This Westchester has two words, not one, New York fans.
Pennsylvania amateur club West Chester United SC announced earlier this week it would be playing the New York Red Bulls in a friendly this Saturday afternoon. The Red Bulls had previously announced plans to hold one friendly at the club’s training facility in East Hanover on March 19 prior to leaving for Florida the next day for full preseason. The match will take place at 2pm but there are no plans to stream or televise any of the proceedings.
Blaise Santangelo, West Chester’s head coach and sporting director, spoke with Once A Metro about the opportunity his team’s been given saying it feels like the next step in something bigger as they grow in stature in amateur soccer and in familiarity with the Red Bulls.
“We feel we’re representing all of amateur soccer getting this opportunity,” Santangelo said over the phone. “Cause you just don’t get those opportunities against, you know, phase one MLS players. Maybe there’ll be some MLS first teamers that are gonna just get a run before they get out of town. I don’t know exactly who they’re going to play up there. But look, the Red Bull is a global name and being involved or asked to do that, it’s a huge honor.”
For West Chester the honor is not coming without merit. The organization - based out of its namesake borough in Chester County, Pennsylvania - competes in numerous local and regional leagues including the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), USL League Two (USL2), and Northeast Elite Soccer League (NESL). Of it’s recent accomplishments the amateur side has qualified for the U.S. Open Cup three times (2016, 2019, and the cancelled 2020 edition), won two U.S. Adult Soccer Association (USASA) National Tournaments in the past six years, and completed an impressive quadruple in 2018-19 when it won league, state, and regional titles.
It all builds on the premise that Santangelo and others within WCU believe in, full commitment to talent development and having teams on the field year round. He notes their group and others such as Philadelphia Lone Star FC and FC Motown, the latter of which recently started a U-23 team, have more going for them than teams that play three months a year in leagues such as the NPSL or USL2.
The friendly is also part of an informal-but-growing development relationship between the two clubs. Earlier this year, WCU alumni Lamine Conte and AJ Marcucci were taken in the MLS SuperDraft by the Red Bulls. Santangelo also noted that his group sent five players out to Pittsburgh for a trial recently and were asked to bring a few players specifically up to East Hanover for the RBNY friendly.
Santangelo also noted during the call that himself and other members of the NESL were in discussions to have a Red Bull team join the league last year alongside groups from the Union and New England Revolution academies. The idea that instead of having talented 17 to 19 year-olds pushed into the USL Championship, there could be a more cost effective way to have talent play against competition that was not their own age. The biggest hurdle however came from insurance costs, the same type of “crossover insurance” amateur teams have to pay when competing against professional sides in the U.S. Open Cup, which neither USASA or the USSF were able to help with.
With some academy/reserve teams waiting for the MLS Next structure to be launched, Santangelo hopes the door can remain open in the future for more collaborations and opportunities like this friendly or last week’s game against a Philadelphia Union II/academy side.
“We were just hoping it would work because it’s very European, like what it goes on. They call us up and three days later we have friendly and they’re here. Now that MLS Next was put off for at least two or three more months, (Fred) Lipka from MLS told them, ‘go ahead and play these friendlies, do what you gotta do to get your kids playing against some pressure.’ So it’s good. It’s good for our league. And it’s good for amateur soccer as a whole. Hopefully it will open a lot of other doors for other people, you know?”
Overall, it’s just another day for a program that has a long, exciting year ahead.
“Our hair is going to be on fire,” Santangelo jokes. “We’re going to be into the throws of it. I think of all the letdowns from last year, we’ll certainly be keeping busy enough to be getting through this year… We feel we’ve been putting ourselves in a good place to bring in a lot of talent and have a lot of commitments. It’ll be great to see the kids play and really have an extended soccer community in these national leagues.”