Chicago House Athletic Club is one game away from returning to the U.S. Open Cup.
The fourth and final round of Open Cup qualifying takes place this weekend, and the House will travel to Ohio to take on Valhalla FC on Saturday afternoon. Kick-off is set for 3 pm Eastern time, 2 pm Central.
Chicago got to this stage following two local wins. First they defeated Wisłoka Chicago 2-1 at home; after a slow start, the House took control of the contest before putting two past the opposition. However, a red card saw them go down a man, and a goal from Wisłoka early in the second half made it a game again. It became a tense and feisty affair, but the House were ultimately able to hold on to the 2-1 win.
That set up a meeting between Chicago and fellow Midwest Premier League side Edgewater Castle. This contest got off to a roaring start, as the House opened the scoring after a few minutes, and then Edgewater had a player sent off soon after. Chicago then made it two, and even though Castle pulled one back, the House added a third goal late on to seal their spot in the 4th round.
Valhalla’s road to this stage also began with a win against a Chicago side. They defeated the Chicago Strikers following a penalty at the half-hour mark, and a superb solo goal just past the hour mark secured the victory.
Remarkably enough, their next win came in much simpler fashion, as they beat Sahara Gunners FC 10-1. It was 4-0 at half, and Valhalla never stepped off the gas on their way to a dominating victory.
That means the House will have a tough test ahead of them. They already knew that, to be fair, as their road to Open Cup qualifying last year was quite brutal.
This matchup will remind the team of what they went through last time. See, in the previous rounds of this run, Chicago took on two sides that they were more familiar with. That isn’t the case with Valhalla, who play out in Ohio, several hours away.
This isn’t like the professional leagues, where scouting information and film is easily and readily available. Thankfully for the House, they know how to deal with these sorts of games. They had to beat a bunch of unknown opponents in qualifying last season.
“Yeah, I mean it’s similar to some of the other amateur teams we’ve played in the past. There’s some things online, but there’s not a lot of information,” said head coach Matt Poland. “In one way it’s challenging, and in another way it’s good because it doesn’t make you focus too much on the opponent, and instead makes you just focus on continuing to be the best version of yourself possible. It’s nothing new. Even Edgewater was a completely different lineup than what we played against in the summer. So yes, we know the jersey, but we don’t necessarily know their players, and I think we’re adept at handling the unknown and kind of solving those problems as the game goes on.”
Captain A.R. Smith shares that same sentiment.
“I’d rather not have the scout report because it forces us to be ourselves, right? I think sometimes when you do tape and film, you can kind of prepare for things instead of just bringing your best. I’m not really too worried about it.”
There’s another layer to playing an unfamiliar opponent, and that’s the travel involved. The contest will take place in Milford, Ohio, which is more than a five-hour drive from Chicago. It won’t be the same as the Chicagoland derbies the House had in the other rounds, that’s for sure.
However, just like earlier, the club knows how to better prepare for these situations thanks to the lessons they learned last year.
“Planning for this match has been much smoother than last year’s final round qualifier in Boston,” said House managing partner, president, and CEO Peter Wilt. “Brian Koenig, Jenn Jarmula, and Matt Poland have done a tremendous job working with US Soccer, Valhalla, the bus company, the hotel, restaurants, a training facility, and a health club to organize all the details. Last year’s experience certainly made this year smoother, because we knew our needs from that experience.”
There’s also an added excitement and motivation that comes with going on the road, especially since Chicago will make the drive over the day before and then stay overnight.
“I kind of like the stay because even when a game’s nearby but it’s an hour or two away, it still feels like it’s a trip,” said Smith. “So, being able to stay in the hotel will kind of be like staying at home, and that’ll give us time to regroup and prepare the same way as if it’s a Friday night in Chicago.”
“I think it’s good for the guys. It will hopefully give them that motivation of ‘this could be my life at the professional level every other weekend.’ It gets them that taste of traveling and training at the field that you’re going to play on the day before, having team meetings and team meals and staying in hotels,” said Poland. “Hopefully it excites them and motivates them to continue to want that and push for professional contracts so that they can experience that all the time.”
The House has always been big on their “path to pro” initiative, and that goes beyond their players too. Poland’s own development as a coach has been in the spotlight, as he recently went to Germany to earn a UEFA B coaching license.
“It was a great experience,” said Poland. “There were coaches from like 10 different countries represented, so it was interesting to learn how every federation has a different methodology in terms of doing things. Obviously the Germans are known for playing great football, and so to go through the DFB and learn from their coaches was great.”
Poland’s also able to work with former Chicago Fire assistant Junior González, who was acting head coach while Poland was away, and is still with the club going into this weekend.
“It’s been great. He’s been with us the whole Open Cup run. He has a lot of experience at a very high level and it’s been great for the players and it’s been great for me to just see how he does it,” said Poland. “He’s also a different voice that the guys get to hear. Some of these guys have been here two years now, just hearing my voice day in and day out. I think sometimes hearing things from a different voice is important for them as well to help keep them focused and engaged.”
That all brings us back to Saturday, which is still an incredibly important matchup. The House knows how much qualifying for the Open Cup could mean for them at this point, and they don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to create some more magic.
“Qualifying for the Open Cup again would be a tremendous boost for the House,” said Wilt. “It would validate last season’s qualification and be a reward for all the hard work the players, coaches, and staff have put into this season. Qualifying would also advance the start of our 2024 campaign by a couple months, which would be a boost to our relevance in the local soccer landscape.”
Head coach Poland is keeping things calm, though.
“The most important thing is, as I always say, focusing on ourselves, focusing on the next action, focusing on the next decision. We know that the games can be 90 minutes, we know that the games can be much longer than 90 minutes and then go to penalties. We need to respect staying in the moment of each minute and the value of that. Obviously in the last cup run, coming back from being down, I think we understand that much more now. You have to be focused every minute to get the result.”
Smith, who continues to be the most composed man on the field whether it’s gameday or a Tuesday morning practice, kept the message simple.
“Let’s get this W.”