Three of the four German Cup semifinalists are monsters of the game. Bayern Munich, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Bayer Leverkusen sit first, fourth, and fifth in the Bundesliga.
The fourth semifinalist is also a table-topper; FC Saarbrucken finished in first place in one of five fourth-tier Regionalliga divisions. When it squares off with Bayer Leverkusen on June 9, it’ll do so just started training Thursday and having not played since March 7.
“It is in unbelievable,” says Kianz Froese, the club’s Cuban-Canadian playmaker and a former Vancouver Whitecaps product.
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“We got 9,000 people to our last Pokal game. They sold out tickets right away and people were selling them on the secondhand market for like 1,000 or 2,000 euros. It’s in the blood, It’s in their body, and we have a small stadium. That’s happened multiple times. We have minimum 4,000 fans every game and it’s fourth division.”
Saarbrucken is a city of 200,000 on the French border, closer to Belgium and Luxembourg than Frankfurt.
FC Saarbrücken is its biggest football club. A member of the inaugural Bundesliga, they were relegated after the 1963-64 season and last played in the top flight during the 1993-94 season. The club has played in the 3.Liga and 2.Bundesliga in this century, but swooned as low as the fifth-tier between 2007-09. It’s expected to play in 3.Liga next season as a promoted side.
Its home, the Hermann Neuberger Stadium, holds less than 7,000 fans and under 600 covered seats. The stadium has come alive this season as Saarbrucken led its division right into the coronavirus pause, though that almost feels secondary to what it’s done in the German Cup, knocking off two 2.Bundesliga sides and top tier clubs Koln and Fortuna Dusseldorf to stand one win away from a final.
“We have a player who played at Real Madrid with some of the superstars and when he talks about it he says it’s a highlight in his career,” Froese said. “Every game was kinda like a final. You’d win and you wouldn’t really believe that you won it. … In the region there’s like a million if you count the outskirts of Saarland. There are many other little teams in the area. But our fan base is very traditional. We have fans who are generation after generation.”
As sports around the world waited to hear whether their seasons resumed, Saarbrucken was left to wonder whether it would get the opportunity to chase more history. It was easy to keep perspective. Though undiagnosed, Froese was one of nine players who suffered from COVID-19 symptoms for two weeks.
“For two weeks soon after (the Fortuna game), it was pretty bad I must say. We had all the symptoms. We now get tested every five days,” Froese said. “We all weren’t sure so it was day-by-day but obviously the health of your family and friends and the world is more important. At that stage our focus shifted more to humanitarian thoughts than to sports.”
Now the club has a June 9 date for their test at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen, who will bring Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, and as many as five more matches of preparation to the field against a Saarbrucken team who may not be able to play a warm-up against anyone other than themselves. They’ve been in small groups at best ahead of their first-team training session Thursday.
“That is a challenge,” Froese said. “We are just training between us. Then we’ll play some games between us again because we can’t have other kinds of opposition I don’t think. We can only train by running and the gym. We won’t have any game rhythm when we go to play them. It’s not going to be easy but it’s doable. It’s not going to be something that’ll be easy.”
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Froese’s journey to Die Molschder has been anything but straight-forward. Debuting for the ‘Caps reserves at age 17 and making his first MLS appearance a year later, Froese earned caps for Canada against Ghana and the USMNT in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
After spending most of 2016 in the USL with Vancouver’s reserves, he struck out for Germany (“I was a pro player, I was in MLS, but I didn’t feel like I had chased by dream”). He had trained with German clubs like Mainz and Freiburg when he was younger.
He took a chance with Fortuna Dusseldorf’s second team and secured a pro contract with the first team. Injuries and the first team’s promotion kept him with Dusseldorf II, where he scored 16 times with six assists in parts of three seasons.
Froese’s path to the first team was hurt by Dusseldorf’s promotion to the Bundesliga, so he moved about 300 kilometers south to Saarbrucken.
Friends and family have grown enamored with his club’s incredible season, which took a delirious turn when Froese assisted a goal in regulation and scored in the shootout while his keeper Daniel Batz stopped one penalty in regulation and four more in penalty kicks.
The announcer cried, “David against Goliath, and David’s winning 1-0.” It was stunning stuff, his mother Esperenza getting updates from friends in Cuba as Saarbrucken moved on to the semifinal round with a 1-1 (8-7) win.
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Froese’s perspective in speaking about his season is incredibly chill. His 10 assists are a career-high and he’s set a German Cup record for most assists by a player outside the Bundesliga, but he’s not terribly concerned about what’s next.
“If a club wants me in a higher division that’s cool, but for me I need to go out and personally enjoy it,” he said. “Because I don’t know if I’m gonna ever play again at this level against such a good opposition, so heavily watched. At the end of the day it’s my journey. It’s just kinda dreamy sometimes but it’s cool.”
Froese constantly mentions how the game goes quickly and chances aren’t guaranteed, referencing the big picture. He was altered by the passing of his father Joe on Sept. 8, 2018, and proudly shared his father’s obituary.
Joe Froese’s tale is a remarkable story that informs Froese’s considerate and deliberate nature in conversation. Joe Froese was “committed to practical ways of promoting environmental sustainability, peace, social justice, and shared wealth.”
The elder Froese bicycled across the U.S. and Canada, wrote a book about Cuba, “was arrested for helping to turn a buffalo loose at a nuclear weapons base in South Dakota, designed and introduced solar ovens for widespread use in Eritrea and Cuba, and participated in post-earthquake housing construction in Nicaragua” (Kianz, for his part, is involved with an organic coffee and condiment farm in Cuba).
“My dad passed away two years ago and from a personal perspective it’s given me an idea of how important it is to enjoy life,” Kianz Froese said, referencing the coronavirus pandemic providing eerie similarities.
“But I had this experience before because I slowly watched the life of my father pass away. Life goes by quite quickly. I knew when I was coming here everyone was going to say, ‘Oh fourth division. That’s not much. blah blah.’ It became less relevant what people thought of me and my personal journey became more relevant. I enjoy playing soccer and being in Europe, learning new languages, and challenging myself. Here is where the best of the best usually are, and I wanted to see where I line up.”
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There’s little doubt that this latest part of his journey is almost too silly for an author working in fiction. Froese’s Saarbrucken have conjured four upsets with the Cuban-Canadian playmaking featuring prominently.
It’s almost too much for the brain to manage in the moment.
“We win these games and we start crying,” he said. “It means a ton to us. I’ve watched the coach cry, I’ve watched every single player cry with me as we all hug each other on the field. These are moments that money can never ever buy and only sports give that.”
He knows the odds are stacked against Saarbrucken when Bayer pays a visit in early June. The lack of preseason alone is a huge ask, not even considering Bayer’s status as a constant European competitor.
So Froese and his team will take it as it comes. For the player, he knows nothing’s guaranteed and that his ride from teen debutant in Vancouver to top assist man in the German Cup has been anything but straight-forward.
“Soccer is a crazy thing,” he said. “Who knows if the club will even offer me a new contract and who knows if somebody else is going to come and sign me? The game is just the game. It’s fast. What are the odds? It’s really hard to say. You’re playing roulette. It’s like walking into a casino and throwing your life on the line and seeing where you land. All you can say is you know you have a family and you love them and we’ll see where it continues. That’s the art of the game.”