By Marty Tomszak
Chicago’s ethnic clubs were the real driving force behind the game before the professional era began and today, many of them still exist. ChicagoNASL.com is exploring the history of some of Chicago’s top amateur ethnic sides. Third in the series, the AAC Eagles.
As I walk down Milwaukee Avenue, I am met with sights and sounds familiar to any member of the Polish Diaspora community. I pass by a small deli, a hair salon filled with older women sharing the latest gossip, and an accounting office advertising services in both Polish and English. Eventually I reach my destination: a red brick building with a massive crest hanging over the doorway, “American Athletic Club of Chicago Eagles: Klub Sportowy Orły”. The symbol on the crest is also familiar; a white eagle with a three pronged crown resting on a red backdrop, and the founding year perched above the bird, 1940.
As I enter, I am greeted kindly by an elderly gentleman. A warm smile, a firm handshake and a pat on the back wash away any nerves I had from being a few minutes late. “Welcome, welcome. I’m Joseph Zyzda. Please sit.”
We find ourselves in a banquet hall that at first glance looks like any other, but somehow feels much different. The clues are behind a bar that would typically be strewn with Żywiec and Tyskie glassware – instead, on the bar mantle where there should be a collection of liquor bottles, there is an impressive collection of trophies.
The gentleman again asks me to sit and I pull myself away from staring at the assortment of silver plaques and gold cups to join him at a table. Mr. Zyzda is the AAC Eagles Honorary President, a title bestowed upon him because of his long service to the club in various capacities. He was an active member in his youth, played for the team, and served as the President of the club for almost thirty years. There is no better figure to talk to if you want to gain an understanding of this historic Chicago soccer club. After introducing me to the current club President, Tony Ciecinski, we begin their story.
I ask Zyzda to start off by giving a bit of his personal history. I receive a response that would come to typify our discussion. He starts to flip through a pile of books that he had brought with him, “Let me tell you what… Here I’ve got these books that can tell you what we did. The 45th anniversary, 50th anniversary, 60th anniversary, 75th anniversary. All of these have our history in them. Pictures with Mayor Daley after the Open Cup win, these team pictures, everything you need is in these books; every president, every team photo, everything.”
Words like “we”, “our” and “the club” permeate his response to a question about his personal background. It’s not that he doesn’t have personal accomplishments to discuss: after all, Zyzda has been inducted into the Illinois State Soccer Association Hall of Fame, became the first “foreign” national to be awarded the Polish Soccer Federation’s highest honor, won MVP awards in his time with the Eagles, and famously scored a hat trick against Sheffield Wednesday in a friendly. The performance in that match led to a contract offer from the storied English club which Zyzda politely turned down to continue his work in Chicago. The sense of community that shaped his personal response in a way that addressed the collective gives a brief but telling glimpse into the ethos of the club.
The AAC Eagles were formed as an Ethnic Polish Club by immigrants to Chicago in 1940. Originally known as the Polish American Athletic Club Eagles, they would focus on growing the Polish Diaspora community both on and off the field. When Zyzda arrived in the U.S. in 1951, it was largely the Eagles who were responsible for his integration into one of the world’s largest Polish diaspora communities, as they would do for countless other young men and women arriving to Chicago over many decades.
Everything from the basic activities of helping new immigrants find jobs and apartments, to the slightly more complicated challenge of providing English-language classrooms, offering scholarships and sifting through citizenship application papers fell under the umbrella of community outreach done by the Eagles. Of course, all of this was done around the primary function of the group – running a successful soccer club known on the national stage.
“We have won the Open Cup twice, in 1953 and in 1990,” continues Zyzda. “At that time in ’53 we had so many players at the club that we entered two teams into the competition: we played as both the Falcons and the Eagles. We won as the Falcons in 1953 and then as the Eagles in 1990. And also, we represented the United States in the CONCACAF Cup in 1991”. There are modern professional soccer teams that dream of Open Cup glory and many are faced with the realization that a goal as lofty as reaching CONCACAF competition is probably out of their reach, and yet the Eagles have achieved both.
While the glory of a cup run is often attributed to a strong mentality and positive performances in a handful of matches, the Eagles’ success in the US Open cup is much more than that. Zyzda points out that in the period leading up to the 1990 Open Cup win the Eagles finished as amateur cup champions in ‘87, ‘88, ‘89 and ’90. Before lifting the coveted trophy in ‘90 they made an impressive run in ’89 that saw them ousted in the semifinals. Zyzda fondly remembers that for those few years the Eagles were able to compete at the highest level because of a mixed squad of Polish veterans ending their careers stateside and young kids coming up through the Eagles’ academy.
“We had a team that knew how to train, knew how to organize, and knew how to play,” Zyzda recalls.“Those two years, 1989 and 1990, we’re never going to forget”.
Throughout their history the Eagles have also won national Amateur Open Cup competitions, league titles in the various iterations of amateur leagues in Chicagoland including the NSL First Division, the METRO League (established by Zyzda himself), the USASA, as well as invitationals, youth cups, and Women’s league championships. In the fifties they traveled to Poland for a series of friendly tournaments competing with and beating the likes of Stal Mielec, Wisła, and Legia. They’ve had a fair share of historic Polish players pass through their doors as well. Most notably, the Eagles coach during the historic Open Cup run of ’90 was none other than famous Legia forward Henryk Apostel, who would go on to coach the Polish national team. But as Zyzda retells the history of the Eagles, the sense that the club’s identity lies far beyond trophies and celebrities becomes ever more apparent.
“This is our house, our club, our building,” Zyzda says. “Everything that you see here belongs to us. We own the building. The club started the year after the war broke out partially as a way for the Polish people to keep up their heritage.” While the Polish element of the club remains to this day, the eventual name change to the AAC Eagles came when Zyzda attempted to apply for a charitable 501(c)(3) status and was told instead to register as a foreign corporation. Their roots were Polish but they were Chicagoans at heart and never turned away players based on background, so the transition made sense. “It’s not that we’re only Polish. We are here for the community,” chimes in President Ciecinski. “We have young American kids, Latinos, Serbians, everybody.”
“Yes, we try to help people,” continues Zyzda. “That’s what we do here.”
The Eagles have found themselves in a bit of a slump since that second successful Open Cup run in 1990, but it is par for the course in the modern semi-pro soccer landscape of America. Ciecinski and Zyzda both lament a rapidly changing Polish diaspora community that is smaller in number and has significantly less interest in organizing around the Eagles as a club.
“We used to have crowds in the thousands and now we’re lucky if we get 500 for a big game,” Zyzda bemoans.
Their problems stretch onto the pitch as well. Ciecinski chimes in, noting that “a major problem for us is college teams and other clubs coming in and recruiting players. We don’t have the money to pay the good players to stay. What happens if another team comes in and says ‘We have a scholarship for you’ or ‘I’ll give you a couple hundred dollars per game’? Of course, they go. But where do you think those kids learned how to play soccer? Here. The pros get them and say ‘Oh we drafted them from college’ but the talent starts here, we send them to college.”
It is a harsh reality for the likes of Zyzda and Ciecinski but they’re still upbeat and proclaim “we’ll do what we can for the community.”
As we finish our talk, my hosts take me on a tour of their board meeting room. I am awestruck. Hundreds of trophies, plaques, shields, medals, awards and photos line the walls. Each one has a story, a memory, and brings a smile to Zyzda’s face. My favorite of the bunch is the giant silver cup labeled Copa de Mexico 1984. Zyzda says the tournament needed a team to fill out the bracket and the Eagles were invited to join in. Not only did they bring the trophy home, but it came with a $20,000 prize purse. Needless to say, the Eagles weren’t invited back the next year. While the story evokes a good laugh from both Zyzda and I, we are interrupted by a shout from a woman seated at the board table. “Mr. Zyzda? Is that you? Heavens! You probably don’t remember me but you helped my husband and I settle into the community about 40 years ago.” A tender conversation follows and I can’t help but smile.
The juxtaposition of the trophy and the thankful club member tells the whole story. As I say my goodbyes I am presented with a club scarf, a wealth of reading material and an invitation to an Easter basket ceremony the following weekend. The handshakes are still as firm and the smiles are just as welcoming as when I arrived but as I make my way out of the door and gaze at the crest one last time, I leave with a profound sense of belonging and nostalgia.