‘A flaw in the structure.’ Christos FC offers a glimpse of promotion/relegation in U.S.
Christos FC’s first “random” fan — that is, a fan unaffiliated with the amateur soccer club or its hometown of Baltimore — abandoned D.C. United two years ago.
Liam Hogan bled black and red throughout his childhood. He played for the D.C. United Juniors until he was 10. His family renewed their season tickets every year. He was a devoted member of the District Ultras, a non-profit group dedicated to supporting the local pro team.
At some point, Hogan became sick of the organization. Sick of the crumbling stadium. Sick of the corporate partnerships. Sick of the stubborn coach. Sick of the mediocrity.
Hogan is only 21 years old, but he already sounds more jaded than John Boehner at a cocktail party.
“They don’t need me,” Hogan said. “My individual support can’t make a difference for them.”
Last month, Hogan made the 45-minute drive north from Randolph-Macon College, where he’s a rising senior, to Fredericksburg, where Christos FC was taking on Fredericksburg FC in the opening round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. He happened to sit next to Christos co-founder Jody Haislip, who told Hogan all about his team’s quirks. How they’re backed by a liquor store; how they don’t practice; how they show up to games when they can get off work. Hogan was hooked.
“It immediately resonated with me because it’s exactly the type of thing soccer needs in this country,” said Hogan, a 6-foot-4 attacking midfielder for Randolph-Macon.
Christos won that game, 3–0, sending Hogan home with a new team. And that is how he came to be the lone Christos fan at their game against the Richmond Kickers the following week.
Two weeks later, with Christos’ improbable matchup against D.C. United booked, Hogan and his brother, Brendan, headed to RFK Stadium for United’s game against the LA Galaxy. They approached a concrete ramp, climbed to the upper concourse and unfurled the crudely made banner pictured above. Security kicked the brothers out of the stadium at halftime — allegedly for displaying a banner that was not pre-approved — before readmitting them in the game’s 75th minute, sans banner.
Hogan spent seven hours making signs for Tuesday’s game. Flanked alongside his original masterpiece was one reading “Christos, a light in the darkness,” then another with a luminous lighthouse shining the club’s initials. And then the one that always gets people talking: “Pro/rel for USA.”
The system of promotion and relegation has long flourished in England, a country of 53 million people where about 7,000 teams fluctuate across 140-plus individual leagues year to year. London alone boasts 13 professional teams.
Hogan looks at the U.S., a country of 321 million, and wonders why it sticks to the closed confines of 22-team Major League Soccer. Here in the States, soccer stands as a relative afterthought at the top levels, even as the sport remains wildly popular at the youth level.
“I should never have to drive an hour to support a local team,” Hogan said. “We have enough demand as it is. We have enough fans, enough players, enough facilities. So many people are playing.”
Just look at Baltimore, a soccer-mad metropolis still without a legitimate pro soccer team. Charm City surpassed D.C. this year as the country’s top market for NBC’s presentation of the English Premier League. It regularly produces some of the nation’s top youth teams through powerhouse clubs like Pipeline, Baltimore Celtic and Baltimore Bays. And on Tuesday, at least six buses made the 50-mile trek to Maryland SoccerPlex.
Longtime UMBC soccer Coach Pete Caringi, Jr. was among them. His son, Pete Caringi III, is a UMBC assistant and Christos FC’s leading scorer. The 27th-year coach snaked through a long line before entering the SoccerPlex gates — nearly 10 minutes after kickoff.
“I just think Baltimore is really hungry now to have its own team, its own club to support,” Caringi, Jr., said. “I think tonight will go a long way to show that.”
Signs of the sport’s growth were everywhere Tuesday night. Ryan Williams, a sophomore at VCU, paid soccer no mind as a kid hearing the term “grass fairies” tossed around by friends. In 2014, he saw neighbors chanting in unison as the World Cup played on TVs at Buffalo Wild Wings, and on Tuesday, he was the one pounding the drum before a boisterous Christos cheering section.
“The fact that Christos doesn’t really have a large fan base and we are the ones that they have, it’s a pretty cool experience,” Williams said. “You feel a lot more personally connected to the team.”
Annapolis resident Bill Crouch, meanwhile, was attending his first soccer game at age 47.
“I’ve seen a lot of sports in my life, but it’s kind of hard to find a setup like this,” Crouch said. “How often do you get a chance to see an amateur team [try to] upset a pro team?”
In the end, Christos succumbed to United’s superior fitness. The main difference between the two sides was simple: One team’s average workday entails sitting at a desk for hours on end, then cracking open a beer. The other’s workday involves running for hours on end, then grabbing a Gatorade.
Christos’ lineup comprised college soccer standouts who came just short of professional contracts. So they pursued other day jobs and watched their fitness slip. That’s reality in the U.S., where only a select few adults get to hone their soccer skills on a daily basis.
“The level of skill isn’t much different as it is,” said Aaron Rilling, a 26-year-old Christos midfielder who didn’t play Tuesday. “Our attacking players could do just as much as them going forward.”
Hogan hopes a club like Christos can one day join a lower-tier league and vie for promotion. He thinks less touted players — guys like Caringi III in the U.S. and Jamie Vardy in England — can blossom in the pro ranks. He believes more tantalizing showdowns between hungry upstarts and polished pros are set to come.
And when they do, the fans will be there to support them.
“It feels like we sprung out of the woodwork,” Hogan said, gesturing at the throngs of neon-green T-shirts in the crowd. “But we’ve all been here all along.”