Shawn Smith spent all of Tuesday with his family in Chicago, a city where he’d never been before. Together the group, including young children Cooper and Olivia, toured the city’s various museums, the aquarium, and other landmarks. Cooper is 6, and Olivia will turn 9 on Wednesday.
“We’re hoping we have a great day,” Smith says of plans for Olivia’s birthday festivities. “And we hope to cap it off with a victory.”
Victory, after all, is the reason Smith is in Chicago at all this week. Two weeks ago, Christos FC, the amateur soccer team he founded with friends in Baltimore in 1997, defeated the Richmond Kickers, a club of USL professionals, 1–0 in the U.S. Open Cup. In doing so, it scored one of the most surprising upsets in the tournament’s recent history. It also set up a date in the Windy City, where Christos will play the Premier Development League’s Chicago FC United for a spot in the next round—and a date against MLS’s D.C. United.
Not bad for a team that started two decades ago in the second division of the Maryland Major Soccer League. Back in those days, the main worry was acquiring $1,000 for the league fee–something it got from Christos Discount Liquors, a shop located near the Baltimore-Washington International airport.
Immediately, with Smith in the lineup, the team started racking up local and regional amateur titles, and the Christos name stuck. Smith is now the club’s chief financial officer, and a fixture in the club’s Over-40 team. His teammates Larry Sancomb and Bryan Bugarin are now co-head coaches for the team that will take the field on Wednesday.
“[The name] just became part of our identity,” Smith says. “[The owners of Christos Discount Liquors] have always been great backers of us. It’s not like we go there after every game, like it’s a big party at the liquor store. We’re not an alcohol-driven team. It just so happens that they were our first sponsor and they’ve continued to support us over the last 20 years. That’s our roots.”
Chicago is a long, long way from those roots. Getting there from the team’s home takes money (which the club doesn’t have, as it’s not a business) and time (which everyone involved with the club needs for their actual jobs). They work in mortgage offices, coach soccer, sell medical equipment, or are fresh college grads just starting off in professional life. Money to travel for soccer isn’t in the budget. That goes for Smith, too: He used an old airline voucher to bring his family to Chicago. Without it, he says, it wouldn’t have been financially feasible to see the most high-profile game in his club's history in person.
Getting the players there would be even harder. U.S. Soccer chipped in with some travel costs, Smith said, but the club still needed to start a GoFundMe page after earning its famous victory against Richmond. It was shared on Twitter by the likes of ESPN's Taylor Twellman and got a $500 contribution from New York Red Bulls playmaker Sacha Kjletsan. The money, when it comes from GoFundMe (it hasn’t yet, according to Smith), will help.
In the meantime, the players and coaches paid for the flight, hotel, and other expenses on their own dime until Smith can reimburse them.
“I’ve been involved with the team for 20 years, and we’ve all been around and done whatever we had to do to keep the team going," Smith said. “Sometimes that means taking a loss. But the money’s going to go a long way. … It could help us break even. I hope.”
Now comes the easy part: Playing the game. And that’s really all it is for Christos FC. The team rarely trains, thanks to the players' day jobs. Players drop in and out of the team on game days for the same reason. Against Richmond, both of Christos FC’s starting center backs were out—one due to a concussion, and one due to a work commitment in Philadelphia. The team started two central midfielders as center backs in the shutout win. The team had four available subs that day—three field players and a backup goalkeeper.
“If you only have 14 guys to choose from, that makes it a little easier as far as squad selection goes,” Smith deadpans. “It’s just like any other Sunday. You don’t know exactly who is going to make the game.”
In Chicago, for example, the team will be without Geaton Caltabiano, who plays indoor soccer for the Baltimore Blast and scored the winning goal against Richmond. He has a coaching commitment on the day of the game, and coaching pays bills instead of creating them. For the team that is there in Chicago, there will be no video study, no opposition research. It's simply not possible.
“Preparation-wise, it’s just a matter of getting on a flight to Chicago, getting to the game on time, doing a normal warm-up, and playing 90 minutes,” Smith says. “The team pretty much picks itself, outside of one or two variables.”
The temptation here is to write off Christos FC. They are a sideshow, you might think. A momentary distraction before the nation’s cup competition introduces the MLS teams that will almost definitely dominate the competition as it reaches its later stages.
But maybe Christos FC is something else. Something not especially impactful, but something deeply meaningful for the soul of soccer in this country. The type of thing that motivates people like Smith to keep an informal club going for decades regardless of cost, and keeps players playing for that club: Passion.
“We’re not lacking for soccer IQ just because we’re a Sunday pub team,” Smith says. “That’s just what we are. There’s no getting around it, we are an amateur soccer team that plays on dirt and grass fields. But everybody’s passion is for soccer. The team camaraderie and work ethic together is the common strength. That goes from the newest guy on the team to us, the originals.”