Underdog of the Week: Jon Spencer and PSA Elite
It isn’t every day that a men’s amateur league team plays an MLS team. It’s even rarer when it’s for an actual competition. That’s the beauty of the U.S. Open Cup, and now Orange County-based PSA Elite has the opportunity to take on the LA Galaxy on Wednesday.

By: Christopher McCollum

The century-long span of the U.S. Open Cup has seen its share of upsets, surprises, and unpredictable events, and is a tournament heralded for being the only option for lower-division American teams to prove their worth against the professionals at the top of the pyramid. In a country without promotion and relegation, it’s the only means in which a part-time team can see if they truly belong with some of the household names in the American soccer landscape. It’s the beauty of the game encapsulated into a 102-year history with the latest edition taking place in 2015, and with the latest David and Goliath story zeroing in on Los Angeles.

On the evening of Wednesday, June 17, at 7:30pm Pacific Time, amateur club PSA Elite will be taking on defending MLS Champions LA Galaxy in a match that must equate with a dream to the professional hopefuls from the small Orange County club.

Managed by soccer maven Jon Spencer, the club is reaching the pinnacle of its multi-year plan put in place years ago by Jon and director Alex Lujan to make progress in the Open Cup and establish itself as one of the premier amateur teams in the country. Jon was involved in the team through this plan, though mostly going on hiatus for the 2014 campaign while acting as the General Manager for USL-PRO club OC Blues. With his job at the Blues complete, Jon has turned his full attention back to PSA Elite, who have famously won against the Portland Timbers U-23s and LA Galaxy II in the past two Cups. This campaign has the opportunity to be the best yet for PSA, and Jon sat down with SoccerViza to discuss the underdog story unfolding in Los Angeles.

“PSA Elite started about 15-years ago as a co-ed team,” Jon told SoccerViza.

“My wife was playing on the team. We weren’t married yet at the time, but I can thank her for connecting me with Alex Lujan. This is the fourth year running for PSA Elite in the U.S. Open Cup. About four or five years ago Alex and I were talking about qualifying for the Open Cup. You can get in as an amateur team, so we’ve actually been working together for about four years on this. I was involved in the first two years, but last year I wasn’t really because of the Blues. I took that year off as kind of a hiatus and we started talking again after I left the GM role. So I came back this year to coach again.”

Elite level talent is found in all corners of Southern California, with retired professional players, out of work professional players, former youth stars, respected college players and ambitious Sunday league players making up a melting pot of one of the richest areas of soccer talent in North America. Coming from all backgrounds and walks of life, Jon and PSA have put together a team made up of representatives of this melting pot.

“Guys from all walks of life on the team. Former professional players in the latter half of their career trying to continue to play for the love of the game. It depends on the time of the year who comprises the rest of the team. During the winter months there’s a lot of current pro players, including some from MLS, USL, NASL, who play with us to stay in shape during the off-season and keep playing games. But then we have another group of guys, some in-between teams trying to make it as professionals and using PSA as a platform to be seen by pro teams. We have another group of guys made up of college players who have a desire to go on to playing pro one day. During the summer months I put together a training program for college players so we’ll have between 30 and 40 guys on a regular basis training three or four times a week to get ready for the fall.”

While it normally takes going through a tournament to qualify for the U.S. Open Cup as an amateur team, PSA Elite made it in as an at-large bid based on their success in 2014’s U.S. Open Cup which saw them travel to Seattle to take on the Sounders.

“The way it’s worked the last couple years, it’s always been a tournament process to qualify. This year we got an at-large bid into the tournament because there was conflict last year in the qualification tournament. It landed on the same week we were playing the Seattle Sounders and there was no way we could send out two teams, so we ended up getting an at-large bid from U.S. Soccer and we’re fortunate to be in the Open Cup again this year.”

After knocking off USL-PRO club OC Blues and PDL club Ventura County Fusion in earlier rounds, PSA is already buzzing as they go into the fourth round matchup against the defending MLS champs. It’s a huge game that can be the capstone of an already incredible run, but the team knows that it’s back is against the wall against the LA titans. Jon and his players are embracing the underdog role, knowing through sports history that massive upsets have occurred when the superior-on-paper team gets lackadaisical, thinking they have victory in the bag.

“This is a huge game for our guys, and it helps because it’s a local game; normally in years past we’ve had to travel all around the western United States for the Open Cup. This year though, our games so far have been relatively local. The Galaxy’s reputation speaks for itself. They’re the reigning champions, they’re the biggest name in American soccer. They have a lot of tradition and they have high expectations. They are the clear cut favorite to win this game. For our guys, the way we’re looking at it, it’s a great opportunity to size ourselves up against a pro team and showcase what we can do. Our hope is that we give the Galaxy a challenge, and we gladly take on the role of underdogs. We believe that underdogs can win, it’s shown in sports all the time. This will be a very difficult task. The Galaxy realistically is the team that should win this game, but our guys are motivated and we’re preparing to give one of the biggest surprises in Open Cup history.”

This run is reminiscent of Eric Wynalda’s amateur team Cal FC making a storied U.S. Open Cup run in 2012, pulling off upsets over the Wilmington Hammerheads and Portland Timbers. It’s one of the beautiful things about soccer, that on any given day, the ball can bounce a specific way and reward a player or a team for the work they’ve put into the game. PSA has run up against Cal FC plenty of times in the past, and even beat them in the 2012 Open Cup qualifiers. Now, with the carrot dangling in front of them to overtake their fellow SoCal amateur team as having the most famous results in modern Cup history, it’s set to be a tremendous fourth round.

“The year Wynalda made the run, that was the first year we qualified for the Open Cup. We actually played them in qualifications, and we beat them. But they got an at-large bid which was kind of ironic how it all worked out. They had a great run, and we’ve been getting there ourselves. Last year we played Seattle in the same place Wynalda did. The best thing about this situation we’re in now, is that it’s local. This year we’re playing more local, it’s logistically a lot easier for us in that regard. We’re the small underdogs, but we’ll gladly take on the role of being David versus Goliath and hopefully we can put on a good performance Wednesday night.”

Jon’s team is as prepared for this game as they can ever be. He doesn’t mince words about the quality of his players, and he’s confident that his is just the beginning of long professional careers for many of them, while others can cap off their careers with one final legendary result. PSA Elite has risen from the obscurity of the United States Adult Soccer Association to travel to the StubHub Center and take on National Team veterans and world stars. Jon has his team geared up for this opportunity, and though they’re the clear underdogs in the scenario, that’s not making them back down.

“We definitely didn’t get here by accident. We have a very good squad. A lot of our squad is made up of pro prospects, guys you’re going to see in MLS in the next couple years. They’re the heavy favorites, we’re the underdogs, but we’re going in to win. If LA puts in their best lineup… it’s not every day you get to play against Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez and the likes of those players. It will be fun, and it will be a good experience for our guys. I’m looking forward to it.”

PSA Elite will play LA Galaxy on Wednesday evening at the StubHub Center with a 7:30pm kick off. $5 tickets, $2 hot dogs, $2 beer. What more can you want?