WINDSOR, Colo. – Eamon Zayed has just completed his first year as a professional soccer head coach, or manager – as they’re called in his native Ireland.
After a long playing career, which ended just three short years ago, Zayed earned the opportunity to lead the USL League One expansion Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC in their inaugural season.
“As soon as the opportunity came along, there was never any doubt in my mind,” Zayed said. “The chance to lead the first-ever professional soccer club in Northern Colorado was too good to turn down. I’ll be forever grateful to the Katofsky’s for believing in me.”
That task wasn’t without its challenges – on and off the pitch. The team is still building their stadium, which meant long road stretches to start the season and bouncing around “home” stadiums and training grounds all year. Those struggles could have bogged down the entire season, but Zayed and his team managed to soldier through.
“That was difficult to overcome at the beginning,” Zayed said. “I felt these things showed up in our performances at the beginning of the season. But as the season went on, as things became a little bit more consistent, I felt results got much better. And I felt we looked like a hell of a team towards the end of the year.”
While the first season in Colorado, and his first at the helm, didn’t end up exactly the way he wanted, Zayed is able to acknowledge the “extremely massive learning curve” he and his team faced.
“I feel there’s been a lot of positives to reflect on,” he said.
While the team finished just outside of playoff contention, getting that close in their first year is something they can be proud of. The team also had an unprecedented underdog Open Cup run, securing wins over USL Championship’s Colorado Springs Switchbacks and Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake.
Northern Colorado ended with an 11-10-9 record. They scored 42 goals and managed five clean sheets.
“We had a magnificent group of guys with great attitudes,” Zayed said. “The work rate and work ethic were great. Every day it was a pleasure to work with them. They gave it their all.”
That work ethic showed on and off the pitch. Fourteen players earned USL League One Team of the Week honors throughout the season, with six of those players earning that honor multiple times. Eight players were nominated for Goal or Save of the Week awards. Irvin Parra and Destan Norman each won a Goal of the Week. Johan Penaranda won Save of the Week three times and Save of the Month once. Thomas Olsen also won a Save of the Week. Trevor Amann and Brecc Evans each won a Player of the Week award. Parra and Arthur Rogers were each nominated for a Player of the Month honor, too.
Two players received postseason awards as well. Rogers was recognized on the 2022 USL League One All-League First Team, nominated for League MVP, and won League One Defender of the Year. Parra was recognized on the 2022 USL League One All-League Second Team.
Those players are what Zayed says determined much of his coaching style this season.
“I had ideas of how I wanted to play – even before I started with the Hailstorm – of how’d I’d like my team to play to reflect me as a coach,” Zayed said. “But until 20-odd players come in the door and you see them together – you see them on a daily basis, training, you see them in preseason games, you see them in competitive games – you don’t really know what style is best suited to that group. I’ll always say [that] a team, a squad of players will dictate how you play. You just want to bring out the best in them, as individuals and as a group.”
It took some time to get a feel for the group, and how the players and coaches fit together to create the on-field product the fans saw.
“A brand new team, a brand new coaching staff, that takes time to gel,” Zayed said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult, trying to gel all of this together with some of the stuff off the field that we just did not have any control over.”
Zayed gave credit to his assistant coach, Kevin Sawchak, for helping ease some of the growing pains.
“I brought him in because I felt he was the best assistant in USL League One. He knows the league inside and out,” Zayed said. “He brings a lot to the table. If you ask the guys, they’ll all no doubt have said that they enjoyed working with Kev, and they’ll keep in contact with Kev. It’s important for my assistant coach to have that relationship with the players.
“Sometimes as a head coach, you want to have that relationship, but you’re gonna piss off players, you’re gonna anger players, frustrate players. You have to make difficult decisions. In those moments, you need the assistant coach to be there for the players, to be able to speak to them, as well as me.”
Zayed referenced larger clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City, who got new managers and spent years building their consistency and winning ways.
“For me, I felt like it only took half a season to kind of look like a consistent, winning team,” he said. “And we’ll improve on that next year.”
The coaching staff hopes to keep the majority of their top players together going into the team’s second season and to add to the roster to make the team better.
“I want to keep the core group of the team together. But right now, my focus is on getting in those key personnel that will improve our team next year,” Zayed said. “And we’ll look for players that will be able to come in and hopefully fit how we would like to play here.”
With one full season under his belt, Zayed has an evolved idea of the culture he is creating in Northern Colorado. That culture can be exemplified by a quote the team had in their locker room all season: “Workers are winners. Losers make excuses.”
“We wanted to create a competitive winning environment this year in training and in games,” he said. “That’s what we want. We want guys to come in and work every single day. We don’t want to be a team that just goes out and plays – win, lose or draw, it’s ok. We want to go out and win games and have a winning culture and identity, which I think we have.”
Zayed also said he wants the team to get more involved in the community. The team is new to the league, but also new to Northern Colorado. While the team managed to get nearly 1,200 fans out to their final home game of the season, there is still work to be done engaging the community and building a fanbase.
“I want to do more in terms of connecting the community and the fans with the players,” he said. “That’s massive for the culture I want to build here in the club.
“Barring the [Colorado Eagles] there are no other professional sports teams around. I want to try to build a professional sports club, a soccer club that Northern Colorado can be proud of and be a connection with the community here.”
Now that that massive learning curve doesn’t seem quite as massive, the coaches will look back on their first season evaluating what worked and what could be better. Ultimately, they will leave the past in the past and focus on the future.
“Look, the league table doesn’t lie,” Zayed said. “We finished where we finished and I’m not ever gonna make excuses. I do feel if we had reached the playoffs this year, we would’ve been in with an unbelievable chance to go on and win it. But we didn’t.
“This year, toward the end of the year, we were looking at other results and how other teams were doing, wondering “can we catch this team?” I don’t want to be that team, I want to be a team that other teams want to catch. We were nine points away from our goal, which was to be the best team in the league. We need to make up those nine points next year and make sure that we are the team to catch … With all the positivity that’s gone on off the pitch, I think we can be that team.”
The future home of Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC, 118-acre Future Legends Complex, will feature 6,500-seat TicketSmarter Stadium, 2,500-seat Future Legends Field, multiple baseball diamonds, multi-purpose fields, an indoor sports arena, lodging, and retail; and will host guests for major sports leagues, tournaments, events and more.