The Improbable (but not surprising) Run of Florida Soccer Soldiers

One of the best stories of this year’s US Open Cup has been the run of second year UPSL side, Florida Soccer Soldiers. After two improbable wins against larger, better-funded sides, including one pro club, it’s time to recognize the amazing success of this group of plucky upstarts.

Florida Soccer Soldiers kicked off their existence in the Spring UPSL season of 2018 and immediately made a splash. They finished the regular season undefeated 9-0 with a goal differential of +39. That statistic is mind boggling. FSS defeated their conference opponents by an average of 4.5 goals per match. They were a juggernaut in south Florida and moved into the divisional playoffs, beating their three opponents by a combined score of 13-2 on their way to the division championship.

Image courtesy of  Florida Soccer Soldiers .

Image courtesy of Florida Soccer Soldiers.

In the Southeast Conference playoffs, they would again cruise through the two matches in absolute control, winning by a combined score of 7-1 (though there was some controversy as their final opponent had been forced to play back to back matches that day due to rescheduling). Their run of impressive wins would end the National Playoff Semifinal against Milwaukee Bavarians, a storied club who won the National Championship that season. But what a debut for the Soccer Soldiers!

The Fall season would see a return to dominance in divisional play, with FSS going 11-0-1. Somehow they managed to top their GD number with a +50! Their divisional playoff run this year began as the previous season, with the first two matches won by a combined score of 8-0. In the divisional championship, however, they were beaten by Miami Sun FC in PKs. With their run over, they took a well-deserved break and prepared to dominate South Florida Soccer in 2019. And it has been more of the same ever since. 7-0 in league play so far, it seems that another run in the playoffs should be expected.

But for all their success in the UPSL, their play in the US Open Cup has been the tipping point for national attention. The qualifying rounds were a grueling run of clubs all familiar to FSS. Their first match was against Miami Sun FC, the club that had knocked them out of the UPSL playoffs last year, so winning 2-1 was a nice payback for the club. From there, they dispatched Red Force FC (currently second in their UPSL conference) and Hurricane FC. Their final match was canceled when their opponent, America SC, was forced to withdraw. The qualifying rounds have been complained about by many lower league fans, as they are difficult and costly for the clubs who can least afford it. Florida Soccer Soldiers’ Head Coach Dany Godoy felt the same, “There are too many rounds before the tournament. But it’s ok. If you want to fight against the best, you have to face these kind of situations.”

Florida Soccer Soldiers in action in November. Photo courtesy of  Lee Ifans / Magic City Soccer .

Florida Soccer Soldiers in action in November. Photo courtesy of Lee Ifans/Magic City Soccer.

Once in the tournament proper, FSS would face a tough opponent in round 1. Defending NPSL Champion and former NASL club, Miami FC would be their opening matchup. Miami FC is also slated to join the upcoming Founders Cup and, by most, were seen as superior to the smaller UPSL side. The match began with a quick score by Miami FC in the sixth minute, but as Coach Godoy pointed out, his club always takes a purposeful approach against bigger clubs. “We can’t keep the same intensity as they do during the game, we have to play smart, bring the intensity at the right moment, and try to keep the ball more time than them. They practice more than us and are more prepared than us physically, so we have to use other tools, keep the ball longer, don’t give the ball away, don’t clear the ball all the time, because then they’ll have a chance to increase the intensity of the game and we have to stay away from that situation.” That approach to “the right moment” paid off, when FSS equalized early in the second half. The game winner would come just minutes before the match ended. 2-1 and through to the second round.

In the second round, with so many amateur sides eliminated, FSS drew Charlotte Independence, of the USL Championship. It should not be lost in the excitement of FSS’s success that Charlotte has not had a good season so far. Currently the club is in the 16th spot in the conference with just a single win and 7 points total. If the USL was a single-table league, Independence would be tied for 33rd out of 36 clubs - not having a solid season. However, they are a club of paid professionals, playing a league that is supposedly 3-4 steps up the pyramid, only once removed from first tier MLS. Everyone expected Florida to be dispatched with ease.

But no.

This match would be a test for the smaller, visiting club, one unlike any they had faced in the tournament. But Coach Godoy points out that his players are used to playing tired, sometimes exhausted. “We are an amateur team, we try to work every day in practice, but it’s hard. These boys work during the day and sometimes they are tired before practice. But they come to the practices every single night to get better.” Those tired legs would be put to the test in round 2.

The host side would score in the 31st minute. But rather than giving up, the plucky side from Miami would fight back, scoring the equalizer in the second half. The officials were heavily involved in this match, handing out enough yellows for two flushes, with six of those going to FSS players. In the final gasp of stoppage time, the cards caught up with the UPSL side. Antonioni Gonázlez drew his second yellow and was sent off. So Florida went into extra time down a man against a professional opponent. As many expected, Charlotte scored early on, just two minutes into the first period of extra time. It would take the next 18 minutes for the impossible to take place.

With just 90 seconds left in the match, with Charlotte avoiding defenders and playing out the clock, a defender’s errant touch would be all Valentín Sabella would need. A back pass gone wrong, well short of the target, left Sabella with just the keeper to beat. He slid past the keeper, avoided a pursuing defender, and buried the ball in the net. PKs would be needed to finish this match.

You know how this ends, 9 of 10 penalties converted, the final one missed, Florida advanced to the third round of the Open Cup.

FSS celebrate after the win in Charlotte. Photo courtesy of Florida Soccer Soldiers.

FSS celebrate after the win in Charlotte. Photo courtesy of Florida Soccer Soldiers.

Interestingly, when I asked Coach Godoy about his club’s run, he highlighted the struggle his team had had to stay on their feet during the last match. “\When you are a pro player, you have 4, 5, 6 pairs of cleats, our players have just two, sometimes just one, but they aren’t used to playing on these kinds of fields. They will be more prepared for the next match, the club is working to provide them with new cleats.” To get that done, the club put together a crowd-sourced fundraiser, raising over $1,600 for travel costs and cleats. Much like taking on a pro opponent, Godoy approached it as another problem to fix. “In just one year, we are growing and facing this tournament against pro teams, of course, you’re going to find some issues that you’ll have to deal with in the tournament. You can’t just be sad, you just have to go fix it.”

Their next match will be against North Carolina FC, another USL Championship side who, after watching Charlotte lose, will not be taken off guard. Florida is one of only two amateur sides to have made it to the third round (the other is NPSL side, Orange County FC). Their run is an example of why people love amateur soccer. The odds are forever against you, the hands have been stacked for the other side, you shouldn’t have a chance, but you persist, you push on, you defy the odds.

So march on Soldiers, we’re with you on this one.

- Dan Vaughn