local fields every weekend. The NVSL even boasted to have several World Cup veterans playing within the forty teams playing in its four divisions.

Dominant in the NSL were Club España, a club founded by Spanish immigrants sometime in the late 1970s, who were not shy about signing the best talent available in order to win the league and compete on the national level. The club, reigning league champions since 1980, quickly took advantage of the influx of former professionals and top college players tricking into the NSL by signing players with NASL experience like Daryl Gee and Ian Bain, while also signing talented young players from the 1985 NCAA College Cup runner-up American University (AU) in Soccer America’s Player of the Year, Michael Brady and defensive stalwart, Keith Trehy. In leagues already burgeoning with local and international players of some acclaim, the area became a hotbed of talent ready to compete for national recognition with the new wave of players entering the leagues.

España were not the only local team heavy on quality talent, as their local rivals, the Fairfax Spartans, featured USMNT players John Kerr Jr., Bruce Murray, and John Stohlmeyer, and they were coached by former New York Cosmos and Washington Diplomat midfielder, John Kerr Sr. These two teams were stocked with talent and dominated the NSL and NVSL respectively. Inevitably they had to compete each other to achieve success on the national stage.

Club España in 1985
Source: The Washington Post
Club España were the first to achieve notoriety and success nationally by going on a reported 33-game unbeaten streak to capture the U.S. Amateur Open Cup in 1985 – the Fairfax Spartans made it to the Open Cup Semi-Finals before being ousted. The final victory during the 33-game run was a 2-1 victory in St. Louis over the Mitre Eagles of Seattle, Washington. In addition to the players mentioned above, excluding Gee, the club featured American University’s Richie Burke and future-USMNT forward Philip Gyau. The title win was the beginning of a very short-lived, but highly productive “golden era” for the area. It was the first truly national championship won by a club from Washington since Howard University’s College Cup triumph in 1974, and the first US Open Amateur Cup Championship for a club from Washington since 1969. The victory even garnered the attention of D.C.’s government, with Mayor Marion Barry lauding the achievement by naming a day in honor of the club. Following the win, the Washington area was prime for an extended run of national titles and a place in soccer history alongside some of the greater city dynasties of the past century like Los Angeles, home of Maccabi.

The U.S. Amateur Open Cup title returned to the Washington area the next year, 1986, but it would be Kerr Jr. and the Fairfax Spartans who brought the trophy to the nation’s capital after defeating St. Louis Busch 3-0 for the title. It would prove to be a productive year locally as the area’s womens teams were just as successful, with the Fairfax Wildfire winning the Women’s Amateur Cup completing a men’s and women’s national double.

In back-to-back years, Washington clubs had captured hardware and proven that the area was indeed a soccer stronghold experiencing the most success nationally in its history. In 1987, Club España continued the area’s run among the country’s elite and brought a trophy that had eluded clubs from Washington for over a half century, the U.S. Open Cup. Not only did España win the first Open Cup in the city’s long history, they did it in historic fashion too.

U.S. Open Cup Champions and Beyond

Source: The Washington Post
Club España entered 1987 with a roster that was largely unchanged since the club’s 1985 U.S. Amateur Open Cup victory. The Fairfax Spartans were no different, and the two club’s successes undoubtedly fueled one another to reach another level. For a couple of years, some of Washington’s media took notice, namely The Washington Post, who began giving the rivalry more coverage, announced crucial matches between the two foes and promoted the professional quality of the clubs. Both Club España and the Fairfax Spartans’ achievements had filled the soccer void in Washington, and their continued success on the national stage proved hard to ignore as both received more coverage than they had ever before.

The two club's achievements earned both a spot in the newly formed American Soccer League, the third league to adopt the ASL moniker, which included only East Coast teams and began exhibition play during the summer of 1987. Both teams adopted new club names, with España becoming the Washington Diplomats and the Fairfax Spartans changing their name to the Washington Stars. Despite the looming changes, España were still in the hunt for the U.S. Open Cup at the time of the league’s creation. The club continued to compete for the Open Cup as Club España while also taking the field in other games as the Diplomats, though it was no secret that the future ASL entity was almost entirely made up of players from the soon to be defunct Club España.

Prior to the official announcement of the ASL’s creation, España advanced to the Finals of the U.S. 
Open Cup tournament by winning a home and away series against New York Greek-American. After defeating New York on their home ground the week prior, España welcomed the four-time Open Cup champions to Washington on May 17, 1987. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, which saw España advance in the tournament due to their previous win. The game was more notable for the fighting amongst the teams and the presence of police, than the final score line, which led España’s Ian Bain to say, “Basically this is an ethnic thing. It’s Spain against Greece and blood tends to run a little warm.”

In addition to España’s progression in the tournament, the women of Fairfax Wildfire secured victory in their game that day as well, sending them to the National Championships for the second consecutive season. Both club’s wins kept the city in contention for another men’s and women’s national double.

Following España’s advancement to the final four of the Open Cup tournament, the club began to invest heavily in the development of the Diplomats and the new ASL. The club began to be referred to not as solely as the Diplomats in the local press beginning with the club’s first games in the Ambassador Cup, a four team tournament held at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium from June 5-7, 1987, featuring the Diplomats, the Cosmopolitan Eagles (NJ), the Honduran National Team, and the Under-20 U.S. National Team.

The club registered a 3-1 win in their opening match against the Under-20 U.S. National Team. They followed the win up with a 1-1 draw against Honduran National team that left the Honduran coach with nothing but praise for Diplomats (España) declaring, “this team is better than most that played in the North American Soccer League.”

With the exhibition behind them, the club’s focus returned to the Open Cup and the semifinal matchup against the Mean Green of Richardson on June 20 at St. Louis Park in Fenton, Missouri.
By this time, The Washington Post were chronicling the club’s trip towards the Open Cup Final, taking note of what players would be eligible for the important cup-tie, while making a point to emphasize that España and the Diplomats were essentially the same team. Notably, several players who were officially part of the Diplomats including Michael Brady and Joe Gyau were not able to play in the Open Cup as they were not registered with the USSF as members of España. Nevertheless, it was an issue that Ian Bain wasn’t bothered with stating, “Club España has depended on 14 players so far this year, and we’ll go with the people who have gotten us this far in St. Louis.”

His statement proved true on the field as España rolled past the Mean Green 3-0 with Fernando Iturbe providing the game’s opening goal, which was bolstered by Ritchie Burke’s two goals to send the Washington club to the Open Cup Final. It was the first time in the history of the tournament that a club from Washington advanced to the tournament’s championship game, and only an old foe, Seattle’s Mitre FC, who advanced to the Final with a 5-4 victory over Busch SC, stood between España and the Open Cup trophy.

The Final took place the following day, June 21, 1987 and proved to be a struggle for both sides who were unable to find the back of the net in 120 minutes of play. Mitre’s John Klein remembers Seattle having the edge in front of a crowd ranging from 1000-2000 spectators saying, “We pretty much dominated, but were unable to score.” With both teams failing to score the game went to a penalty shoot-out, the first Final in the history of the U.S. Open Cup to be decided in that manner - the tournament used a two-game playoff to decide the winner until 1968 when it changed to a single game final.

España won the shootout dramatically 3-2. (Fairfax Wildfire failed to repeat as champions, therefore denying the city another men's and women's double.) Marcos Casas-Codero, Paul Emordi, and Daniel Betancor were the penalty scorers for España. Not only did the win secure the first Open Cup for the city of Washington, it also secured España a spot in the 1988 CONCACAF Champions Cup – Mitre Eagles also earned a spot in the tournament due to their progression to the Open Cup Final – another first for the city. (Interestingly enough, the club was allowed to enter the tournament as the Diplomats. They lost a two-game play in series to Mexico’s Atlético Morelia 4-2.)

Source: The Washington Post
Following the Open Cup victory, Club España ceased to exist as the club became the ASL’s Washington Diplomats permanently. Fairfax Spartans were also a defunct club by the fall of 1987 as the newly-minted Washington Stars and the Diplomats took some of the area’s best talent into the new professional league beginning play the following spring. Both clubs past accomplishments earned them significant articles in The Washington Post promoting the quality talent laden rosters of both teams, but any mention to the former club names only came in reference to the past history of the players. The amateur clubs were extinct and the “golden age” was coming to an end, but not before the city obtained another title when the Washington Diplomats seized the inaugural ASL championship in 1988.

The Diplomats and Stars continued to play professional soccer through the 1990 American Professional Soccer League season. At the end of the campaign, the Diplomats folded, while the Stars ceased to exist after merging with Baltimore's Maryland Bays. Washington would not have a club with another national soccer championship until 1996 when Iberia SC, a club coached by Silvino Gonzalo, who was also involved with España and the Diplomats, won the U.S. Amateur Open Cup, and D.C. United won the inaugural Major League Soccer Cup. Sine then the city has had a number of clubs bring hardware back to the area, but it was the "golden age" of the mid-1980s, with Club España at the forefront, that cemented Washington's status as an elite soccer city.

The above video features Silvino Gonzalo referencing his role in guiding several clubs to Open Cup titles.

Notes: As always, I relied on a number of sources, both primary and secondary, in writing this article. I perused many newspapers with The Washington Post being chief among them. I also consulted The New York Times. In addition to the above sources, I consulted The Olympian's article on Seattle's 2010 bid to win the Open Cuphttp://www.funwhileitlasted.net, and, of course, the American Soccer History Archives. Also, a huge thanks is due to Kevin Mercer for his help with the article. Follow him on Twitter.