It may seem like a sports fantasy, but the matchup of the Ocean City Nor'easters against the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer will be very real tonight at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
The unlikely opponents meet in the third round of the 100th annual Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a unique national tournament that pits lower-level soccer teams against those from MLS.
The Ocean City starters sat and watched Sunday as others on the team played a friendly scrimmage with the Philadelphia United under-23 team at the Tennessee Avenue Complex in Ocean City.
Among the O.C. starters watching the scrimmage were forward Frank Tweneboa, and defenders Kevin Curran and Tapiwa Machingauta. All are returnees from last year's 13-4 team.
The Nor'easters play in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Develop-ment League, which has mostly college players.
Tweneboa, who totaled four goals and five assists in 2012, has two assists to help O.C. to its 3-0 start. Two of those wins were U.S. Open Cup victories over the New York Red Bulls U-23 team (2-0) and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds (1-0). Pittsburgh is a USL Pro League team, a level above the PDL and made up of professionals.
"It's a great accomplishment for us to get to this game against the Union," said Tweneboa, 21, of Ghana. "We worked hard to get here. We'll play our hardest and work together. We'll give them respect, but we'll play our best and stick to our game plan."
Machingauta, 24, who played for Bradley University (Ill.), is from Zimbabwe. He was noticed in his home country by scout Jeff Cook of the Union. Cook saw Machingauta after the win over Pittsburgh.
"He's the reason I'm here in America," Machingauta said. "He said I had a great game against Pittsburgh. He said we're on the other side (today), but he hopes the best for us.
"We set a goal at the beginning of the season to put ourselves in this position, and it happened. We worked hard all last year and we have another great group of guys this year."
The purpose of the friendly was so Ocean City coach Tim Oswald could get a look at some of his other players before finalizing his roster of 18 for the Union game.
"This gives us a chance to play an MLS team in an MLS environment," Oswald said. "It's a big stage. With that kind of atmosphere our guys might be a little star struck at first, but it's 11 vs. 11 in a 90-minute game."
Curran, Machingauta and the other O.C. defenders will have the task of stopping Union forward Jack McInerney, who leads the league with nine goals, and is third in shots with 43. Philly teammates Sebastien Le Toux, Amobi Okugo, Conor Casey and Danny Cruz each have two goals. Philadelphia is 5-5-3. The Union have scored 18 goals and given up 23.
"McInerney, Le Toux and Casey can all create problems for us in transition," Oswald said. "We want to continue to play the way we have the last two years, and at the same time establish ourselves as one of the top PDL teams in the country."
In a way, the Nor'easters have done that already, because only four Premier Development League teams in the nation, Ocean City, Reading United AC, FC Tucson and the Des Moines Menace, have made it to play the MLS in the Cup this year.
Des Moines meets Sporting Kansas City, the defending U.S. Open Cup champion, today. On Wednesday, Reading plays the New York Red Bulls, and FC Tucson meets the Houston Dynamo.
PDL teams have advanced to meet MLS teams in the Open Cup 21 times since 1996, with a 3-16-2 mark. The two ties were broken by penalty kicks, and each league has one win in those games.
The Ocean City franchise, then known as the Barons, played D.C. United in the Open Cup in 2009 in Maryland. D.C. United pulled out a 2-0 win after O.C. played a very competitive game.
Curran, a 21-year-old Ocean City High School graduate, is the only Nor'easters player left who was in the D.C. United game.
"I've talked to guys on the team about the experience of it," said Curran, a recent graduate of Loyola University (Md.). "When it happens, it's an unbelievable experience. It's a huge milestone for my career."
"Our plan is to not be drawn into their game, but to play ours," Curran said. "We want to limit their chances, and exploit on transition. One advantage we have is our speed. We'll get our opportunities. It's a matter of us capitalizing."
Defender Shawn McLaws, an Oklahoma City resident and a junior at Coastal Carolina University, is a newcomer to the team and the PDL this year. Coastal Carolina made it to the NCAA Division I round of 16 last fall.
"It's fun to be on a big stage, and this will be lot bigger than (the NCAA)," said McLaws, 20. "It'll be a good environment. The pressure is on them. We'll take it like any other game, possess as much as we can, and get after them."
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