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U.S. Open Cup
by Jonah Fontela on May 1, 2018

If you’re not a soccer fan in Central Florida, you’ve probably never heard of the Lakeland Tropics. It doesn’t bother the players much. They’re not offended – after all, they’ve only been a team for a little over a year. But young as they are, confidence is no issue. “I think we have the kind of team that can go far and shock people,” captain and goal-hero Ricardo Diegues told on the eve of their first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. “We can go farther than anyone expects.”

The Open Cup spins on big dreams. It rotates on bluster and the alluring premise that, on any given day, David’s aim can send the giant down in a dusty heap. The Tropics, who finished third in the Southeast Division of their first Premier Development League (PDL) season to qualify for the 105-year-old Open Cup, begin their campaign on May 9 against Midland-Odessa Sockers out of Texas and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). “It’s a one-off, play-off style of soccer and we like that,” said Gustavo Rodrigues, a former standout with local college side Southeastern University. He was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and came to the States for college the same way his friend and teammate Diegues did. “I love this kind of thing; I love the excitement of games you either win or go out. It suits me and it suits us as a team. We have the confidence we need.”

(Captain Ricardo Diegues, born in Rio, rises high for the Tropics)

Diegues, who scored nearly a goal a game (57 in 64 to be precise) for University of Texas-Brownsville, is right on board – oozing the cool confidence of youth. “One thing you can always count on from us is a really aggressive and attacking style,” said the striker who, like Rodrigues, also plays for the Lakeland Tropics Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) indoor team, founded in 2015. “We’re going to go right at you and not take our foot off the gas. That’s just what comes natural to us.

On Any Given Day, a Way
Talking to the Lakeland Tropics youngsters (the team’s average age is well under 25), it’s impossible not to get caught up in their frenzy. They’ve got Open Cup fever, and they’ve got it bad. “This Open Cup opportunity is really exciting for us,” said Diegues, his accent still thick from sunny Rio where he learned his high-flying, acrobatic style playing beach soccer on the endless coastline north and south of Copacabana Beach. “Soccer is a game where anything can happen, and that’s what makes it great…and you throw into that a single-elimination system – win or go home – and it gives you that extra motivation. When there’s no tomorrow, you might as well give it everything.”

The Tropics don’t seem to consider the other side of the coin heading into their Cup game with the Sockers of NPSL, where Diegues once played during the off-season in his Texas college days. On any given day you can also have your head handed to you, or get stomped under Goliath’s sandal. Chris Economides, the team’s COO and co-owner, knows both sides better than most. “I think the days of a lower division team beating four MLS teams and winning the Open Cup are over,” he said. He knows what he’s talking about – he was an original founder of the Rochester Rhinos who, in 1999, became the last non-MLS team to win the tournament, beating Chicago Fire, Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), Columbus Crew and Colorado Rapids along the way. “But people still love underdogs and that’s a great thing about sport and the Open Cup.”

(With only one year of PDL soccer under their belts, the Tropics have come a long way)

With youth comes bravado. Confidence too. It burns hot in Lakeland among the Tropics who, despite playing together for only one year, have their chemistry right. “I’ve never seen a team come together faster than we did last year,” said Diegues, a fan favorite both indoor and out under the Florida sun. “It’s amazing for a team to gel right away in their first year. But we felt united right from the beginning.”

One of nine Florida teams in the 26-game First Round, the Tropics are a mish-mash of transplanted Brazilians and local players. But everyone sounds like they’re on the same page heading into the Open Cup debut, which will be their first competitive game of 2018 as the PDL season hasn’t begun. “The transition from not being a team to getting out there on the field and getting the job done was as smooth as it could be,” said Alexi Cortez, a tall and rangy midfielder who signed with the Tropics indoor side in 2016 out of Florida Southern University. He’s a native of Central Florida and chomping at the bit to represent his home in the Cup. “We’ve got the local physical style of the American guys and the flair and technique from the guys from South America. It’s a good blend.”

At the end of the day, the team’s fortunes may just rest on the scoring touch of Diegues. He bagged 10 goals in 13 PDL games last year and is a huge factor in the team’s quick rise to a competitive club from, literally, nothing. He’s what’s known as a natural finisher, and he’ll be a handful for his former teammates, the Sockers, in the First Round contest on the outskirts of Dallas. “Everywhere I go I work hard to score goals, that’s what I like to do, that’s what makes me happy playing soccer,” he said. “I’m glad I’m able to score here as well, but it really doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win the game.”

Excitement & Attack: The Tropics Method
The team is coached by
Eoghan Conlon, an Irishman who’s also in charge of local college side Florida Southern, who have more than a few national titles to their name. “We want to play soccer that’s attractive and attacking,” he said when he took over the Tropics for their inaugural season. “We want to excite the fans.”

(The Tropics’ fortunes in #USOC2018 may hinge on Diegues’ scoring form)

He’s done precisely that. Another main strength of his Tropics team is a dynamic transition from back to front that can catch opponents – even teams high up the food chain with pedigree – off guard. “I mean, we’re fast. Whenever or wherever we get the ball, we create chances to score,” said Diegues. “This is our approach. We connect from the back and build to the front very, very fast. I think it comes from a lot of us playing in the indoor game, but I don’t think there’s any team around that turns defense into attack as fast as we do. It happens in a blink of an eye and, boom, the ball’s in your goal.”

These Tropics are just one of 52 amateur teams in action in the First Round (and one among 94 in the entire tournament), but their enthusiasm tells the story of the Open Cup. “We’re going to go out there and do our thing,” concluded Diegues, the talented captain with a flicker of a dream in his eye. “We had a good team last year and we’re better this year. Maybe people don’t think we can go far in the Open Cup, but we do. We’re going to prove some people wrong.”