The improbable run of USASA team Roma FC continues tonight when the Dallas-based amateur team meets the defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup.
According to assistant coach John Calandro, whose son John - fresh out of high school - is the youngest member of the team, Roma's run has cost the team's backers about $30,000. Those backers are Coach Michael Schell, Calandro Sr., the players and their friends and families, and anyone kind enough to visit the team's Web site (www.romafc.net) to contribute something to an improbable cause.
U.S. Soccer pays each team $7,500 per game for expenses, which hasn't come close to meeting the costs of flying twice to Southern California to play CD Chivas USA and the Galaxy.
"Nobody's worried about the time they've had to take off from work, or the 7 a.m. practices, or any of that," says Calandro. "I know it's in the back of their minds but all of these guys, in addition to having more talent than anybody gave them credit for, are competitors.
A penalty-kick win over CD Chivas USA after the teams played a goalless regulation and overtime propelled Roma to this stage, where a Galaxy team mired near the bottom of the Western Conference standings and lacking an injured Landon Donovan might seem a tad vulnerable. Roma's previous win was against USL entry Miami, which despite fielding Brazilian legend Romario and fellow 1994 World Cup champ Zinho couldn't subdue the amateurs.
"One key is they haven't given up an early goal," says former Dallas Tornado player Charley DeLong, a soccer and football coach at Jesuit HS and de facto assistant coach for the past month or so. "When you get past 45 minutes or 60 minutes you start to believe, and the other team maybe gets worried and starts doing things they shouldn't."
Michael Schell's brother, midfielder Dominic, had a short MLS stint with Columbus. Many of the players are veterans of indoor wars and list the San Diego Sockers and Dallas Sidekicks among their former clubs. Juan Sastoque (one of MLS's original Project-40 players), Mark Rowland, Jesse Llamas -- the names may not ring out loudly but they've carved out a unique place in the annals of American soccer: the first amateur club to defeat a fully professional team in the U.S. Open Cup, the history of which dates back 92 years.
"We were training at a YMCA field at 9 p.m. with two lights on and we could barely see, and six guys would show up," said Calandro. "Training in the morning, before guys go to their jobs, shows how dedicated they are."
Marveling at it all is DeLong, a former San Diego State player who rarely got on the field for the Tornado but gladly settled in the city when offered the high school job 25 years ago. He jumped into the Roma story when asked to help with the team's conditioning and sunrise training sessions, of which the attendance and intensity has flabbergasted him.
"Their attitudes, their dedication, their commitment, I can't say enough about them," says DeLong. "They all have regular jobs, they have families and responsibilities, and they're out there. I don't know if we've trained them long enough and hard enough to play another 90 minutes against a tough pro team, but I can tell you this: if they get beat it won't be because they didn't work hard enough."
DeLong's days in San Diego preceded those of players like Sastoque, an alum of El Cajon High who was stunned to discover DeLong had attended archrival El Capitan. "We went back and forth and had some fun with it," says DeLong. "Soccer is the world's game but sometimes you can't believe how small that world is.
"This really is a story of what the game is. Anything can happen. You can go anywhere in the world - England, Italy, Spain, Germany, name the country - and you'll see times where a little team beat a big team. A bounce here and there where the ball goes in or hits the post, a goalkeeper making a few great saves, and you have a chance to win the game."
Roma won't have the brilliant goalkeeping of Llamas when it takes on the Galaxy. He had to stay behind in Dallas to be with his wife, who is about to give birth. DeLong will also be back home, monitoring the game through phone calls from Calandro Sr.
The Galaxy will have been warned by Roma's victory over its rival.
"Chivas thought they were going to roll us over," says Calandro. "They only started four regulars and then started throwing in their best players.
"In the locker room Patrick Shamuwas telling the guys, 'Make them respect us,' and that's kind of been our new mantra."