FC United team full of DIII players shows grit to win national soccer title
This was not your normal dream team.
This was a collection of men's soccer players, some of whom had stopped playing organized soccer, rounded up for one last gasp.
Not a Division I player among them.
"The whole team was entirely Division III college players, plus a few guys who didn't even play in college," said one of them, forward Joey Martens, a 2020 Glenbrook North graduate.
"We kind of adopted a little anthem. Whenever we faced adversity, we'd say we had the 'DIII grit.'"
Score one for the little guys.
Led by head coach Andy Parry and assistants Mike Skupien and Craig Blazer, under the Chicago FC United banner, this hastily assembled roster won the United States Youth Soccer Under 19/20 national championship July 25 at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
"No matter what adversity we faced, no matter where (opponents) were playing (in college) or how good they were we just had this DIII grit," said Martens, who plays at Kenyon College in Ohio.
"We'd rise to every challenge, outwork, outrun, win every 50-50 challenge, win every 50-50 header. We had more hustle and more heart than anyone we came up against.
"It was a pretty big deal for the club and our guys. For most of us, it'll be the biggest tournament we've ever won. It's even more special to have done it with guys who are like family now, guys I've known since I've been playing soccer," he said.
Still kind of stunned, 2020 Glenbrook South graduate Jhovany Guadarrama, a defender who plays for Carthage College, had never won anything like this since he began playing soccer at 4 years old.
"I'm still at a loss for words to this day," he said last Friday. "My whole life I've always dreamed of this moment. It became a reality."
The boys -- and girls -- did get a break, but so did every program. The 2020 nationals had been canceled due to COVID, so this year the USYS allowed the oldest age category, Under-19, to add U20 players to give those denied one more shot.
This sent Martens and his pal Ryan Grady from Deerfield, a 2019 third-team All-American goalie at Middlebury College in Vermont, into action.
Both taking college sabbaticals this spring since their respective campuses were limited to virtual classes, Grady and Martens were back home serving as instructors with FC United. When the USYS reprieve was announced they hit the phones to recruit as many of their old teammates as they could to surround the eight U19 players already committed to FC United.
Some players were uninterested, "doing the fraternity-college thing," Martens said. Others, like New Trier's Ryan Ball at Michigan, were solely on the academic track. Old injuries winnowed out a few.
"I thought it was just going to be like a leftovers team and stuff like that, honestly," Guadarrama said.
"After a lot of convincing," Martens said, FC United (16-2-2) had its U19/20 team.
"It was our last run."
And not without event.
On a regular-season road trip to Indiana, the club picked up a player right after he'd taken two final exams. Two days later they dropped him back off for his last one.
FC United had to shake off some rust, and did so with flair, 5-1-1 entering the Illinois State Cup.
A cup win June 12 over historically strong Libertyville FC 1974 in Rockford qualified FC United into the Midwest Regional Championships in St. Louis.
The primarily North Shore collective caught its breath after losing 1-0 to FC Pittsburgh Arsenal in its pool-play opener. It then beat teams from Kansas, Iowa and Ohio to reach the regional championship.
Their opponent was hometown favorite Scott Gallagher, the 2019 national champion that had outscored its pool-play foes 14-2. The St. Louis side had beaten FC United in the regular season, but on an overtime goal from New Trier product Jake Krueger on July 19, the Illinoisans punched their ticket to Florida.
"At nationals we just had that belief that we could beat anybody," Martens said. "At that point, we were like family."
Against some of the best teams in the nation FC United went 2-0-1 to win its pool, then beat an Arizona club to reach the title match on July 25.
Before the semifinal, Andrew Crowder, from New Trier, had told Guadarrama he had a dream about how the championship would come down.
"He had a dream where Andrew Juarez would score the winning goal," Guadarrama said.
In the hot and muggy final played in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, FC United beat Strikers Miami 2-1. Lake Zurich's Juarez delivered the eventual game-winner with 25 minutes left to play when he split the defense and scored on a sharp-angled left-footer.
"Looking back on what my teammate just told me made me believe his dream came true or something," Guadarrama said.
That "DIII grit" earned the boys the McGuire Cup, the first for any Chicago FC United club.
"When we got to the finals there was a lot of anxiety, a lot of pressure to finally bring this journey, this championship, home," said Martens, who returns for Kenyon College's preseason training on Aug. 16.
"And when we won it was just such a relief that we had accomplished an incredible achievement as such a tight-knit family, as a group that had known each other for so long. It was just incredible."
FC United U19/20 roster (high school attended)
• Quinn Ackman (Evanston)
• Ryan Ball (New Trier)
• Oscar Blazer (Loyola)
• Andrew Crowder (New Trier)
• Alem Duratovic (Stevenson)
• Nolan Ehlers (Warren)
• Will Franzen (New Trier)
• Ryan Grady (Deerfield)
• Dylan Gripman (Loyola)
• Mario Hrvojevic (Loyola)
• Andrew Juarez (Lake Zurich)
• Jake Krueger (New Trier)
• Andrew Lew (Barrington)
• Joey Martens (Glenbrook North)
• Jhovany Guadarrama (Glenbrook South)
• James Paden (New Trier)
• Aiden Pape (New Trier)
• Zach Thompson (West Aurora)