The plumber in the liquor store lowered his nearly empty can of Natural Light and laughed.
Collin Fisher, the starting right back on the team that doesn’t train, had just been asked how he stays in shape. Sure, Christos FC’s most tenacious defender plays pickup indoor soccer games on occasion, but what about off the field? Did he lift weights? Belong to a gym? Ogle a treadmill?
“The last time I ran was probably in high school,” he said.
Fisher doesn’t have time to train, at least not during the weeks he is on call 24 hours a day as a plumber/gas fitter. Neither does attacking midfielder Daniel Baxter, an X-ray technician working night shifts in the shock trauma center of Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. Or starting center back Josh Taylor, an audio/visual equipment sales manager whose only practice tool is his daughter’s size-3 soccer ball.
All form part of the last amateur squad left in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a single-elimination tournament traditionally dominated by pro teams. Christos FC, the Baltimore-based club named after and headquartered in a discount liquor store, will take on four-time Major League Soccer champion D.C. United in a fourth-round matchup at Maryland SoccerPlex on Tuesday night.
Last month, a week after a first-round win over a Fredericksburg club, 12 Christos players piled into a nine-seater passenger van bound for Richmond, followed by three more players who drove themselves after work. They pulled off a 1-0 stunner against the United Soccer League’s Richmond Kickers, a second-tier team housed in a 22,000-seat stadium. Then they set up a GoFundMe campaign to help finance a road trip to Chicago, where they beat fellow amateur outfit Chicago FC United, 1-0, to set up Tuesday’s unlikely showdown in Boyds.
Christos FC does not conduct practice, doesn’t scout opponents or study film. Game-planning typically occurs a few minutes before matches, when coaches pick a lineup based on who could get off work to show up.
So, in the days leading to the biggest match in their club’s 20-year history, what do Christos players know about D.C. United?
“Um, I know they have a losing record,” Taylor shrugged of United, which is 4-7-3 in MLS play.
“I know that they haven’t scored a lot of goals,” central midfielder Mamadou Kansaye deadpanned of United, which has scored 10 goals in 14 MLS games.
“I don’t know nothing about any of these MLS teams,” Fisher said.
Okay, so Christos FC is not particularly informed. Or regimented. Or, well, prepared. What they are: confident, brash, experienced, good. Really, really good.
Former college soccer standouts litter the Christos roster, many of them products of nearby UMBC.
Leading scorer Pete Caringi III, an MLS SuperDraft pick out of UMBC, turned down a minimal USL contract in favor of his current gig as an assistant coach at his alma matter, where his father is the head coach.
Goalkeeper Phil Saunders, pioneer of a defense riding three straight shutouts, played in Iceland’s top pro division.
Silver trophies crowd the shelf above the cash register at Christos Discount Liquors, a sprawling converted grocery store a few miles from Baltimore Washington International Airport.
A group of cash-strapped, Baltimore-area soccer players formed the club in 1997 — Christos store co-owner and soccer novice Nick Christopoulos fronted the $1,000 needed to join the second division of the Maryland Major Soccer League and has been the club’s main backer ever since — and has watched it blossom into the country’s most dominant amateur unit.
An April loss snapped the team’s 50-game win streak, one that featured two national amateur championships last year.
“We’ve had great years and we’ve had down years, but every so often you catch that really good group,” said co-coach Larry Sancomb, nursing a Michelob Ultra in the liquor store’s lounge area last week. “This is our really good group.”
The group’s pedigree stems from its chemistry. Several Christos teammates grew up playing with or against each other on Baltimore Bays youth teams that racked up local and national titles. None of them needed to try out for Christos — their fraternity was already formed.
“We know how to play with each other, and we know how to win with each other,” Caringi said.
They also know how to have fun together.
Following their Open Cup win in Chicago, they said a group of opposing players shook their heads when they saw a cluster of Christos players roll up to the hotel pool lugging 30-packs of beer, one day before their rematch in a separate tournament. And several players said they went out the night before a national final in Milwaukee last summer, then won despite coping with an early red card.
“I doubt many guys remember that night very well,” midfielder Brian Graham said.
Last month’s triumph in Richmond brought Christos players unprecedented hoopla, but some still recognize the result’s more sobering implications.
“For me that’s probably one of the biggest disappointments in U.S. Soccer,” said Kansaye, a Pacifico pilsner bottle in hand. “No offense to us, but we don’t do this everyday. They get paid to do this.”
An upset against D.C. United might precipitate a full-on existential crisis for a U.S. development system perpetually striving to legitimize its pro leagues. Christos FC aims to become the first amateur team to advance past the Open Cup’s fourth round since MLS joined the fray in 1996.
Still, that doesn’t mean the boys in green will alter their routine, or lack thereof.
“We’ll figure it out in the locker room Tuesday,” Fisher said, “probably about 7 when they go over the starting lineup.”