America's oldest soccer competition enables amateurs to test themselves against the sport's big boys, but Doxa Italia heads into its U.S. Open Cup opener Tuesday night with something more than a desire to prove it can handle tougher competition.
The West-side club believes it has a chance. And a victory could set up a very special showdown.
Doxa Italia, from Southern California's Coast Soccer League, heads to Ventura College for a first-round clash with Premier Development League powerhouse Ventura County Fusion, and it certainly won't be awed by the occasion. Head coach/forward Derk Droze and a number of his players have pro experience here, in Europe and South America, have played for U.S. national teams, and provided the bulk of the roster when Hollywood United FC stunned the Portland Timbers, now in Major League Soccer, in an Open Cup encounter in 2008.
“This is kind of like the Super Bowl of soccer, for a men's amateur team like ours,” said Droze, 38, who has played professionally in Chile, Denmark and the U.S. and was selected by the New England Revolution in MLS's inaugural draft. “It's an opportunity to play at the highest level against teams that are one, two or three notches above us in the soccer, so-to-speak, system. … At the end of the day, I definitely feel we've got enough ability. The question is will we have enough stamina to stay with the young bucks.”
If they can do so, a second-round encounter next week with Hollywood United could be on the docket. HUFC meets the fully pro L.A. Blues, a former partner, in a first-round match at Riverside Community College's Norco campus, and given its difficult history with Doxa Italia, it would be a spirited reunion.
Doxa Italia has been a So Cal amateur powerhouse the past two decades, winning five Pacific League, four Coast Soccer League and four California South State Cup titles, but financial struggles led to a merger of sorts with Hollywood United in 2007. That produced the Open Cup heroics the next year, but by 2008, HUFC was on to further things, and the Doxa boys were no longer welcome at the club.
“The last two years have been a little bitter, trying to find our feet,” said Droze, a broadcast engineer for the Fox cable networks who supports Doxa Italia financially as well as on the field. “The Hollywood United Open Cup team became the Hollywood United Hitmen in the PDL [and now the National Premier Soccer League]. They basically went in a different direction. They did a [since-abandoned] merge with L.A. Blues, and at the end of day, they wanted only one or two of the Open Cup players.
“The bulk of the Doxa players stayed together.”
It's a solid group. There's former Galaxy midfielder Alex Bengard, 32. And midfielder Raul Palomares, 28, who played in Germany, Mexico, Spain and Croatia and alongside Landon Donovan at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1999. Greek defender Nas Koubouras and former Cal State Dominguez Hills star Nathan Reeves, who anchor Doxa's backline. Russian forward Ilia Nazarov and former UConn playmaker Steve Chirgwin. Defender Craig Reynolds, goalkeepers Brandon Avery and Brian Berdue, plus Sean Lockhart, Eddie Pinto and Omar Elminoufi.
Add former New England Revolution midfielder Bryan Byrne (“My right hand,” Droze says), U.S. national beach soccer standout Eric Meister, a few others, and it's a formidable group.
How good are they?
“We're gonna find out come Tuesday night,” said Droze. “It's going to be fun. I really, truly feel we've got as good a chance as any team to advance to the next round. I think we've got a lot of experience, with some youthfulness, and with that combination, we're hoping that we can give Ventura a game and advance to the second round.”
And, once there, tackle Hollywood United.
Said Droze: “I'm really Hollywood United through and through. I spent five years playing for Hollywood United.”
WORTH NOTING: If Ventura County wins, it will be home for next week's second-round clash. If Doxa wins, it will play L.A. Blues in Norco or Hollywood United at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. … Doxa Italia qualified for the Open Cup by winning the U.S. Amateur Soccer Association's Region IV championship last month in Sacramento. The club also advanced to the USASA National Cup finals next month in Bowling Green, Ky. … Doxa finished second to Orange County's PSA Elite SC in the Coast Soccer League this season.
SCHEDULE: Tuesday's quarterfinal slate:
L.A. Blues (USL Pro) vs. Hollywood United FC (NPSL) at Riverside Community College-Norco Campus, 5 p.m.
Ventura County Fusion (PDL) vs. Doxa Italia (USASA-Cal South) at Ventura College, 7:05 p.m.
DV8 Defenders (USASA-Cal North) at Real Colorado Foxes (PDL), 6 p.m.
Kitsap Pumas (PDL) at Chivas El Paso Patriots (PDL), 7 p.m.
ASC New Stars (USASA-South Texas) at Orlando City FC (USL Pro), 4:30 p.m.
Regals FC (USASA-South Texas) at Charleston Battery (USL Pro), 4:30 p.m.
AAC Eagles (USASA-Illinois) at Madison 56ers (NPSL), 5 p.m.
Chicago Fire Premier (PDL) at Iowa Menace (USASA-Iowa), 5:30 p.m.
Brooklyn Italians (NPSL) at New York Pancyprian Freedoms (USASA-Eastern New York), 4:30 p.m.
Western Mass Pioneers (PDL) at FC New York (USL Pro), 4 p.m.
Reading United AC (PDL) at Harrisburg City Islanders (USL Pro), 4 p.m.
Phoenix SC (USASA-Eastern Pennsylvania) at Rochester Rhinos (USL Pro), 4:35 p.m.
Chattanooga FC (NPSL) at Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL Pro), 4 p.m.
Dayton Dutch Lions (USL Pro) at Richmond Kickers (USL Pro), 4 p.m.
Charlotte Eagles (USL Pro) at Carolina Dynamo (PDL), 4 p.m.
Wilmington Hammerheads (USL Pro) at Central Florida Kraze (PDL), 4:30 p.m.
All times Pacific