No history, no stadium, no problem. You'd be forgiven for failing to notice the cup run that the Northern Colorado Hailstorm are currently on, given how this brand new side in the third division of American soccer has struggled to engage fans even in its own town. The construction of a planned stadium was not finished in time for the start of this season, meaning the Hailstorm won't play a home game this campaign until June.
Despite that, two unexpected wins in the US Open Cup have changed perceptions in their home town of Windsor, Colorado, and now even Irish eyes have rightly started looking 7,000 kilometres away. In their rookie season as a competitive club, they have appointed a rookie manager, Dublin-born Éamon Zayed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the former League of Ireland stalwart has taken a few compatriots with him Stateside. Shane McFaul, formerly of Sporting Fingal, UCD and St Pat's, is joined by former Bohs, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers defender Rob Cornwall.
The latter in particular has raised a few eyebrows in America, scoring the winner in the last round of the cup against Real Salt Lake. The Major League Soccer outfit lies fifth in the Western Conference of American soccer's top tier. The Hailstorm are currently second from bottom two leagues below; their 1-0 win in front of 19,000 fans in Utah was the shock of the season so far.
Northern Colorado Hailstorm knocks Real Salt Lake out of the US Open Cup! #USOC2022pic.twitter.com/X6vw4zmkmR— The18 (@the18com) April 21, 2022
It was a stunning strike from Cornwall, a volley launched from the edge of the area into the bottom corner. The goal put the Hailstorm into the last-32 of the cup where they will meet Union Omaha in the early hours of Thursday morning Irish time, but also firmly into the imagination of a burgeoning fanbase.
"People should know if there's a professional team that comes to town," said head coach Zayed in the build-up to the Omaha game. "For whatever reason, when I got here, up until we played a game no one knew what was going on. If I walked down the street to a coffee shop, they'd ask me what I'm doing here with no idea there was a professional football team up the road.
"Our first cup game was against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, our rivals and they're flying, top of the USL Championship. I think after we won that game people started to take note around the area. Even more so after the Real Salt Lake game. People are saying congratulations to us now around town and asking when are we having a home game."
For someone whose squad has been forced to travel on lengthy flights to away games every weekend, the lack of a stadium or training facilities doesn’t come up that often in conversation with Zayed. That said, it’s not the only logistical issue he has encountered, though this one came only because no one planned for the cup run to last this long.
“We usually travel on buses, wherever we’re travelling there’ll be one waiting for us at the airport to take us to the hotel. Real Salt Lake was last minute, we hadn’t planned to get to the next round. We ended up getting three vans, I’m talking old school vans you’d fit under-14 players in.
“When we were going up to the stadium I pulled in to ask somebody where we were going, I was driving, my assistant coach was driving another one and my goalkeeper coach was driving the other. They thought we were fans, they asked for $7 and told us to park to the left. American crowds are a bit more polite [than the League of Ireland]. Usually it’s very professional but that trip wasn’t.”
Midfielder McFaul has suffered his fair share of injury problems since landing in Colorado, but he did make it on to the bench for a good view of Cornwall’s historic goal.
“I was warming up, thinking I might get on since a few lads were going down,” he explains. “Rob took the ball forward, had a shot but it was blocked. I actually thought he was going into the box for a cross, looking for the header but he hung out at the edge of the area.
“He was cupping the ears celebrating since the fans were giving him stick, calling him ‘Cornhole’ or something like that. He shut them up.” Zayed’s comment on ‘polite’ fans rings ever true.
As far as Cornwall is concerned, though, there is a strong belief that his moment in the sun will lead to bigger opportunities.
“He’s been a big influence on everyone, he’s a great guy, great captain and leader and he’s shown his level of quality against an MLS team,” says McFaul adamantly about his compatriot.
“No shadow of a doubt he can play in the MLS. The people that embrace it and take on the challenge of coming over here, the rewards are there. I really feel like he can make the step up if he wants to stay.”
Unsurprisingly, Zayed agrees: “It takes a while to play well and make a name for yourself over here, there are so many teams. But in the soccer world over here, everyone knows Rob Cornwall after just a handful of games. He’s an Irish lad, no one knew him in America a few months ago but that’s not the case now. That can be the case throughout the team.”
On paper, despite defeating both the Switchbacks and Salt Lake, Union Omaha in the last-32 should be a step so far. They won the league in which the Hailstorm currently reside last year, while Zayed's side warmed up for this with a 4-1 defeat to Chattanooga last weekend.
Still, given how Northern Colorado have managed to build such a storied underdog history in their short existence, perhaps that defeat was just the calm before yet another Hailstorm.