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Chemistry the key in Christos’ Cup run

Baltimore amateur men’s league team Christos FC upset the professional USL squad Richmond Kickers in the second round of the US Open Cup, 1-0.

They don’t practice at all and they barely ever have the same lineup in games, yet somehow Baltimore-based amateur men’s league team Christos FC is in the third round of the US Open Cup after upsetting a fully professional USL team and outscoring their two opponents 4-0 so far.

Christos FC beat the Richmond Kickers last week to advance to the third round of the national US Soccer-sanctions tournament. The Kickers are actually a team that has won the US Open Cup before and just under a year ago beat English Barclays Premier League club Swansea City AFC in an exhibition game, 2-0.

Christos FC beat the Kickers 1-0 in the second round of the US Open Cup. They beat another amateur club Fredericksburg FC in the first round, 3-0, and saw the only hat trick of the tournament so far by one of their top players. Next week, Wednesday, May 31, they will travel to Chicago to play Chicago FC United, an amateur PDL team – mostly college players, playing club soccer in their offseason.

But while in a sport that constantly has 11 moving parts for 90 minutes, with only one scheduled break in the middle, Christos FC has made up for the lack of practice, and the lack of a steady lineup game-to-game because it is a team full of guys who have years of playing together and have built incredible chemistry.

When a pro team like the Kickers is built, they are bringing in players from all across the country, and even the globe with some international signings on their squad. Christos FC is almost exclusively a team full of guys who grew up in Baltimore and played soccer together from their various youth academies all the way up through college. Many of the team’s player went to University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which went to the NCAA national semifinals as recently as 2014.

“I don’t think I’ve been on a team that’s been on the same level of thinking,” goalkeeper Phil Saunders said. “Everybody knows each other. We’ve been playing together for 10 or 15 years now. Everybody is on the same page. We just go out there and have a good time.”

Saunders is one of the many UMBC graduates on the team. He also played professionally in Iceland for a few seasons after his graduation, then played indoor for the Baltimore Blast. Now he is the head soccer coach at CCBC Catonsville and is going to grad school.

Christos FC is also not your typical men’s league team either, another reason for their success. They have accomplished players on their team. Saunders had been listed among top goalkeeper prospects for the US National team before. His former college teammate Pete Caringi III, who scored that hat trick against Fredericksburg, was selected by the Montreal Impact in the third round of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft after a stellar collegiate career that earned him All-American honors and played for the Oklahoma City Energy before joining his father’s coaching staff for the Retrievers. Levi Houapeu, another UMBC grad, won a collegiate scoring title and was a third-round pick by the Philadelphia Union in 2011. He also played professionally for the Rochester Rhinos and Baltimore Blast before suffering a devastating injury that ended up dropping him down to the amateur ranks. Mamadou Kansaye, another UMBC prospect, played professionally for the Charlotte Independence before becoming an assistant coach at Hood College.

Christos FC is more than just a collection of UMBC alumni, though they do have other grads, including Geaton Caltabiano, who scored the lone goal against Richmond and starting back Joe Glos. They really are a collection of the elite talent from the area, who have won together at the club level, or in high school, or got to know each other through various soccer activities over the years.

Josh Taylor was a standout at Loyola and served as their captain during their NCAA tournament run in 2007. Cody Albrecht was a captain and back-line starter for a Maryland Terrapins squad that went undefeated during the regular season in 2016.

“We’ve all won at different levels and we’re going to try to win at a different level now,” Caringi said. “It’s a men’s league so it’s more run, but now we’re at a level where we’re competitive again and are getting a little more serious now and will see where we can go with this.”

Together, the club went on a 90-game winning streak and became the first amateur team to win all three amateur national championships, claiming the US Amateur Cup and Werner Fricker Open Cup last summer, adding to their three straight Gerhard Mengel Over-30 Cups won in 2012, 2013 and 2014, making for five national championships in five years.

A bigger challenge facing the team more than the lack of practices is not having a set lineup. Considering everybody on the team is amateur and have other jobs, Christos FC may not even have the same players out there playing from week to week. Co-head coach Larry Sancomb, who has been with the team for 20 years and played for the original Christos FC team, said “I think we’ve had the same lineup maybe three times all year. We’ve had to make adjustments for guys work schedules.”

When it comes to making a game plan for how his team will play in their games, the first thing he has to do is “see who is going to be there and I will have to make adjustments.”

Christos’ back line featured two different center backs against Richmond than when they played Fredericksburg. Kansaye and Albrecht, both normally holding midfielders, moved back into that role, and still, the team shut out their professional opponent.

Again, that goes back to the chemistry of the team.

“All the guys have played with or against each other for the last 10 or 12 years,” Saunders said. “Chemistry has really held us together.”

While maybe the team does not practice breaks or see where guys will be crossing the ball to set up better timing, the guys on the team all consider themselves to be a group of great friends, and they will spend time with each other off the soccer pitch, hanging out and talking about soccer and their games. It is not simply just a team that shows up on game day, nods their head at each other and part ways until next week.

“Even just hanging out and going to bars and going out to eat, we’re just always having a good time no matter who it is,” Daniel Baxter said. “We have a big group of 20 guys on our squad and only take a certain amount to each tournament and game. It’s not the only time we’re together. We’ve been together for so long it just works out.

“We get new guys here and there every couple of months, but they just jell right in. They’ve played at schools where we’ve had players at.”

Baxter himself went to Division III York College and currently works as a full-time Radiographer Technician at both University of Maryland Medical Center and Mercy Hospital, but he’s been able to shine during Christos’ games because he’s so comfortable with all his other teammates. He played High School soccer at Calvert Hall and club soccer for both the Maryland Bays and Baltimore Bays, the youth clubs most of the players on the team played for.

“[The chemistry] it’s the reason we’re still in it,” Caringi said. “Most guys I’ve played with on this team I’ve played with for about 10 years, some of them even longer than that. Just knowing how to play with the guys when you’re not practicing the whole time is everything because most teams obviously practice to get that chemistry.”

Sancomb and his co-head coach Bryan Bugarin also coached many of the players at the club level when they were all younger. That too gave them plenty of familiarity with who can do what and where certain guys should be playing, especially when those players and the lineup have to change so often depending on who is available.

“We know where our team fits in,” Sancomb said. “When we play teams we just play our style of soccer. We are a team that likes to come at you. When we play teams we just play our style of soccer. … We have a lot of pieces to win games in a lot of different ways. Our strategy is we just play our style of soccer. We’re very direct. It’s the Baltimore style.”

And at this point, Christo FC has absolutely nothing to lose, which just gives them a sense of fearlessness, and fearlessness is always the most dangerous thing when making a Cinderella run.

“Technically, we’re not supposed to be here but we tell ourselves that we can’t really lose,” Caringi said. “We either win and keep advancing or lose and went further than we probably should have. We have a lot of guys who won at every level so winning now isn’t shocking when you’ve won your whole career.”

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Corey Johns

Editor in Chief
You could say Corey was born to become a sports journalist. His father won a national championship coaching college soccer. His mother is a baseball fanatic who hasn't missed seeing an Orioles game since 1983 (literally, sometimes it's annoying). His great uncle was a big-time boxing promoter and his maternal grandfather was once a department head at the Baltimore Sun. Basically, sports and journalism run through his blood. He played just about every little league sports there was when he was a kid and was a multi-sport athlete in high school; even playing in the first-ever high school sanction Rugby game in the country. Eventually he retired from sports as an undefeated Maryland state Rugby champion as a high school senior. Perhaps lack of athletic talent has more to do with the retirement, but he will tell you that it more had to do with a great desire to jump right into media. Upon his graduation from University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a triple communications major, Corey started the So Much Sports network and has continued to grow his websites and continues to work to make them premier sports media outlets.

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