Chicago Nation's Origins and path to the UPSL National Playoffs
In one of the biggest cities in America, Chicago is home to many talented players such as Marcelo Balboa, Reggie Cannon & Mike Magee, among many others. The rich pool of skillful talent ranges from the cities' different immigrant communities from Europe to Latin America, notable in the many ethnic leagues there. As home to the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) headquarters known as Soccer House, home to the MLS team Chicago Fire and newly formed NISA side Chicago House AC, chi-town has placed their flag for their soccer presence around the country. However, Garrett Hayward believes that there must be a place where everyone can come together to better the game in Chicago.
That question drew the inspiration behind the name Chicago Nation; to bring everyone together and represent Chicago. Garrett Hayward is the president and owner of the club, with coach Julio Mora as his partner. The team's formation goes back to when Hayward was 21. It started as a Sunday men's league team, then called Mystery Men FC, which Hayward played for nine years. His playing time would then cut short when he had a torn ACL and tore his meniscus in an indoor game.
With his new spare time and competitive drive, he went to social media to recruit old and new players. The team would then challenge top sides in the area back in March 2020. Unfortunately, tragedy would strike the Hayward family when Garrett's cousin, a 4-year marine who served two tours in Iraq, passed away before Garrett's birthday on March 16th. Garrett viewed him as a bigger brother saying and coped with his death by using soccer as an outlet. Garrett says, "soccer was kind of an outlet, which happened to be a really good thing. It drove all my energy towards that and put Mystery Men on the map, and then we got to the state cup." In the participation of the Illinois state cup, their first game was a success, but due to the rules and miscommunication of the eligibility of the Illinois state soccer governing body, Mystery Men FC was kicked out. All of this while Garrett was working on a new league called the Chicago champions league to bring the European and Hispanic teams together. The plan for the new league didn't go as planned. After facing these hurdles, Hayward decided to reach out to Yan Skwara, the UPSL's commissioner, to bring the league to the windy city.
With the approval of his partner Julio, the team would now jump on board to join the UPSL with Julio becoming the UPSL Midwest Central manager. With this transition from competing in local leagues to a national league, Hayward was convicted to rebrand Mystery Men FC by julio to Chicago Nation. " I wanted the logo to look like team USA and American. We kept mystery men as a brand and decided to run a second team to give more teams to the division. So it had success. We also created another team called Chicago Eagles." This development helped grow the Chicago Nation network to 150 players, bringing the organization success in overseas partnerships.
One partnership is ADC Barrio Mexico, which competes in the Costarican second division. Hayward said this partnership would give Chicago Nation a direct pipeline to send players to Costa Rica, with goalkeeper Austin Salazar going on trial. According to Hayward, coach Julio has worked hard to make this partnership possible with occasional trips down there.
One of the many reasons Garrett decided to join the UPSL compared to the many other regional and national leagues is that he always enjoyed the brand and the concept of hundreds of teams competing for a national title. "That was something that was very attractive. We also liked the attention that the teams got from the UPSL. It gives us a foundation to grow our social media and the opportunity to get sponsors and qualify for the open cup." The open cup is something Hayward is looking forward to next spring season.
The story of how Chicago Nation got to the final four is what Garrett describes as crazy. "Our regular season was successful. We could have been much better. There were a lot of holes and stuff, inconsistencies being that we are still a newer team. Sometimes consistency is hard, right?" Chicago Nation went undefeated in the midwest central conference, winning all 10 of their regular-season games, scoring 54 and allowing 6. This success is contributed by Chicago's talented lineup, including University of Illinois Chicago player Elias McCloud and Ried Strain, who had experience with the Puerto Rican U-23 national team and Sweden. Once in the postseason, Garrett and his squad felt the intensity of competition outside of their conference. First, they faced local rivals Chicago Eagles and Berber City, which they took care of shutting out both in the divisional playoffs. They then hosted City United of Michigan in the conference final, which they defeated 3-1 before heading to Baltimore to face Inter Atlantic, a memory Garrett reflects on vividly.
"We had a week to plan the trip and book flights, and their division didn't finish until literally that Saturday night. So then Sunday, we had to literally figure it out the entire trip to fly 20 people out. We flew out and played on the same day." Among the stress of making it to Baltimore for the Northeast Championship, star players Reid Strain was out due to the flu, and Isaac Sutton was out with a swollen ankle. With jetlag and short rostered, Chicago Nation faced their toughest opponent yet. When the game was tied 1-1 with 15 minutes remaining in the second half, Garrett treated injured player Nick Kapetanos with icy hot. Garrett thought he might play again after a three-year break since Chicago had no subs. "I was like, oh my God, I'm about to jump in a game in nationals. That was pretty nerve-wracking. So I was rubbing this guy's leg and I was like, dude, this is crazy. I'm rubbing another guy's leg in the field and he's our best player. I hope he doesn't go down because we need him." Nick turns to Garrett and says, "get me the ball, I have one run left in me." Once up and ready, Nick would make a run by the sidelines and score on a tough angle from the left side to get the game-winning goal with 6 minutes remaining in the match. Garret and company were relieved with the insurance goal, knowing that over time with no subs could have ended their playoff run. The final score ended 2-1 in favor of Chicago and would advance to the final four.
Garrett Hayward looks back before the season started, and his expectations were always the big picture. He isn't a person to take games one at a time. This vision was an inspiration when the team challenged top teams to exhibition matches under Mystery Men FC. Notably from the games against the Milwaukee Bavarians. Garrett explains that there was no issue with the raw talent of his team. However, he saw how the Bavarians ran their organization on and off the field. It was something he wanted to aim for, not just to be another team that players join temporarily. The soccer scene in Chicago, he says, to maintain players who have more lucrative options like playing in tournaments that pay players thousands of dollars is hard. He says he is fortunate with the talented group that remains loyal to the team, and if they buy into the idea, success will ensue, just like this fall 2021 season.
Since their last game was in early December and now waiting for the final four in February in Phoniex, one must wonder how to keep their players in condition during the winter break. "Our players, you know, don't stop playing. That's one thing about players is they always find soccer. A lot of our players practice and play it at something called bridges in palatine, which is a local spot where a lot of your top notch players go to play." Players who play here come from many different MLS backgrounds to former professionals overseas. His only concern is that it's not ideal for 11v11 training, but he is sure his players will be ready for the UPSL final four. The staff of Hayward, Julio Mora, and Marco Garcia will have the team ready to compete.
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