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KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

Cal FC embracing opportunity to show what it's made of

Hall of Famer Eric Wynalda's amateur team of players who were rejected by various professional leagues will play the Portland Timbers on Wednesday in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

May 26, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Cal FC's Alberto Navarra (11) and Danny Barrera vie with the Wilmington Hammerheads' Jack Avesyan for the ball during their U.S. Open Cup second-round game last week.
Cal FC's Alberto Navarra (11) and Danny Barrera vie with the Wilmington… (Mike Spencer / Associated…)

Eric Wynalda has an opinion about everything, which makes the soccer Hall of Famer such an entertaining TV analyst.

"Everybody thinks that I'm just a TV guy with a big mouth that's very critical of things," Wynalda barks into his cellphone. "And I get it. They're right."

What has Wynalda fired up on this morning is the way Major League Soccer teams choose their players and coaches. It's a staid system in which everyone is expected to fit into a particular box — the coaches with near-identical resumes and the players filling narrow, predetermined roles.

Wynalda didn't have an example of what an alternative might look like, though, so he went out and created one — and the results have been better than even he expected. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Ventura County's Cal FC, as unlikely a ragtag band of misfits to ever find themselves within reach of a major soccer upset.

On Wednesday, Cal FC, one of just three amateur teams left in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, will play the MLS' Portland Timbers in a third-round match in Portland. David vs. Goliath was an even matchup by comparison. But Goliath got cocky before that one and look what happened.

The Timbers would do well to learn that lesson because, to get this far, Wynalda's team has already pulled off two surprises, beating Washington state's Kitsap Pumas, the defending champions of the USL's Premier Development League, and the Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads, who finished second in the USL Pro division last season.

Cal FC, by comparison, has a losing record in the 12-team Oxnard adult league in which it plays.

"I knew that they had the potential to play some good soccer," Wynalda says. "But I didn't think they'd come together this fast."

No one else had much faith in his players either, which is how they wound up with Cal FC. Colombian-born midfielder Danny Barrera, who scored twice in the win over Wilmington, failed to stick with teams in England and Serbia; brother Diego's best gig to date was with indoor soccer's Syracuse Silver Knights.

Former UCLA forward Eder Arreola was a first-round pick of the Houston Dynamo in January's MLS Supplemental Draft; Armenian forward Artur Aghasyan washed out in short MLS trials with Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA; defender Mike Randolph was released three years ago after 39 appearances with the Galaxy; and defender Jesus Gonzalez failed to catch on with Seattle and Portland.

Now they play not for a paycheck but to prove a point.

"The Galaxy, the L.A. Blues, Chivas USA — they all know who these guys are," Wynalda says. "They just, at one point or another, said they're not good enough."

Wynalda knows that feeling. Despite a standout playing career that included three World Cups and 34 goals for the U.S. in 106 international caps — second all-time to Landon Donovan's 46 scores — Wynalda's curriculum vitae was deemed too sparse for MLS coaching jobs with the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA.

"The biggest thing with a job like that, within [the] system that we have … all the people that do the hiring, they have a definition of experience," Wynalda says. "They think that you have to go and be an assistant for three years to learn from somebody else in order to be ready for this. And I couldn't disagree more."

So if you can't join 'em, well then you might as well beat 'em. And Wynalda has done that in a predictably unconventional way.

Before the Wilmington match, Wynalda was stuck in Germany preparing for Fox Soccer's coverage of the UEFA Champions League final. So he coached the team via Facebook and through text messages. The final pregame warmup was a walk on the beach.

Cal FC isn't the only local club still alive in the tournament. Both the Galaxy and Chivas USA will play Tuesday, the Galaxy against the NASL's Carolina RailHawks in Cary, N.C., and Chivas against the Ventura County Fusion of the USL Premier Development League at Ventura College. But Wynalda's club is the most interesting and disorganized of the four.

"It's like herding cats at times. We don't have the finances to be able to afford to train every day," says Wynalda who, together with Mike Friedman, a local banker and longtime friend, have funded many of the team's activities out of their own pockets. "The inspiring part about our group is that they want it. They play the game the right way for the right reasons. Nothing's holding them back."

Randolph, at 26 the oldest player on Cal FC's roster, agrees.

"For me, this is kind of like when I first started playing," he says. "We've gotten this far because people have allowed us to do what we want to do. [Wynalda's] letting us be creative. And it's been working thus far."

This is where Cal FC's Cinderella run figures to end, however. Getting past Portland and its passionate fans probably will require more than just players — and a coach — with a big heart and a giant chip on their shoulders. By simply getting this far, though, the group has already done what it set out to do.

"Everybody on this team has something to prove," Randolph says. "This is what we worked for. Our goal was to play an MLS team and show what we're made of.

"We're getting a chance to do that."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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