PDL team admits it’s the underdog as it comes to Starfire on Wednesday looking for an upset against the MLS Sounders.
The distance between the Kitsap County Fairgrounds and Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila isn’t all that significant. As the gull flies, it’s a quick hop across Puget Sound.
Actually getting there, though, requires either an hour-long ferry ride or a 65-mile drive down the edge of the Olympic Peninsula and up through Tacoma.
The Kitsap Pumas’ journey to Wednesday night’s fourth-round U.S. Open Cup match against the Sounders at Starfire Stadium has also been both more arduous and remarkable than a quick glance at the bracket suggests.
Kitsap is playing in the fourth round for the first time in club history. A semi-pro squad comprised mostly of former college players and young strivers angling for a roster spot higher up U.S. Soccer’s food chain, the Pumas are the only team from the USL Premier Development League still in the field.
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Though the club is led by an ambitious, driven young coach, Kitsap is not shirking from the underdog tag — even if Sounders Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and coach Sigi Schmid are all suspended for this one courtesy of last year’s Open Cup debacle against Portland.
“We’re underdogs,” admits 26-year-old head coach Cameron “Cammy” MacDonald. “There’s no doubt about that. But you’ve seen what can happen. … At the end of the day, it’s 11-on-11 on the field.”
MacDonald, a former defender, knows how unlikely forces can occasionally combine to fall in your favor. A native of Scotland, MacDonald was pulled to this remote corner of the United States by the opportunity to work as a player-coach, removing the first part of the tag before last season.
“We look for guys that want to be here,” MacDonald said with a hint of brogue. “If we have to do a sales job on them, they’re not the type of guys that has to be at a PDL club and grind for a summer to keep their pro dream alive. The hunger has to be there.”
PDL teams are limited to eight players over age 23 — a rule Kitsap was docked points for breaking in a league game earlier this season — and have seen their player pool limited by the recent expansion of the USL. The Pumas are the only club in the league that pays players. They exist in an odd middle ground, neither an academy team nor a minor-league MLS affiliate.
Former Seattle University forward Hamza Haddadi is the type of prospect the Pumas covet. Despite having helped the Redhawks into the final 16 of last fall’s College Cup, an ankle injury limited Haddadi’s involvement in spring tryouts with MLS and USL teams.
“All of a sudden, he has a four-month window in which to showcase himself and move up to the next level,” MacDonald said. “… We might not be bringing through DeAndre Yedlin or Jordan Morris, but we’re taking in guys who have finished college, who have a good standard and have an opportunity to go play USL if they come in and work hard.”
Kitsap’s upset of MLS expansion hopeful Sacramento was one of the biggest wins in club history, right alongside the USL PDL national title it won back in 2011. Wednesday night represents something even bigger.
“You have to enjoy it,” MacDonald said. “You might never get this opportunity again. You don’t want to go out there scared and under pressure. You have to go out there relaxed and enjoy it. Embrace the experience.”