The original format for the 2021 U.S. Open Cup was set to be a boon for what has become a blossoming amateur soccer scene in the Tri State Area. Nearly a dozen local teams were originally slated to take part in the competition from nearly every division of the US system, including five from the amateur divisions. For a tournament where one of the main draws is seeing unique matchups and having professionals play a non-league side, it was looking like a great rebound from the cancelled 2020 tournament.
However, with the pandemic still a concern and after multiple format revisions, the number of total teams has dropped to 16 and only two amateur sides will take part. Via the luck of a random draw last week, we now know a local side will still be one of these entrants. The 2019 National Amateur Cup champions Newtown Pride FC of Sandy Hook, Connecticut will join Southern California side FC Golden State Force (members of USL League Two) as the only non-professional teams in the competition.
With this revised, trimmed-down tournament format Newtown are guaranteed to play a team from Major League Soccer in their first match on May 18 or 19. Since the USSF is basing initial pairings on location, there is a high likelihood that should the New York Red Bulls qualify through performances in the opening month of MLS play, Newtown would be their opening opponent. Speaking to Once A Metro, Newtown co-founder and general manager Matt Svanda explained that he and his group would want to bring the Red Bulls or any professional side to their turf in the Nutmeg State. However, they don’t just want it for the home field advantage.
“We’re absolutely going to try and host,” he said. “We think it would be just great for the town to bring in something positive that everyone can get behind. And not only for the town, we want to get as many people from the USASA lower levels and top tiers here. We would like to bring it right here to Newtown, to Sandy Hook off exit 11 on 84. Get on the field and enjoy it. But we’re out there to compete as well.”
A lower league team wanting to become part of the community is not unique. Travel to any part of the globe and you’re bound to find a small group like that. For Newtown Pride that bond truly goes beyond the field though, with a roster filled with neighbors and a group that helped one another cope with tragedy.
Founded in 1999 by Matt and his father, team head coach Michael Svanda, Newtown has grown into a leading club in the Northeast, or Region I of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association (USASA). The Pride have won the Connecticut Soccer League five straight years (2015-19) and have made multiple runs in regional/national competitions including an appearance in the 2015 USASA Region I Werner Fricker Open Cup Final.
It’s most recent, and to date largest, accomplishment was the 2019 run to the National Amateur Championship, becoming the second team from their state to win the competition.
“When we won that amateur cup a lot of great things went for it,” Matt explained. “(It’s) really hard to do, you know, everything’s got to go right for you especially since we play in Region I. You can certainly get beat along the way. So it was just like, it was amazing because I knew that we had won that and (achieved) my ultimate goal, my father’s ultimate goal, the team’s ultimate goal.”
The win netted not only the trophy and $15,000, but also spots in both the 2020 Hank Steinbrecher Cup and 2020 U.S. Open Cup. It was even announced by then-US Soccer Federation President Carlos Cordeiro that Newtown would host the winners of the 2019 UEFA Regions’ Cup, Polish side Dolny Śląsk, in the inaugural International Amateur Cup. However, COVID ended up cancelling all three events.
While the team has always aspired to do big things, Matt points to fellow Connecticut side Danbury United’s appearance in the 2007 Open Cup as the moment that really sparked his motivations. Starting in 2013, the team competed yearly in both USASA regional tournaments and later the U.S. Open Cup Qualifying tournaments but never could earn a spot, even coming within one win in both 2013 and 2016.
“The ultimate goal for us has always been to get into Lamar Hunt because if you get into Lamar Hunt, you know, you can stand on the field with any team from a competitive level,” he said. “It’s not a friendly game. It’s not an exhibition game. It’s not a charity game. It’s just based on competitive merit. So I knew that a lot of things would have to be accomplished to get to that point, but we’ve been so close so many times and we just hadn’t pulled it off.”
When it was announced in 2018 that the National Amateur Cup champion would receive an automatic spot in the Open Cup first round, opening up yet another route for his club, Svanda made sure his team was ready. Behind players like Tavoy Morgan, Lamin Janneh, and Ibrahima Keita the team advanced past regional opposition and earned three straight shutout wins, including one in the final, to clinch the cup over Horizon FC of Texas.
The picture Svanda painted of that accomplished group is that of a team with little ego. As team captain, Janneh has been instrumental in teaching players around him. Keita, nicknamed “Kalou” by his teammates, is someone who according to Matt vocally encourages everyone on the field while also being a proven goalscorer himself. Meanwhile Tavoy, a former NPSL champion with CT’s Elm City Express, is someone who can develop chemistry with nearly anyone he plays with and pushes others to use creative license during attacks.
He describes it as a group that can and will bring the best out of everyone around them, both on and off the field. One player that exemplifies this mentality according to Svanda is Mauro dos Santos, a Brazilian expat who has become one of the well-known names in Connecticut soccer. He played for the previously mentioned Danbury United, scoring in their 2007 Open Cup match, and over ten years later he headed in Newtown’s opening/winning goal in the 2019 National Final.
“Mauro dos Santos is, in my opinion, one of the best soccer players to ever touch a cleat in the state of Connecticut,” Svanda said of the midfielder, describing him as one of the best finishers, passers, and harvest workers he’s had the chance to work with. After moving to the state and joining Newtown nearly a decade ago, Matt remembers having to convince dos Santos that he deserved to wear the number 10 on the team.
“He’s very soft-spoken, he doesn’t like attention. Like I was telling you. That’s why he didn’t want the number 10. But he’s a guy who deserves a lot of attention and credit for helping. Because having a player like that has attracted other players here, it’s set a high standard.”
Currently dos Santos’ son, Matthew, trains with the Red Bull Academy under-13 squad. Knowing he might see his dad take on his current team in the tournament, Svanda is also hoping one day he might see his best player’s son kicking it on an MLS pitch.
“You can mark my words here. I called it when the kid was five years old, you’re going to be looking at a household name in American soccer,” Svanda laughed. “I really believe that because of his work rate and his humility that (he’s learned from his) father.”
While the bond the team has with its own is special by itself, something Matt and the rest of his group want people to understand is how much they appreciate where they play and who they play for. The chance to compete against a higher division team is great, but a chance to do it in front of their own would be fulfilling in it’s own way.
Off the field, the team has become a large part of the local Sandy Hook community. As Matt explains it, everyone knows everyone in Sandy Hook. Local residents who attend the team’s league games, sometimes played right across the street from their houses, will see the same players working with local schools or non-profits. One of these efforts is a annual charity match for Newtown Youth and Family Services against a high division team, which started back in 2013 six months following the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. These have included games against the New York Cosmos, Bethlehem Steel FC (now Philadelphia Union II), and New York Red Bulls II.
“You hear the saying that soccer is the biggest sport in the world. That it unites people and it’s stopped wars and all sorts of things.”
“When we had that tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, we reached out and it was, you know, a lot,” Svanda said. “We made a lot of great lifelong friends that just wanted to get back to the game of soccer and bring people together to the game of soccer. (Teams) from all levels, from our level to MLS, with politics and business and everything put aside it’s just amazing to see so many clubs come together for a cause greater than the game of soccer, just to bring people together and educate people. And that won’t stop. That’s why we try to do that every year because people want to give back and bring people together.”
As he explained it, Matt’s hoping that a smaller market helps Newtown draw people during this pandemic. He’s hopeful a game in the Lamar Hunt with possibly a few hundred or thousand people might be more enticing than going out to a major populous event. Besides all of this, he’s hoping 2021 can be a banner year for the club as they look to gain back the cup momentum from 2019.
“We’re hoping to just keep building on the field in the community. We’re hopeful that we can do more events. We had a ton of community events planned to interact with the kids and teach them and give back and provide training and environments where kids can come and spend time for free. And we weren’t able to do a lot of those things.”
“So we’re really excited to just, you know, get the community out.”
Before the Open Cup, Newtown has other challenges on the horizon. The Amateur Cup champions will defend their title this Saturday against Brockton FC United of Massachusetts in the first round of the 2021 tournament. The team will also contend with it’s league season and recently played a friendly against Hartford Athletic of USL Championship. Even with these challenges, team social media manager Nicholas Owens made sure to note this group is ready before calming saying; “Stay tuned, this is only the beginning for us.”
The eight MLS tournament spots will be determined through regular season results. The top eight U.S. teams in the league (based on points-per-game) on May 3 will start in the competition later that month.