In its Open Cup debut last week, Duluth FC took its NPSL North rivalry with Dakota Fusion to the national stage and came away with a dramatic victory to advance in the country’s premier soccer tournament. That stage gets even bigger this week as the Bluegreens welcome Saint Louis FC to town for a second-round matchup.
“We’re trying to take this one step at a time,” Duluth FC head coach Joel Person said. “Quick turnaround, but I do know everybody is extremely excited and focused. I believe it’s the first time in Minnesota history that an amateur team is hosting a professional team from outside the state, and it’s the first time in history that a Minnesota amateur team has made it that far in the U.S. Open Cup. So whatever happens on Wednesday is history either way, and we’re really excited about it.”
No longer the rival, the Bluegreens will now take up the role of underdog, and they face an uphill battle against the club from the second division. But for anyone who knows Duluth, uphill battles are a daily occurrence, and only the match at hand will determine if the two clubs have more in common than what meets the eye.
At first glance, the sides share some obvious superficial features. Both clubs have a blue-green color scheme, and both prominently display the Fleur-de-lis in their emblem. Minnesota geography enthusiasts will also know that Duluth happens to be the seat of Saint Louis County, and a river of the same name demarcates the boundary between the Twin Ports, so the visitors should feel right at home on their northern sojourn.
More to the point, the two clubs are also the same age, but that’s essentially where the comparisons come to an end.
Saint Louis, of course, is a much larger market, and the city’s top club has already stoked its caliber by bringing in some big names in its brief history.
The club’s former coach is none other than Preki, the man responsible for the lone game-winning goal ever scored by the U.S. men against Brazil, a stunning effort in the semifinals of the 1998 Gold Cup.
Preki is the only two-time MVP in MLS history, and his first gig in the USL saw him win a championship with Sacramento Republic in 2014. But the left-footed wizard only lasted a year in the Gateway City before taking on an assistant coaching role with Seattle Sounders.
Running the show now is Anthony Pulis, son of former Premier League and current Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis, who has the club presently sitting middle of the table in the USL Western Conference.
The big takeaway from its season so far, though, isn’t its position in the table, but the fact the team already has 10 games under its belt, which gives the Missouri side a leg up in terms of match fitness and preparation for the next round of the Open Cup.
Saint Louis also has experience at this level, and at this stage of the tournament. The club entered in the second round last year as well, and battled into the fourth round where it fell at home 1-0 to the Chicago Fire.
In many ways, small-market clubs like Duluth FC have the deck stacked against them, and it’s exceedingly difficult for lower division sides to compete on a level playing field, especially in a tournament that pits giants sanctioned by the sport’s governing body against minnows recently adrift in the sea of amateur soccer.
And though that’s a major part of what makes the Open Cup worth watching, playing in it is a pipe dream for most clubs, and it’s a taxing process for those small ones that actually do realize their dream of competing in the national tournament. While clubs with USSF backing have deeper pocketbooks and greater connections, it can be a real challenge for a small club that lacks comparable resources to try to navigate our big, often unwieldy system.
“There’s a lot of learning, and a lot of new experiences working with the federation, precisely because the federation does not seem to be well-equipped to serve the numerous lower division clubs that are promoting the game, and that are truly promoting players all throughout the country,” Duluth FC general manager Tim Sas said. “It does not have a system of really being supportive to us, and they do not have a system that really encourages other people to put in an effort to do this.”
For one, the costs of participating in the Open Cup can be prohibitive. Bringing the tournament back to Duluth for another round doesn’t come cheap, and hosting a professional team further increases the financial burden.
“Some of the costs incurred by lower division clubs become really cumbersome,” Sas said. “Referee costs are very cumbersome for a small club that doesn’t crack 1,000 paying fans. Now, with the professional clubs being involved, we’ve got to work with the PRO, the Professional Referee Organization.”
Sas also believes the USSF could do more for leagues whose teams rely largely on college athletes, and players who aren’t compensated and work non-soccer jobs for a living.
“The college players who want to keep playing, these guys often have aspirations for professional footballing contracts, and they are very limited by NCAA regulations,” he said. “The federation doesn’t seem to help us at all in negotiating those regulations. Additionally, some college coaches call in their players August 1, when their season doesn’t even begin until after Labor Day. The NCAA has a huge amount of power, and it’s not helpful for the players. The federation could do a lot more to provide support in that respect as well.
“People don’t travel to play. They will play where they can if they find a job. For example, from Dakota Fusion, Jade Johnson, a superstar. He could be a pro, but he’s from the Fargo area, he’s got a job there, and he plays there. Our old player from last year, the guy who scored and gave us the championship, Andrew Jenkins, was with us for a couple years. He couldn’t find a job in Duluth, so he got a job in St. Paul, and he’s there now. These people go where their work is, where their life is, and they play for the club that wants to use their services.”
Still, despite what can often seem like a Sisyphean undertaking, the Bluegreens are here, doing what they can to keep the ball rolling into the next round. Duluth FC still has the chance to compete, to take down a relative giant and come back for more, and unlike the opening round, which was held at UMD, they’ll be back home at Denfeld for their most important match yet.
“I think it’s a positive thing,” Person said. “That’s our permanent home field anyway, so I think we’re a little bit more comfortable there, and it’s a good venue, so we’re excited about that too.”
The second-round U.S. Open Cup match between Duluth FC and Saint Louis FC gets underway Wednesday at 7 p.m.
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