Christos FC: Next Man Up

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Despite a change at the top, it was more of the same for Christos FC last fall. Chris Wilson, a former player for the club, took over managerial duties from Larry Sancomb, who has moved on to coach FC Baltimore Christos of the National Premier Soccer League, prior to the Maryland Major Soccer League’s Fall 1st Division season.

Despite losing two games early, Christos closed with seven straight wins, including a 2-1 victory over World Class Premier Elite FC in the championship game. The fall title is the fourth in a row and seventh overall for Christos FC.

“The change from Larry to Chris was not a huge one for us, but a positive one,” said Mamadou Kansaye, a holding midfielder who scored on a penalty kick in the final. “Larry was great with us, but it was a seamless transition.”

Jacob Bender scored on an assist from Pete Caringi, III for Christos FC’s other goal in the final. Brad Benzing made five saves with Joe Glos, Mike Scott, Mike Swiercz, Malcom Harris and Alex Bullington strong on defense in front of him. Bullington missed much of the regular season with an injury, and defense in particular was a position where Wilson had to be creative.

“We were missing our outside backs at times due to injuries or just being short players,” Wilson said. “I moved Danny Baxter from outside mid to outside back and he played 90 there in our 3-1 win over World Class Premier Elite FC in the regular season. This fall had some obstacles no doubt, and we knew we would struggle at times for numbers, so this made winning very satisfying.”

Josh Patterson won the league’s Golden Boot, contributing six goals and four assists for Christos FC. Wilson, who joined the club after graduating from Johns Hopkins in 2011, even played three times to cover spots this fall. The club’s depth was tested, but ultimately held up.

“We battled a lot of injuries throughout the season, and we also have a lot of guys coaching in the fall, but our depth speaks for itself and this is a team that is built on camaraderie and chemistry,” said Benzing, a mainstay in goal for Christos, along with veteran Phil Saunders, since graduating Millersville University (Pa.) in 2014. “Sure, we dropped a couple of games early, but we made sure we bonded together. Chris was one of our brothers from the beginning and we knew he was the right choice.”

Kansaye, who moved with his family to Maryland from Mali in 2002, reached the College Cup with UMBC in 2014. Several of his teammates then are also teammates with Christos FC now. He gained notoriety for his free kick goal against DC United in the fourth round of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The club was successful then and he sees no reason for that to change moving forward under Wilson.

“This is a group of guys who enjoy each other’s company and love playing,” Kansaye said. “We put pressure on ourselves to win, but there really is no pressure. We understand that we are not 20 years old anymore but many of us have also played at high levels as recently as the past couple of years. We know how to compete.”

The club has been around since 1997, and many of the founding players are still heavily involved with the club, even playing on Christos FC’s over-30 or over-40 sides. When players speak about the club’s brotherhood and why it helped prove that Wilson was the right choice to take over, it’s not in throwaway terms.

“Chris knows all the players and has relationships with each of the guys; the transition went fine,” said Jody Haislip, co-founder and General Manager of Christos FC. “There are certainly different personalities, but many of the current guys have been part of the team for 4-5 years, know Chris, played with him and respect him. He has been with us for eight years and with the success we have had, nobody wants to lose Maryland Majors or Rowland or Stewart.”

Players continue to joke that Christos FC is referred to as the team that never practices or trains together, but that is the case. Wilson sends out a call for players on Monday and gives his squad until Thursday to respond. The success here is a mixture of discipline (guys do train by themselves or in smaller groups during the week), a comprehensive organizational knowledge of the roster, and the club’s historical ability to pick out the right guys.

“We might not practice and train, but we love to compete and we know how to win,” Benzing said. “Physically, people do their own weight training and running. I work 50 hours a week, so I hit the gym every morning, and a lot of us play during the week as well. We never expect to lose. It’s awesome to be part of the things we do now.”

Benzing points to the club’s history, including the support the younger guys get from the veterans, as keys to sustained success.

“We are able to mesh with the older group of guys, which is special as well. We have Christos Weekend, where as many of us who can head down to Ocean City. It is a great time to bond, as are the road trips when we go out of state. They put in the hard work to put Christos FC on the map. They put in a lot of time, and it is weird how they seemingly hand pick talent and find the right type of guy for our brotherhood. I swear, Larry and Jody never held a tryout. You can’t just be good at soccer and join our team.”

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It is now on to the spring cup season for the club. Although Christos FC is out of US Open Cup play – the club lost on the road at Virginia United in the third round of local amateur qualifying in November – for the first time in three years, Wilson has his squad primed and ready for the Rowland Cup and Stewart Cup.

“It’s tough. And we have to put best foot forward every week,” Wilson said. “Teams are looking to beat us and get past us, but I think we may have the best Christos team we have ever had. We have to put it together and get some more giant championship trophies for the store.”

Wilson is referring to Christos Discount Liquors, the club’s original supporter and its namesake. Walk in and you see several of the club’s hardware on the left, behind the cash register. That includes the Rowland and Stewart Cups. Christos FC has won each tournament each of the past three years and has byes in both through sometime in February.

The Rowland Cup, established in 1914, is Maryland’s Open Cup Competition. The winner represents Maryland at the USASA Region I qualifiers of the Werner Fricker Cup. A total of 14 teams are expected to compete, including eight from Maryland Majors, one (Blue Side FC) from the Mason-Dixon Soccer League and five from the Washington Premier League. All three Maryland State Soccer Association Leagues are represented. Christos FC has won this cup seven times.

Christos FC is also one of 11 teams expected to compete for the Stewart Cup, which it has won six times. The winner of this tournament moves on to compete for the Amateur Cup and the Fritz Marth Trophy. Christos won this trophy in 2016 after scoring twice in extra time to defeat the Milwaukee Bavarians, who are the current trophy holders.

“We are the hunted and we know that we have to prepare ourselves, even apart from each other, because everyone wants to kick the crap out of us,” Haislip said.

Kansaye, who also played for the Baltimore Bohemians in the Premier Development League and briefly with the United Soccer League’s Charlotte Independence, loves cup season.

“Quality teams come out with the best they have and the pressure builds,” Kansaye said. “The great feeling of winning never goes away. It never gets old. We take a lot of pride in representing the Baltimore area. That blue-collar mentality plays a huge role for us. I am playing for pride and trophies.”

Wilson has that first Maryland Majors trophy under his belt as manager. He wants more.

“It’s one-and-done and I love it; every game matters,” Wilson said. “The ability to win a national championship has always meant the world to us. I want to have the best 18 available to make another amateur cup run. It is a big deal for us. I wear my Christos FC gear and a lot of people know we are from Baltimore now. It is a huge soccer market, from the youth on up, and we love playing for the area all over the country.”

- Brian Burden