Harpo’s FC Is The Greatest Amateur Team In The US… And They Started In A Pub
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To hear the players of Harpo’s FC is to understand that they have already accomplished the rarest of sporting achievements. The kind of thing that you fall in love with as a child, but grow up to accept as nothing more than a childish dream.
A small amateur side from Boulder, Colorado, Harpo’s has made it to the second round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup: a tournament analogous to the English FA Cup. But, for all it’s similarities to that foreign competition, the dream that pervades it is quintessentially American. All three tiers of American soccer, from a league like the USL up to the MLS, take part in it, and with hard work and a bit of luck, any team can win it. Harpo’s is one of the few amateur sides that earned the right to take the field against the big boys, and they have already upset the BYU Cougars in the first round. A few more wins would turn Harpo’s run into a miracle, but more astonishing that the run is the team itself. This is not a simple pub team.
Harpo’s FC is a band of brothers; 30 males somewhere along the spectrum between men and boys, not too concerned with where they fall along that spectrum because, well, everyone is having too good of a time contemplate something so superfluous. Their personalities fit together as well as their talents on the pitch, which is to say, exceptionally so.
“Imagine, if you went to college, or in high school, imagine your group of friends. Your best friends. Now imagine you're all good at something together, and you do this all the time. And you're able to play together, be together, win together. That’s what Harpo’s is.”
This candidate for Greatest Thought Experiment Ever was articulated by Kyle Luetkehans, a player whose talent and love of the game has seen him travel to Norway, Germany, Finland, and Australia in search of a career. Now living in Denver, he has found that the amateur side of the beautiful game can offer just as much, if not more, than the professional one – and he is not alone. His teammates may not have passports as diversely stamped as his, but they are all smitten with the club that makes you wonder if it really is possible to settle for nothing less than perfection. Not perfection on the field, though they do chase that, but perfection in the combination of the culture surrounding a club, its ambitions, and its ability to realize these ambitions.
For all intents and purposes, Harpo’s FC has its origins as the walking, or in this case stumbling, embodiment of the pub team cliche that can be found in nearly any city or town in the world. Former player and current manager Johnny Freeston remembers it well.
“They were really a hard core drinking team. Hardcore. I mean, we were eight guys showing up, rolling out of a car…It was intense.”
And, for most pub teams, a drinking buddy or 10 is all you would need to have a good time. The camaraderie comes not through on field success, but bottle emptying conquest. This was the culture that Freeston walked into, and it was one that he respected and enjoyed, but also one that he knew he could change when the time came.
In 2010, the core of the team was undergoing a major shift. The players who had been the veterans of Harpo’s when Freeston arrived were on their way out. Freeston was not only in line to be one of the club’s most established players, he was in line to be manager. That was when an idea came to him, an idea that stemmed from his days in college, when his passion for soccer almost fizzled out.
A soccer player for life, a natural leader on the pitch and off, Freeston entered his time at Allegheny College with hope, but was left disillusioned by a program that did not live up to what he thought it would be.
“I was burnt out, I was like ‘I don’t wanna just be average.’ I didn’t like the coach, and the demeanor and the attitude, and I thought 'this isn’t what I signed up for.'”
Ironically, it was his passion’s near-death experience that would ultimately kickstart his experiences as a manager. Out of organized soccer, Freeston took up intramurals. The game that he loved forged a vein in which his talents as a leader could flow.
“That’s when I started to manage a team and organize guys, and say, hey this is how we should do it and this is why.”
An inauspicious start, for sure, but a start doesn’t have to be anything else but a beginning in order for it to lead to greater things. And, with Freeston, it was exactly the spark he needed to light a fire upon the kindling of his personality. A personality that had been building throughout his life.
“I’d like to think I’ve always been that way,” Johnny recollects over the phone. “Since I was a kid I've always been a leader, whether it was in the classroom or sports or in church.”
Memories of his college days, of the frustration with his collegiate soccer program, of the experiences he had managing a lowly intramural team, would come to the forefront of his mind during that time of change in 2010. Like all steps towards greatness, a small idea started it all. That small idea came from those memories.
“I wanted to keep playing and I knew I’d be manager, that’s when I was like, ‘Man, what if I could create an environment, a team, a club, with everything that I never really had? What if I could put an ecosystem in place that would give these guys — who would not just be players, but who would become best friends on and off the field — [the opportunity] to succeed?”
So, fueled by this ambition, utilizing his natural disposition for leadership, and with his vision for his team in mind, Freeston set out to overhaul Harpo’s FC. He brought in players out of college and graduate school, those who may have still had a partying mindset, but who understood training and what it took to win. He brought in those who maybe had a poor experience with collegiate soccer, much like himself, who wanted to learn the habits of winning. He did not discriminate, he simply made sure that every player met a simple standard: “If you don’t have character then you’re not a part of our team, no matter how good of a player you are.”
It seems overly simple, and perhaps it is. It is impossible to know the intricacies with which character is judged, but like all successful gatherings of people, it can be judged by the results. With his players assembled, Freeston outlined to them what the culture of the new Harpo’s FC would be.
“We threw down the gauntlet: we’re going to be a work hard, play hard team. You’ll have your time and your fun…but we’re here to win trophies. There’s a way to find that work/play balance..and they all bought into that.”
That is what separates this team from 99% of pub teams in the world, what elevates it above a frat boy’s post-undergrad dream. Freeston has created a team that, yes, is more than willing to shoot the breeze over a beer or two (in fact, the team estimates that since Boulder-based Avery Brewing Company started sponsoring the team, they've consumed $53,000 worth of finely-crafted beer), but who also understands when works needs to be done.
That sentiment was echoed by every single that we had the pleasure of interviewing, which lead to a single conclusion, the very same one alluded to in the opening paragraph of this piece: Harpo’s FC is a dream team, a collection of players who have become best of friends while not sacrificing their competitive edge. Harpo’s FC has dominated the competition, “punishing teams,” as Freeston put it.
“[Coming into the team] we all had the same goals. We all played college,” says defender Martin Orona. “I think at first, at least for me, we kinda just joked about being the best team. But then once we started winning every game, we’re like s***, we’re actually…the best team in Colorado.”
Orona, a relatively newer player, went on: “From day one, [the other players] all just approached me…like, let’s hang out. I’m like, ‘Wow, did that just really happen?’ It’s almost unreal to have 30 guys that I can call brothers, and 30 guys that, honestly, I can go through my phone right now and be like, ‘hey, let’s have some lunch,’ and if they’re busy they’ll be like, ‘alright, let’s have some lunch.’ They’ll push out their schedule and we’ll go out to lunch and talk.”
The appreciative excitement is audible in Orona’s voice as he talks, and deservedly so. This team provides the kind of experience that soccer players around the world dream about, no matter what their age. It is almost as if it was hand crafted to be everything one could want it to be. Of course, that’s exactly what it is.
Freeston has struck the balance that he desired when he took charge of Harpo’s FC: the work has been hard, the play has been hard. Now, Harpo’s FC are reaping the rewards. This Wednesday, May 20, they will face off against Switchbacks FC in the second round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a competition that has and will see them facing off against the very best club teams in the United States. It is hard to imagine that a small amateur side like Harpo’s would ever make it to such a stage, one in which they might play the Colorado Rapids, and it is harder to imagine still that they planned to do so, but that is exactly what they did.
“I want us to win the league, and be undefeated. I want us to win the state cup, and be undefeated. I want us to win the national cup and be undefeated,” Freeston says, reenacting setting goals for his team. His charisma is palpable even over the phone. “And that means we get to the U.S. Open Cup, and then, then you really get to test yourself, then you get the challenge, then you get to really see where you are in the pyramid…Credit to the guys, we’re there now.”
Freeston pulls no punches about where his team is and what a victory against the Switchbacks would mean.
“If we win on Wednesday, we will be the biggest Cinderella story in soccer, and we will be the biggest Cinderella story in professional sports this year…Because, there’s nothing like this happening anywhere else, and if people aren’t taking notice, they are going to sit up and take notice globally, and it’s gonna be freakin’ awesome. And the guys know that, that’s the motivation, like, ‘Let’s do this, what if we do it?! We have to try to do it. We have to lay it on the line.’ And I’ll tell you what, all those guys are warriors and everyone is going to give it their absolute best to win. We aren’t going there to get a draw. We have to win.”
There is no denying the belief surrounding the team, a team composed of some players for whom progression in the tournament means so much more than a cool story to tell the grandchildren. Star forward Shane Wheeler has dreamed of going pro his entire life, and the U.S. Open Cup represents one of the best opportunities he’ll ever get to prove himself against the best teams in the nation.
“Right now is the best time in Harpo’s history. Everyone is so proud of each other.…We know we are more than [a pub team]…I can’t speak for the other guys, but…it’s always been a dream since I was a child to get a pro contract…That’s always what I’m aiming for and what I play for.”
In the face of such a game – a dream maker for some, the victory of a lifetime for others – the discipline of the team is nothing short of marvelous. This is not a team lost in the spotlight.
“You don’t have to be on a professional team to play good soccer.” says midfielder Corey Cullen, nailing the “why not us” mentality pervading the team. “We’re a winning team, we like to win, but we know what it takes to work for it.”
Still, this team wouldn’t be the marvel that it is without some good old appreciation for the moment.
“[If we beat Switchbacks FC] we’re going to have a big ass party,” says Freeston. “And no one’s going to work.”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Follow Ivan on Twitter: @yetly