Ocean City Nor'easters are national Cupset specialists. Per Josh Hakala - founder of TheCup.us, the most comprehensive coverage of US Open Cup history to be found on the internet - the Nor'easters' record of five upsets of professional opposition in USOC matches is bettered by only two other amateur teams, Des Moines Menace (seven upsets) and Michigan Bucks (nine wins over pro opponents).
The Nor'easters were founded as the South Jersey Barons in 1996 as a pro team, but the Cupsets didn't start coming until 2005 - after the club had joined PDL as an amateur outfit. In USOC '05, the team advanced to the third round of the tournament with a 4-0 win over Long Island Rough Riders (a pro team at the time; now also in PDL), and subsequently fell to Richmond Kickers, 8-4.
Current head coach John Thompson was on the field for four of the Nor'easters' five Cupsets, including that win over the Rough Riders. Reflecting on his playing days, he notes that in his time on the field it was easier for clubs at the Nor'easters' level to hold a core squad together over multiple seasons. The team's 2005 USOC campaign was during Thompson's fourth consecutive season with the club, and he still had a few playing years ahead of him with the Barons (as they were at the time): such continuity of service is rare at the PDL level in the current era. And he thinks he and his teammates also benefited a little from both the complacency and perhaps organizational limitations of pro teams in his day: "We had quite an experienced squad, savvy footballers who knew what they were doing," he told Once A Metro, "Clubs underestimated the level of PDL teams. They wouldn't scout us."
Thompson is not currently focused on the Cupsets of the Nor'easters' glory days. This is his first year as head coach of a club he has been associated with since the late 90s. And his immediate priority is to prepare his team for its first game of the season: at home against Junior Lone Star FC in the first round of USOC 2017. For this match, the Nor'easters are nominal favorites, since qualified PDL teams start the tournament in the first round and the club made the national final four in last year's PDL playoffs. Lone Star plays in the Philadelphia Premier Soccer League and had to work its way into the main USOC draw through the qualifying rounds.
But the favorites tag doesn't fit Thompson's team too well. This is a change-over year for the Nor'easters: they have a new head coach (the last man to hold the position, Tim Oswald, hasn't gone far - he is the club's sporting director) and this year's roster features only three players from last season's team. Most of the men on this year's roster have only recently met: "I've had 18 players in so far. We'll have had four training sessions, that's it," says Thompson of the team's pre-USOC preparations, "Not very long to get organized."
For the game on Wednesday, May 10, training started on Saturday, May 6. The coach has understandably focused on finding his players' comfort zone: "Everybody is comfortable with 4-2-3-1, since the majority of colleges play that way, so we start with that. We have quite a talented squad but you don't want to bamboozle the players when you only have four training sessions."
Though Thompson has had to focus on getting "20 strangers to play together", he does concede his team has one advantage over Lone Star - the same advantage it has enjoyed in the past over more highly-regarded opponents: "It's hard to scout a team that gets put together in May. Lone Star can't scout us, but we have been able to watch them."
Having spent most of his career in the sport in and around South Jersey, Thompson is not unfamiliar with the Philadelphia talent pool from which Lone Star draws its players. The club's origins are in Philly's Liberian community, and Thompson is particularly aware of the footballing traditions of that country: "In 2002, the best player I've ever been on a football pitch with was a man called Elvin - I can't remember his last name; I think he was Liberia's captain - and I was in awe. I couldn't believe I was on the same pitch as him. He was a different level to me - a midfielder, I would just get him the ball and let him play with it."
Lone Star was founded in 2001. Its most famous former player is probably Derrick Jones, who joined Philadelphia Union's academy from Lone Star in 2013 and is now part of the USA Men's U-20 National Team squad for the 2017 U-20 World Cup.
Jones is representative of a challenge the Nor'easters and Lone Star share: as professional clubs in the US get more organized and ambitious, they have got better at making room in their development pipelines for the country's best younger players. As scouting networks and professional opportunities improve, the most highly-rated young players inevitably gravitate toward the pro teams' academies and reserve teams.
"Nowadays, the top 250-300 American lads - they will play for MLS clubs. We don't have any affiliation with MLS clubs, so they are not accessible to us," says Thompson, who certainly doesn't fault any player for seeking out maximum exposure to the highest level of the game they can find. Originally from the Lake District in the north of England, Thompson spent a part of his early days as a player commuting to Scotland to pursue opportunities in the pro game before accepting a scholarship to attend college in Chicago and finding his way in American soccer.
But the changing landscape of the game in the US forces teams like the Nor'Easters to cast a wider net for players. The Nor'easters look beyond the NCAA system that dominates the college sport conversation, scouring the network of smaller schools that play under the NAIA's oversight: "there are some quality players if you look hard enough."
No need to take Thompson's word for it: Western Virginia University Institute of Technology's Ignacio Tellechea is on the Noreasters' roster for 2017 and was named to PDL's pre-season list of players to watch this season.
Admission will be free for the match against Lone Star, courtesy of the Friends of the Ocean City Nor'easters Foundation, a group that coordinates charity events featuring Nor'easters players and helps them get settled for summer soccer by finding host families for those on the roster in need of a local base. The Foundation will be taking donations at the gate.
As the chat with OaM threatens to encroach on his last training session before the USOC game, Thompson admits to one more potential advantage for his team. Mostly new to each other and Ocean City, the players will be keen to impress teammates, coaches, fans and newfound friends. And many of them "haven't kicked a ball in anger since their college playoffs ended in November," Thompson say, "They're champing at the bit."
New Jersey's Cupset specialists are heading into a game more burdened than boosted by the favorites tag, but both coach and players would like to make a positive first impression on the new season, and they have the mixed blessing of being an unknown quantity to both their opponents and each other. As a veteran of most of the Nor'easters' best days in US Open Cup, Thompson knows the value of the element of surprise in these one-off knockout games: "That's the beauty of the Cup."