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U.S. Open Cup
by Filip Bondy on May 14, 2018

Players on the Elm City Express excelled in their post-graduate work last season at Yale, winning the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) championship in their first season. This spring, they’ve moved to the Southern Connecticut State University campus, where they hope to continue their quick-study ways in league play and the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The transfer has nothing to do with classwork. The Express relocated a few miles, to Jess Dow Field, while Reese Stadium in New Haven is being resurfaced. But the storyline continues. It took just one year for the Express to establish itself as a state-wide magnet for former college players, who were searching for a local soccer outlet after their varsity careers in Connecticut. The Express, established last year in 2017, became an instant success by attracting some of the best players from nine different colleges across the state.
That was the idea from the beginning, when Zack Henry and Brian Neumeyer – a pair of Long Island transplants to South Central Connecticut – founded the club in New Haven. They figured correctly that this was a college-rich area where they could mine local talent, while luring the university crowds to matches.

(The Elm City Express pulled large crowds on the campus of Yale University in their first year as a club.)

There was still one problem, however: How do you get a roster composed of recent rivals to ignore past enmities and link hands with an eye to a common goal?

Old Foes Make a Fighting Edge
“There was an edge between us, but we knew that bonding together would be better than fighting with each other,” said Kevin Ipina, a 28-year-old outside back who played his college soccer at Post University in Waterbury. “It’s good to know the best of each school are here now, but we need to bring that best out. So we use that edge to get after each other.”

Not every member of the amateur team is an ex-Connecticut college player. There is a trio of Brazilian-Americans and Brazilians on the roster, too, providing creative attacking quality. But the Express roster is dotted with coaches and players from Post, UCONN, the University of Hartford, Central Connecticut, Southern Connecticut, Quinnipiac, and Sacred Heart.

“There are several universities in the area that we used for sourcing players and other fronts,” said Henry, one of the club’s founders. “The funny thing about this league, we couldn’t do a whole lot of scouting. I wasn’t sure how it would go, how we would stack up.”

(The NPSL club out of New Haven, CT won a national title in their first year – 2017) 

But it stacked up just fine. The players got a hint of just how good they could be early on in their 2017 expansion season, during a dominant performance in a friendly against UCONN, a top division-one college side and three-time NCAA national champions. When they beat the New York Cosmos B team, everyone knew this could be something special. “The Cosmos being the Cosmos, that was when some of us started to believe,” Henry said.

The season ended triumphantly, almost impossibly, with a 5-0 victory over the Midland-Odessa Sockers out of Texas, and the NPSL title. That championship earned the Express a spot in the U.S. Open Cup, leading to a 2-1 win in the First round over the Western Mass Pioneers at their Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow, MA. Next up for the side from the Elm City is a Second Round match in Amesbury, (again in Massachusetts) against Seacoast United Phantoms, and a chance to strut their stuff before a growing audience.

A Second Chance after Graduation
“It’s awesome, there’s a lot of history behind this Cup,” said Sean O’Brien, a 30-year-old central defender who played at Southern Connecticut (SCSU), who have been NCAA division-two powers for a half-century. “It’s the sort of experience I haven’t had since college. If we keep winning, it would be a heck of an experience to play against pros who train every day.”

The Express players train twice – maybe three times – a week, and no longer get paid a stipend of any kind (some players received money last season). Instead, many of them earn paychecks training regional youth teams, or holding down unrelated day-jobs.

(Elm City Express will try to go as deep as they can in #USOC2018 & avoid a Sophomore Slump in NPSL)

This was the vision that Henry and Neumeyer had in 2015, when they came up with the idea of a team in this area. Henry was living in Brazil with his wife, from Rio de Janeiro, and was working with K2Soccer South America, which operates CA Tubarao, a club now playing in the South American country’s national Serie D. He decided to start a sister team in the U.S., through a K2 Soccer North America subsidiary. There would be player transfer possibilities between the Brazilian and U.S. sides, as well.

Henry’s former Long Island teammate and friend, Neumeyer, was working in Connecticut and suggested that New Haven would be the perfect place. The region is a hotbed for soccer and for university students. In addition, it didn’t seem as if Major League Soccer had any plans to expand into the neighborhood any time soon. The club could even use college students and programs to help on the business end of things.

Staffing Local from South Central, CT
Henry took over the club infrastructure, while Neumeyer became general manager. The club soon hired local people – head coach Teddy Haley and assistant Luis Figueiredo, from Post: technical advisor Eric Da Costa, from Quinnipiac, and goalkeeper coach George Kostelis, from Yale, Southern Connecticut and Western Connecticut – to train the players and identify former collegians who were ready to play and up for the challenge. It didn’t take long for the gathered talents to gel.

“For us, it was a pretty smooth transition,” said O’Brien, who played a couple of years in Germany’s lower leagues after finishing his collegiate days as a Southern Connecticut State University Owl. “We’d played many years before this team came together, stayed in shape with weekend warrior stuff. And I knew most of the guys from college, and even when I got out of college. Not a lot of people find it easy to hang up the boots.”

(The club focus was on the soccer last year; this year its on building local ties to the community in & around New Haven)

Still, it was fairly amazing that the club was able to navigate the NPSL playoffs successfully, rarely blowing out opponents until that final victory over Midland-Odessa. “I think what we did, we didn’t lift our heads up until after the national championship,” Neumeyer said. “We didn’t celebrate anything over the course of the year. We just thought about the next game. We just kept moving along. It was kind of surreal at the end of the year to be at the top of the league. You put 96 teams in a pool, and to come out the best, that’s pretty amazing.”

Nobody expects Elm City to come out on top in the U.S. Open Cup, of course, but the Express will travel to Northern Massachusetts on Wednesday to face the Phantoms – among the top Premier Development league (PDL) teams in the country. There, the former university stars will have another opportunity to surprise even themselves.
College was fun, anyone will tell you, but a reviving run in the U.S. Open Cup might even be better.