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The Butler Did It

Ever have déjà vu? I did on Friday night and it lasted about two and a half hours.

I was sitting in a press box at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md., watching the New York Pancyprian Freedoms take on Real Maryland in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup first-round match.

Starting for the Astoria-based Freedoms were former St. John’s standouts Jeff Matteo, Matia Damiani and Sebastian Alvarado-Ralph, as well as Red Storm assistant coach Marc Reeves.

To my right in the press box was Mex Carey, a former St. John’s sports information director who currently works in the same capacity at Georgetown and who I sat next to at countless Red Storm games home and away for several years.

But it didn’t end there. Joining the former Red Storm players on the Pancyprians was Tasos Polydefkis, who I covered at Bayside HS a number of years ago, as well as Peter Pavlakos (St. Francis Prep) and Nick Katsanos (Archbishop Molloy), who I also covered in high school.

Primarily featuring Greek-American players, the Pancyprian Freedoms are an amateur team, a very good one at that. But they were facing a professional side in Real Maryland that plays in the United Soccer Leagues Second Division, the third tier of pro soccer in the United States. They train on a daily basis, while the Pancyprians practice twice a week, at best.

“It’s good. It’s a nice mix,” Polydefkis said. “Everyone stays close. It’s like a little family. Everyone cares about each other.”

Real Maryland had the crowd, a small, but lively group primarily of Latino descent, behind them and had former Major League Soccer standout Ronald Cerritos on their side. Some of the Freedoms’ players have played professionally — Matteo had a short stint in MLS and Katsanos just played a year in the fourth division in Greece — but for the most part, they’ve got full-time jobs.

“One guy’s an accountant, Sebastian is in the city being an architect, Matia is working for (St. John’s president) Father Harrington. Guys do everything,” said Matteo, who is a St. John’s assistant coach along with Reeves. “It’s good because we get together, try and train twice a week. This is as professional as you’re going to get for a men’s league amateur team.”

The game was originally scheduled for June 10, but it was postponed because of inclement weather. That was the least of the Pancyprians’ problems.

“The bus breaks down three times total,” Matteo said. “The first time, we change the bus, get a brand new bus and the air conditioner blows. Coming back at like 3 a.m. coming over the Verrazzano Bridge, the bus stalls. We take town cars back. And this is all when the game gets canceled!”

The ride back to Maryland Friday was a bit smoother and the Freedoms went ahead on a goal by Julio Cesar Dos Santos. Real Maryland equalized, but Matia Damiani scored the go-ahead goal and the Pancyprian Freedoms were a few minutes from advancing to the second round. But they went a man down and gave up the tying goal in the 85th minute off a goalkeeping gaffe. With the game just moments from a penalty kick shootout, Real Maryland struck again, another goalkeeping mistake, and came away with a 3-2 victory.

“We gave them a gift,” Pancyprians coach Lukos Lukovic said. “I don’t want to give a gift. Gifts are for Christmas.”

The Pancyprian Freedoms were one of two amateur teams remaining in the nationwide tournament. Hollywood United, featuring goalkeeper Anthony LaPaglia, was the other.

Afterward, the St. John’s-based Pancpyrian Freedoms players shared a few laughs, and some bad pizza, and caught up with Carey. Then it was back on the bus, returning to New York set to play again on Sunday.

“As long as they still want me,” Reeves said, “I’ll play.”

Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at dbutler@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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