While the San Jose Earthquakes won't turn their attention to the U.S. Open Cup until mid-June, the club's PDL team, the Burlingame Dragons FC, embark on their campaign in the nation's oldest soccer tournament this week when it visits the Sonoma County Sol at Santa Rosa High School on Wednesday, kickoff at 7:00 p.m. (no available video stream; follow along with @burlingamefc and @SonomaCountySol on Twitter).
The Dragons, who last year played in Turlock as the Earthquakes U-23 side, landed on the Peninsula just up Highway 101 from Avaya Stadium in San Jose. Made up entirely of amateur players, either on break from their college teams or from the local area looking to take the path to the pros, the Dragons are making their first appearance in the Open Cup tournament.
"The Sol have been together for a number of years," said Dragons head coach Dana Taylor, "and they have a lot of players that know each other, so we expect them to be well organized. It's going to be a tough test for our guys."
While the Burlingame club, a well-heeled partnership between former Zappos.com founder Nick Swinmurn and former Facebook and Genentech CFO David Ebersman, handled all the off-field activities, the on-field product is the responsibility of the Earthquakes organization and its academy director Chris Leitch. Taylor, who coached the team when it was in Turlock last season, continues in the same role this year.
"This is great to see," said Taylor. "I love the atmosphere that they have created here. The Dragons have done an incredible job of bringing excitement to it, bringing sponsorship to it. Now it's our job to put out that final product, to fine tune the team."
The Dragons were included in this year's Open Cup by virtue of the Turlock side's third place finish in the PDL's Southwest Division last summer. But, as is the reality facing a team made up entirely of amateur players, the squad has tremendous turnover season to season and has been a work in progress for Taylor since open tryouts began earlier this year.
Last Saturday night, the Dragons took flight in their first official home game at Burlingame High School, and exhibition game against the Stanford men's soccer team. Anchored by U.S. national team forward Jordan Morris, the Cardinal were a good opponent for Taylor's forming squad, and they defeated the Dragons 1-0 in front of an engaged crowd of over 1,000 fans eager to see what the Burlingame club had to offer.
"It was great," said Taylor. "A great atmosphere for an exhibition game. I thought the opponent Stanford was great. They've been ranked number one in the country and they have a national team player at forward on there, so this was a great test for us. Stanford is a team that is just finishing up the year, and we haven't even played a full game as our starting group."
The Cardinal were definitely the better team from the opening whistle, as the Dragons were forced to defend for long stretches of the opening half. Morris assisted on the game's only goal, and he nearly doubled the lead late in the game, but Burlingame slowly found its footing and raised its game to the pace set by Stanford. And keeping Morris, a rising star of the national team who a month ago scored against both the Mexican national team and its U-23 squad, off the scoresheet was a huge accomplishment for the nascent Dragons.
"For us, that was a great game for us to move into the Open Cup week, because that team moved the ball well, they are physical, they are organized in how they pressed us. Since we have a lot of guys that haven't played together, it really forced us to step it up."
Earlier on Saturday, Taylor led his Dragons side in another game against the Cardinal, this one on the Stanford campus, as he continued his evaluation of the prospective players that will make his final roster. Cal defender and Earthquakes academy product Josh Morton played in that match, and is among the numerous college players that are converging on Burlingame to be a part of the Dragons for their 2014 season.
"Today, we had four different individuals that just flew in before noon, let along having been a part of it, and stepped on the field," said Taylor. "Many of these guys don't know each other, and that's the realities of the PDL. You have guys coming back from college, guys that are finishing up school and still taking exams, and they are only now coming together. Having coached last year's PDL team with the Quakes, this team is already ahead of where we were last year at this time.
"But tonight was finally about prepping for and getting ready to name our Open Cup team. I can now name our Open Cup team. And, out of that group, I can name our starters."
Taylor will need his side to quickly develop its chemistry ahead of Wednesday's Open Cup match against the Sol, a team that plays in the NPSL and was established in 2004. Many of the players on the Sol have been together for many seasons, and the club has previously participated in the Open Cup tournament, most recently in 2010, knowing what it takes to step it up on the big stage.
But the Dragons expect to be ready for the test, though the prospects of beating the Sol on the road are not the best. Taylor knows his team will need more time to develop, and he is hopeful the Open Cup game, as well as upcoming away games at the Fresno Fuego and the Golden State Misioneros FC will have his squad prepared for its home season opener against the Fuego on May 23.
"We have a couple of away games coming up to do that," said Taylor. "Hopefully, in two weeks when we get back here, you will see a team that is in sync."
But priority number one is the opening round of the Open Cup, and a chance to advance in the tournament to face Sacramento Republic FC, the 2014 USL champions. Whichever of Burlingame and Sonoma County win, they will have a daunting task ahead of them, but that is the excitement the Open Cup promises its entrants, amateur and professional. And these Dragons are looking forward to the challenge.
"We need all of these guys to step up, to bring up their level," said Taylor. "It's going to be a very good game for us."