As the National Hockey League and its Players' Association look for a way out of collective bargaining gridlock, Hastings United are preparing to face Middlesbrough in the FA Cup.
Hastings, which plays its home matches at the 800-seat Pilot Field, has a squad populated with part-time players and hail from the seventh tier of the English soccer pyramid. Middlesbrough, by comparison, were runners-up in the 2006 UEFA Cup and are currently the 27th-ranked team in the country.
One of soccer's great features is that it produces matchups such as this, that its operational structure not only permits it, but encourages it. And it can only happen in an environment where clubs are allowed to rise and fall, float or sink, on their performances both on the field and in the marketplace -- neither of which is determined by the type of artificial economy so prevalent in the major North American sports.
"Salary cap," "revenue sharing" and "make whole" are terms that rarely surface in club soccer (MLS being a notable exception), because the clubs are not franchised to the leagues in which they play. They are run as wholly independent companies, and their place in the pecking order is determined by how they are managed, how many games they win and the realities of their location and demographics. In other words, the rules of business apply to soccer like they do everywhere else.
But there remains the occasional opportunity for even the smallest clubs to engage the most prestigious teams in the land. These are cup competitions, and the 64 teams that went into the draw for the FA Cup's Third Round, which will be played this weekend, were pulled out of the pot at random.
And so we have Hastings at Middlesbrough, Mansfield at Liverpool and Everton traveling to Cheltenham Town. One or two of the 32 matches will produce a memorable upset, and the knowledge that this will happen is the inspiration behind the oft-used but ever-appropriate term, "the romance of the cup."
Perhaps the most famous FA Cup upset happened in 1973 when Ian Porterfield's volley won the trophy for Sunderland at the expense of holders Leeds United. Eleven years later Manchester United -- also the cup holder -- was bounced at the Third Round by Bournemouth, and in 1992 Arsenal was defeated at the same stage by Wrexham, which were toiling at the bottom of the old Third Division.
No one's saying Hastings are about to pull off something similar. That they've come this far is, in itself, a massive achievement, and when today's match kicks off at The Riverside they'll be the lowest-ranked team to be contesting this instalment of the FA Cup.
But they can take heart from Stevenage, which last year defeated Premier League-bound Reading and forced Tottenham Hotspur into a replay after holding the London side to a scoreless draw at Broadhall Way. The year before that, while in League Two, they scored three second-half goals en route to an unexpected win over Newcastle.
Be it Hastings or Mansfield or Cheltenham Town, or Coventry, Bournemouth or Macclesfield (facing Spurs, Wigan and Cardiff, respectively), one of the FA Cup's Third Round underdogs will, like Stevenage, create some memories for its fans over the next two days.
They won't be as famous as the club they defeat, and never will be, but their triumph will be legendary -- true FA Cup lore. And watching it happen will be a well-timed reminder that, while other leagues in other sports tussle over the fine print of their artificial economies, the world's most organic game can still be played in something close to its truest form.
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