Rochester native Matt Poland has his soccer team doing the unthinkable
Rochester Mayo graduate Matt Poland's amateur soccer team Chicago House is doing huge things in the U.S. Open Cup. Poland is its first-year head coach.
CHICAGO — As coach of the Chicago House Athletic Club amateur soccer team, Matt Poland’s No. 1 task is to develop players well enough that they land professional contracts.
His knack for turning amateurs into pros has quickly become a major selling point for playing for the Rochester Mayo graduate and his Chicago House team. The 31-year-old Poland — himself a former professional player — has been the franchise's head coach for the past 14 months.
In that time, Poland has lost eight Chicago House players to professional contracts.
“As a coach, it is difficult to lose players,” Poland said. “But I am genuinely happy for them. I don’t want their end goal to be playing for an (amateur team). I care more about their long-term success than the short-term success of our amateur team.”
In the case of Poland and this team, they are getting the best of both worlds.
Chicago House, despite all of those players heading off to paying soccer jobs, continues to turn heads like almost no other amateur soccer team in America. It’s done it by winning on the biggest stage, at least for an amateur team.
Chicago House played well enough last season in the Midwest Premier League that it was one of 107 amateur teams — from a variety of leagues — invited to play in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. There are also approximately 100 professional clubs that participate in the event, the country’s longest ongoing soccer tournament.
An amateur team getting invited to the U.S. Open Cup is one thing. But an amateur team actually having success in it is completely another.
Chicago House, directed by that Mayo graduate Poland, is a rare example of the latter.
The beginning portion of the tournament pits amateur teams against amateur teams. Chicago House drew a first-round bye, then won its next three matches. It scrambled back to beat 1927 Fort Wayne (Ind.) in the second round after trailing 1-0, scoring in the 92nd minute to tie it, then ultimately winning on penalty kicks. That was followed by a 2-1 win over Metro Louisville (Ky.), before beating Brockton (Mass.) on penalty kicks in a game that went so long — in a stadium whose lights weren't functioning — that it was completed in the dark, game officials turning to an orange ball that glowed just enough to be seen.
“I couldn’t see anything,” Poland said. “They were having to tell me when our goalie saved shots. I was listening to whether the ball hit the net or not.”
Those wins qualified Chicago House for the “competition proper” portion of the U.S. Open Cup that now also includes professional teams. This is when amateur teams traditionally get eliminated in a hurry.
That’s exactly what has happened to all but two of the 28 amateur teams that had made it that far. And yes, Chicago House, which started off the “competition proper” with a 1-0 win over National Amateur Cup champion Bavarian United (Milwaukee), was one of the two to survive the second round, its foe a professional outfit.
One week ago, Chicago House traveled to play pro team Forward Madison (Wis.). Things looked bleak for Poland’s team as it entered the final 20 minutes trailing 2-0. But Chicago House, which has not lost for 48 straight weeks, scored in the 75th minute and again in the 93rd. Then, in extra time, it scored the game winner.
A part of history
It made it just the second time since 1995 that an amateur team had come back from a 2-0 deficit to win against a professional team in the U.S. Open Cup.
Poland can hardly believe what his team has accomplished.
“Forward Madison’s operational budget and ours are very different,” Poland said, opting for a massive understatement. “To be down 2-0 against a pro team and then win shows the mentality of our organization as a whole. A lot of teams would have thrown in the towel. There is a lot to be proud of considering the mental strength it took to keep going. And now, to be (one week) away from playing against a team from the MLS side of things is surreal.”
Credit Poland for Chicago House’s perseverance and resilience. He’s spent a chunk of the last few months reading true-life book accounts of humans surviving harrowing ordeals in the wild and wars, then recounting these stories to his team.
Poland is certain there has been a payoff from this re-telling. His team has had too many comeback wins in the U.S. Open Cup to believe otherwise, including climbing from that 2-0 deficit against pro team Forward Madison.
Chicago House has adopted a never-give-in approach that Poland says is unmistakable.
“One thing I am convinced has worked is having started every week by reading a book that had to do with human struggles to the extreme (and then recounting it to his team),” Poland said. “In one of them, there was a rugby team (whose plane had crashed in the Andes Mountains) that was listening to a radio one of those days and heard that the search for them was called off. It was at that point that they said, ‘Now, we are not waiting for anyone to save us. Now we save ourselves.’ That attitude is important in soccer. You have 11 guys together on the soccer field. It becomes, ‘What can we do as a group of 11?’ ”
What this Chicago House team has done is make history. And now, it is looking to make some more. On April 27, it will take on its second professional team in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup, MLS team Chicago Fire.