It’s not too often in sports when amateurs get the opportunity to play professionals on the same playing field for the same prize, let alone have success. But Malibu boys’ soccer coach Lloyd Kinnear experienced American soccer history first-hand this summer as an assistant for the Thousand Oaks-based Cal Football Club.
Cal FC, a fifth-tier team from the United States Adult Soccer Association, became the first amateur team in the history of the 99-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to defeat a Major League Soccer team in Open play when they upset the Portland Timbers, 1-0, on May 30.
Kinnear served as an assistant to Head Coach Eric Wynalda as Cal FC made an improbable run that shook the soccer landscape across the country. The team was formed in February, qualified through the USASA Region IV tournament and reeled off three consecutive wins against higher-level competition before succumbing to the MLS Seattle Sounders, 5-0.
“It’s just unheard of. It had never happened before,” Kinnear said enthusiastically. “We shocked everybody. To be an amateur team and to beat three very good teams including Portland was astonishing.”
Wynalda, the United States’ second all-time leading goal scorer in international competition behind Landon Donovan, asked Kinnear to join his staff in the spring. Together they brought in journeymen soccer players with little to no professional experience. The roster, comprised of two former MLS players and other players once overlooked by MLS, coaches forged an incredibly talented and very competitive amateur side.
“We’ve worked together before. We have a good working relationship,” Kinnear said. “I helped bring players in to help build the team. It ended up being a positive experience.”
Cal FC beat the Kitsap Pumas, current champions of the Premier Development League, 3-1, and the Wilmington Hammerheads of the United Soccer League, 4-0. The exciting run became national news when Cal FC upset the heavily favored Portland Timbers in Portland in front of more than 5,000 screaming Timber fans. With that victory, Cal FC became the first amateur team to beat an MLS team in Open play.
“We believed in ourselves, the staff believed in the players and the players believed in themselves,” explained Kinnear, who will begin his second season as the Sharks head coach this winter. “We had this huge belief that we can get this done.”
And did they ever. Despite being outshot an astounding 43-11 on goal, Cal FC never allowed a goal and won the game in overtime on a breakaway goal by Artur Aghasyan. The determined effort and monumental victory drew rave reviews from various soccer experts.
Scott French, former senior editor for Soccer America, referred to the win as maybe “the greatest upset in this country’s premier knockout tournament since MLS’s formation 16 years ago.”
Cal FC’s next game against the three-time defending U.S. Open Cup champions would be their toughest and most challenging game to date. The match drew national attention as it was nationally televised on the Fox Soccer Channel.
They held the Sounders to a 0-0 score at halftime. The amateur side looked as technical as the MLS side but fitness played a critical factor in the second half, as the Sounders netted five unanswered goals, eliminating Cal FC and ending their formidable U.S. Open Cup run.
“The whole thing has been a great ride,” Wynalda told reporters after the game. “I think for these kids, that’s all they ever wanted. A chance to play with the big boys. A bunch of misfit kids who did something unbelievable. This is what this Cup is about.”
Cal FC recently returned to its “La Gran Liga de Oxnard” on Sunday afternoons. But for one moment in time, albeit a month, Kinnear had the opportunity to coach and witness a magical soccer journey unseen before in this country.
“It was an amazing run,” Kinnear said. “Truly unbelievable.”