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UPSL National Finals Recap

A summary of the Finals weekend by Protagonist Soccer
Published Feb 8, 2022

From Protagonist Soccer: https://www.protagonistsoccer.com/coverage-blog/upsl-final-recap

In some ways, there couldn’t be a more perfectly aligned place for the UPSL Fall Final than Mesa, AZ. Mesa is a city that has become consumed by the urban sprawl that extends from southeast Phoenix and now blurs the cities of Gilbert, Tempe, and Mesa into one interconnected series of towns that are almost indiscernible from each other. Mesa is a part of a larger whole but is hard to distinguish by an outsider.

In its own way, the UPSL has been in its own pattern of sprawl, as it continues to expand across the country. Though founded in 2011, the league has shown rapid growth since 2018, going from a mostly Southwest league to a true superpower in the amateur soccer world. The league is now over 400 clubs strong, with promotion and relegation in the more concentrated parts of the country. And though some have predicted calamity and chaos, the league continues to develop in positive ways. The UPSL has become the gateway for many amateur clubs because of its low financial bar, hyper local regions, and a national playoff structure.

Yesterday saw the league final at Bell Bank Park, a massive multi-sport facility overflowing with events, participants, and spectators. At the same time as the final match of the Fall season, the facility was hosting a massive 7v7 American football tournament that filled the 35 smaller fields that encircle Championship Field. Honestly, it was a bit overwhelming, but definitely impressive.

The match was a tough one, with yellow card-earning clashes on display.

Headed into Sunday’s matches, the semifinals were played the day before. Certainly not optimal, but due to the weather conditions in Texas, Kilonji PRO-Profile had been delayed in arriving. So the semifinal matches, originally scheduled for Friday, had been bumped to Saturday. Chicago Nation beat Kilonji PRO-Profile after a thrilling 4-goal regular time, that ended tied and had to go to penalties. The other semifinal saw Foro 360 Pro defeat LAFC Academy 4-3. The MLS academy side was lead by Marvin Gamez, who put in a hat trick, but it was not enough to overcome Foro, who scored a goal in extra time (Anthony Manning) to advance to the Championship.

Sunday’s matchups began with the third place match between LAFC Academy and Kilonji. The match played just after noon, in weather that can only be described as perfect. Not a cloud in the sky, sunny, but with a nice breeze, it was perfect weather for soccer. LAFC Academy had more possession in the first half and managed to go ahead with a goal from Favian Vazquez in the 33', but the advantages brought by the size and experience of Kilonji’s players really began to show in the second half. Lagos Kunga would get the equalizer early in the second half. The club continued to press but couldn’t find the winner in regulation, nor in the extra time periods. The match ended on PKs, with Kilonji (5-3) leaving Arizona with a third-place finish.

Kilanjo on the attack against LAFC Academy.

As the match began to wind down, Chicago Nations and Foro 360 Pro arrived and began their warm ups. Both clubs feature players with significant experience in every level of the American game. And though Chicago is technically an expansion side, the level of excellence in the roster is undeniable. There’s a reason this club came to Mesa without a loss all season. Foro, of course, had some experience at this level, but had never managed to win a national title. Both sides headed into this match confident and ready, but both sides expressed similar sentiments concerning the season so far. Chicago Nations head coach and co-owner Julio Mora summed it up the morning of the Championship - “We have accomplished so much as a team...Nobody can take anything from us. Whether we win or not, it's been a success story."

Chicago Nation and Foro 360 Pro battle it out in the first half.

As the players stood in line during the national anthem, it was clear that both clubs were about to bring a level of play that would delight the small, but enthusiastic crowd. Within the first ten minutes, Chicago was aggressively attacking the Foro backline, looking for the pass that would unlock their streaking attackers. For their part, Foro’s defenders were up to the challenge. Veteran Anthony Manny, who played professionally for multiple clubs, was extremely active in snuffing out Chicago’s chances. Nation had been on a goal-scoring tear all season, finishing up with a very NICE 69 goals, tops in the UPSL. And the chances were there in the first half, as Nation continued to look dangerous, testing the Texas club, but the defense was able to hold firm and deny the Chicago powerhouse from scoring the entire match.

Miles Byass, UPSL Champion.

Foro had their chances as well, Miles Byass, who scored the opener in the semifinal and led the team in goals this season, was sprung multiple times on passes that looked to offer the chance of a game-winner. But time after time, the big Chicago keeper, Austin Salazar, would step in and clear the ball. On set pieces, Manning would play up and look to head in the crosses, but the chances were always off one way or another. It was a real battle between the two clubs and it felt like a single goal would be a winner. And Foro’s main attacker, Byass got the winner in the 77th, though credit to the rest of the team for making that single goal be the difference.

Foro celebrating their win. (Photo courtesy of UPSL)

The entire weekend was a continued example of the UPSL’s progress in operational excellence. The facility chosen to host the final could not have been better suited. It was a top-notch setting for a championship weekend. To their credit, the clubs put on a show for the fans that made the trip. The matches were fun to watch and featured the best of the league on display. And Foro is a deserving champion, battling through two tough matches (in as many days), both decided by a single goal, against two great teams. This weekend stood out as a shining representative of what amateur soccer can be: impressive, polished, entertaining, passionate, and fun.

- Dan Vaughn (Protagonist Soccer)