Getting To Know The Chicago Hounds With James English & Sam Harris

December 30, 2022

7:50 PM

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Written By Joe Harvey

A new year is always stacked with potential and possibility, and much the same can be said for Major League Rugby’s newest team, the Chicago Hounds. 

Announced as joining the competition in November, the Hounds’ addition to MLR expands the league to 12 teams, with Chicago taking the sixth spot in the Western Conference.

To talk about the team, MLR correspondent Joe Harvey spoke to GM and CEO, James English, and head coach, Sam Harris.

NEW HORIZONS IN THE MIDWEST

Chicago is known the world over for its sports teams. That is displayed by the Chicago Hounds’ first-ever coach, who speaks to Major League Rugby from Australia, the 42-year-old wearing a Chicago Bulls baseball cap.

While potentially a small nod to the city he will now call home, in fact, Harris was obsessed with the exploits of Michael Jordan in his youth and is very much looking to write a new chapter in the city’s sporting history with the Hounds.

For years, Chicago has been a hub of rugby activity. Part-owners Matt Satchwell and Phil Groves have been embedded in the city’s rugby community for decades, the region home to numerous programs at all levels.

Spending the last two years as the head coach of Austin in MLR, the Australian created a winning side in Texas. 

Photo By Tyler Whitman

In contention for a number one seed in the Western Conference in the 2022 season, a violation of league rules meant the side could not make the postseason. Harris now has a new challenge with Chicago.

His squad will include many former Austin players, and in a city obsessed with sport and with a robust local rugby community, it is undoubtedly an exciting prospect for Harris.

“I think everyone in MLR and everyone in American sport knows you have got to have a team in Chicago because Chicago is sports crazy,” Harris said.

“There’s such a big population [third largest populous in the USA], and I have only been there a couple of times, but from talking to people and from our press conference – the local news stopped the whole news to cross to our press conference.

“If there is anything sport, they’ll definitely give it a chance. I know that. So, once we get that chance, we have got to take it by the scruff of the neck and make sure that we make everything a winner.

“I have come from Texas, where I have experienced the Southern hospitality, now I am moving up to Chicago to experience the Midwest hospitality. Both are great people, and I am really looking forward to experiencing what Chicago has.”

Photo By Charles Valladolid

This is James English’s second stint as a General Manager in MLR. He was Rugby New York’s first GM in 2019 as the side made the playoffs for the first time and now heads up Chicago as they step into professional rugby.

He was first approached about launching an MLR side in Chicago over two years ago. Now, that approach is a reality, with English holding the title of Chief Executive Officer alongside his GM commitments.

It has certainly been a whirlwind few months for the executive, who is determined to be referenced alongside the Bulls, Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks, Fire, and White Sox in the years to come as a winning team.

“There is so much history,” English said. “We are really privileged and proud to even be mentioned in the same breath as some of the sport that has gone on in Chicago.

“With that comes a huge amount of expectation to get it right, and we will make mistakes, I am sure like every team does, but we will keep working to get it right, and hopefully, we can meet some of the expectations of being another great Chicago franchise.

“That is what we are here to do, and that’s what we have every intention of becoming.”

BUILDING FROM THE GROUND UP

Harris is by no means a new face to MLR. He came to the league in 2021 and changed the fortunes of Austin. Additionally, his skill as a coach and a leader is showcased in a docuseries called Inside the Scrum, and he will be reunited with a number of his players from Texas.

Indiana-native Bryce Campbell was among the first signings to be unveiled, the USA Eagle duly followed by Austin Chris Mattina, Mark O’Keeffe, Hugh Roach, Maclean Jones, Luke Beauchamp, and Michael de Waal in being recruited from the dispersal draft.

Two-time Back of the Year Billy Meakes arrived from LA along with fly-half Luke Carty and second-row Luke White, while trades have since been agreed for JP Eloff from NOLA Gold and hookers Mason Koch and Lindsey Stevens.

Chicago-born Eagles prop Paddy Ryan was also signed alongside lock forward Mike Matarazzo. So the Hounds are already looking to have a battle-hardened and talented roster available to them.

Playing and based out of SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Illinois, it will be at the start of January that the team gets together to begin preparations for their inaugural campaign.

Those opening weeks in the windy city will be a crash course for this new team to get to know one another and gel as quickly as possible. Their head coach is looking to bring what he learned across two seasons in Texas to help this group succeed as soon as possible.

“I think the exciting thing about starting Chicago from the ground up; I put two years of hard work into Austin, got results, and built the foundation of a winning culture,” Harris said.

“I don’t get to continue that legacy, but I do get to continue that legacy with Chicago. I feel like I had the formula somewhat right here in America, around building a high-performance model for my players through my coaching staff and administrators.

“I think taking the pieces of the puzzle I had in Austin and replicating that in Chicago and having the opportunity to build quite a healthy roster. The announcements are coming out now, and you can see that we are building a roster that can probably compete.

“Then on top of that, the other part of my job and James English’s job is to build a really good support staff around the players.

“The players can only do so much, and I think if we build a support staff around the players that aid them in making sure they get across the white line, without all the noise that other teams in comps around the world might have to put up with, then I think you put them in the best place possible.”

Photo By Matthew Bradford

LOOKING TO 2023

Life in MLR for Chicago starts with a trip to compete against Old Glory DC. It will be an exciting encounter with Old Glory under the guidance of new head coach Josh Syms, and after that game in the capital, a bye week will follow before five home games in a row.

SeatGeek Stadium is no stranger to rugby after having hosted Test matches in the past, but with the Chicago Fire having left the venue, it is the Hounds who will now call the 20,000-capacity venue home for the years to come.

A custom-built gym has been constructed, a dome for all-weather training is nearby, and the heating beneath the turf means that games can be played there year-round. 

On paper, plenty is in place for the team, and after encouraging season ticket sales in December, Harris is hoping to provide positive results for the initial faith shown in the side.

“The anxiety and apprehension I do have is for our players when we do get to January 9, and we have to start training, that we have everything in place and that we provide a good training environment from day one,” Harris said.

“We have got game one away in DC, then we have got a bye, and then we have got five home games in a row. It is a short runway to market to the city, whether we are going to present a good product from the team, but also the matchday presentation.

“In saying that, on day one of ticket sales, we sold 600 season tickets in the first 24 hours, which is an amazing effort. I have no doubts that Chicago is a great sporting city and has a great rugby culture.

“If we can nail down some key elements quickly, it will be an immediate and sustained success. There is a lot of unknown, but all I know is that all we can do is our best. I definitely know we’ll do that.”

With just over six weeks until their first game, the news of those early ticket sales has been a boost to English as he prepares for the player’s arrival in the New Year.

Harris is looking to establish better relationships with the local rugby community and get even more people to frequent Bridgeview. However, English does not believe his job is done and hopes to create a memorable experience for those looking to become Chicago Hounds fans.

Photo by Charles Valladolid

“I feel like we have been very busy to be excited so far,” English said. “I think the excitement will come when we stand on the terrace of SeatGeek Stadium and watch the team run out for their first game in front of a packed SeatGeek, in front of excited Chicagoans and Midwesterners who want to watch their new professional rugby team play at home.

“That will be a fantastic moment for us. But we have still got a lot to do to get to that point. We will get there. We are hoping Chicago continues to get behind us and the Midwest continues to get behind us.

“It is just going to be imperative for our success and for us to show MLR what we are about. When it comes down to it, it is about bums in seats, and we are going to work really hard to create that unique fan experience, so that fans can connect and have a team to be proud of.”

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