By Rob Shore
BREMERTON, Wash. — It isn’t always standard operating procedure to start your season with a win-or-go-home match, but that’s exactly how the Kitsap Pumas will open their 2018 campaign tonight.
The Pumas will meet the Portland Timbers’ U23 squad in a first-round match of the U.S. Open Cup at McCulloch Stadium in Salem, Ore. it will be Kitsap’s seventh appearance in the tournament, the fifth appearance for the Timbers U23s, who play in the PDL.
Defender Matt Eronemo, who played for the Pumas in their last appearance in the tournament in 2016, thinks that experience will help him tonight.
“Definitely, I’ve been there before,” he said. “I’m going to have to let the guys know that it’s win-and-move-on or lose-and-go-home type of deal, so you’ve got to bring is as well as you can to every game as best we can.”
For Kitsap Pumas head coach Liviu Bird, the experience of playing a foe from a different league will be the big attraction.
“For Tuesday, we’re playing a team that’s the same level that we are, we’re just in a different league,” Bird said. “And I think it adds a little bit of excitement playing gainst a team that’s in a different league. And obviously, we played against them many times when we were in the PDL, so there’s familiarity there.”
By itself, a knockout game won’t be an unusual experience for the players. The holdover players on the squad — midfielder Brian Charles and left back Mike Scharf — advanced to the second round of the NPSL playoff last season. Most players who have played high school soccer have played in postseason league tournaments. Defender Kevin Francis has played in World Cup qualifying for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
But it will still be a new experience.
“The U.S Open Cup is great,” Scharf said. “It’s my first experience with the U.S. Open Cup. With Kitsap last year, it was was great to qualify. Hopefully, we can repeat was Pumas have done.”
That will be a tall order for the Pumas. In the team’s last appearance in the U.S. Open Cup in 2016, Kitsap defeated the Seattle Sounders U23 squad, then upset the USL’s Sacramento Republic to earn a fourth-round tilt against the Sounders’ first-team squad.
But that’s the sort of run that defines a club in this competition.
“I have fond memories of the Open Cup from the last time we played in it,” Bird said. “I remember the night in Sacramento, where we beat a USL team on their own field. It was definitely one of the highlights of my coaching career, followed quickly by another highlight, playing against the Sounders’ first team at Starfire (Sports facility in Tukwila), which was packed.
“These are the things you carry forward with you in your career.”
The Pumas and the Timbers U23 squad have battled throughout the years just to compete in the U.S. Open Cup. A victory on the final day of qualifying earned the Pumas their first berth in the tournament, edging out Timbers U23 by one point.
So there will be something of a rivalry element renewed tonight.
“They’ll be similar to us,” Bird said. “They’ve got some guys coming back, they’ve trained for a week longer than we have, so they might have a bit more continuity, a bit more togetherness. But at the same time, it’s a cup game between 2 lower level teams, so it will be a battle.”
As Bird noted, continuity will merit watching with both teams having recently begun training — the Pumas last week and the Timbers U23s the week before. Fitness could also be an issue.
But Eronemo didn’t see it as a problem.
“Guys are really sharp,” he said. “It’s always good getting to know a new group of players, and i think we’re coming together really well and starting to come together well as a team. We’ll find out Tuesday how we’re doing.”
Not to mention both teams are still getting players filtering into training as college lets out for the summer.
“I know that we won’t make any excuses, but it will be a little challenging knowing we won’t have our full team,” Eronemo said. “We haven’t done any real scrimmages, had any preseason games. But we’re not going to be thinking like that. We have a great group, we’ve been working hard together, we know each other well.
“So we’re going to go in thinking we’re going to win any game.”
It will also give Bird a first look at his team in a game setting.
“As long as we put in a good performance and we focus on the process of what we want to achieve in the game, I’m happy with whatever comes out of it,” Bird said. “For me, it’s just the team and the intention they have and what they try to do, rather than if the bounces go our way. … That’s really what I’ll be looking for.”