BYU men’s soccer returns to US Open Cup after 8 years

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BYU defender Junior Lartey dribbles the ball up the field in a game.  (Photo courtesy BYU men's soccer team)

BYU defender Junior Lartey dribbles the ball up the field in a game. (Photo courtesy BYU men’s soccer team)

PROVO — Imagine playing on a semi-pro baseball team and earning a chance to face the New York Yankees in a nationwide baseball tournament. That’s the sort of opportunity available to BYU men’s soccer team in 2015.

The Cougars are set to participate in the U.S. Open Cup for the first time since 2007. BYU will face Harpo’s FC — a USSSA level soccer team based in Boulder, Colorado — in a first round game at South Field on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. The winner will travel to face the Colorado Springs Switchbacks — a United Soccer League team — in the second round on May 20th.

BYU qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open Cup after posting a 7–4–3 record in 2014 and advancing to the Premier Development League playoffs for the first time in six seasons. The Cougars finished second in the Mountain Division of the PDL Western Conference.

“It’s a huge deal for us, senior goalkeeper Jake Petersen said. “We worked really hard and a lot of credit goes to last year’s team who put us there. We get a lot of benefits from their work, so we appreciate what they did for us.”

For BYU, competing in the nation’s oldest soccer tournament offers a rare opportunity to face the best teams in U.S. soccer. If the Cougars advance through their bracket long enough, they would get a chance to test themselves against Major League Soccer teams — even potentially Real Salt Lake — in later rounds.

That’s because the 2015 U.S. Open Cup features 91 teams drawn from all leagues within the American Soccer Pyramid competing against one another in a nationwide single-elimination tournament running from April to September.

“The idea we can play somebody like RSL or the (Seattle) Sounders is really thrilling,” junior defender Ethan Meyer said. “Even if we didn’t win, to be able to play them and give them a good run for their money would be exciting. It would get a lot of people interested in what we’re doing here.”

[pullquote]“I love the idea of being an underdog. The expectations are on everyone else. It allows us to go in without a lot of pressure. We can do just what we love and can do and put on a good show for everyone.” —Jake Petersen, goalkeeper[/pullquote]

Making a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup would go a long way to putting BYU on the soccer map in a big way.

BYU has participated in the PDL since the 2003 season. During that time, the Cougars constantly have to deal with the perception that they are just a club team. This perception persists even though the PDL represents the fourth tier of soccer below MLS (tier 1), the North American Soccer League (tier 2) and USL (tier 3). It is also considered the highest level of amateur soccer in the United States.

In other words, the Cougars are much more than just another club team.

“I feel like I need a tattoo on my forehead that explains it,” BYU men’s soccer coach Chris Watkins said. “I explain it that many times. Some people get it. Others don’t.”

Since BYU does not compete in the NCAA in men’s soccer, it does not award athletic scholarships. Each player on the roster pays for every college expense — tuition, books, housing and meals — out of their own pockets.

Players who join the Cougars do so out of a pure love of the game. They are true amateurs in every sense of the word.

“We don’t have scholarships,” Watkins said. “We don’t give players the cost of attendance money. They don’t get the free food that the athletic department gives. But we play great opponents and soccer people get that. And high school kids get that, so they want to come play.”

Odds are stiff against BYU making a ton of noise in the U.S. Open Cup as it progresses. No team outside the MLS has won the cup since the Rochester Rhinos defeated the Colorado Rapids 2–0 in the 1999 U.S. Open Cup final. The last non-MLS team to even reach the title game was the Charleston Battery in 2008.

The Cougars are just relishing the idea that, on paper, they have a chance to make a lasting impression on the soccer pitch.

“I love the idea of being an underdog,” Petersen said. “The expectations are on everyone else. It allows us to go in without a lot of pressure. We can do just what we love and can do and put on a good show for everyone.”

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John Coon is a Utah native and has reported on sports in the Beehive State for more than a decade. After stints as a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune and then the Deseret News, John became a full-time freelance writer and editor in 2011. He currently covers major sports at BYU and the University of Utah for the Associated Press. You can follow John on Twitter at @johncoonsports

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