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How Chicago provided the foundation for Forward Madison FC’s Stephen Payne's soccer pathway

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/02/24, 12:40PM EDT


Alabama native set to return to Second City with Flamingos for Open Cup Second Round clash with Chicago Fire II on Wednesday

Forward Madison FC's Stephen Payne is set to return to Chicago on Wednesday night for the Second Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup where his pathway to the professional ranks emerged when an academy prospect with the Chicago Magic. | Photo courtesy Je

When he was growing up in Alabama, there definitely wasn’t a time when Forward Madison FC defender Stephen Payne envisioned the path in professional soccer he’s currently on.

In fact, soccer might not have even been his best sport at the time.

“When I was growing up, obviously I played soccer, but I was a little bit better in cross country and track,” he told this week. “My dad and my family always loved soccer, but my future was always set towards getting maybe a college scholarship for track or cross country.”

The family’s love for soccer, however, eventually won out. He played at home with his dad and two sisters, Toni and Nicole, and with local youth clubs in his native Birmingham.

Then came the opportunity that changed Payne’s trajectory forever.

“I got an opportunity to go to Lake Forest Academy, a boarding school in Chicago,” he said. “I stayed there for four years. I loved my experience there.”

The change of location opened a world of new opportunities for Payne’s soccer pathway. He initially joined the Chicago Fire Academy, but the balance of schoolwork and training didn’t quite fit with the rigors of Lake Forest’s education program.

Elsewhere in the city, however, was Chicago Magic SC, where the work-play balance proved an ideal fit for Payne’s dual pursuits. The Magic also helped him bring his game to a higher level.

“It ended up being a blessing in disguise,” he said of leaving the Fire for the Magic. “I was able to balance both and that’s when I got into Academy soccer, started playing all over the Midwest with MLS academies and showcases. That’s where all the college scouts were, and the national team scouts as well. I got an opportunity to go with the U-18 national team at the time and it was just amazing.”

Stephen Payne competed for five years in Portugal, including with Portimonense S.C., before returning to the United States. | Photo courtesy Photo courtesy Portimonense S.C.

The opportunity to train with the United States U-18s put him on the radar for professional scouts, and while Payne spent a season at UCLA collegiately, the opportunity to jump to Europe after his freshman year was one that was too good to turn down. He departed for Portugal and eventually signed with lower-division club Varzim SC, based just outside Porto on the northwestern coast of the country.

Understandably, there was a lot to learn for Payne as he arrived in a new culture and a climate where the tactical side of the game had equal emphasis among young players as developing physical and technical skills. Payne was welcomed with open arms at Varzim and encouraged by his new teammates – he now speaks Portuguese fluently in addition to the footballing education he received – making what Payne describes as a “big jump” in level easier to adapt to.

“Over there in the academies, I think from a young age they just learn a different style of playing,” said Payne. “They’re very technical, focus a lot on the tactical side of soccer, and I wasn’t used to that. So, it took me a while to catch up to speed, but I kind of gained my footing as the coaches helped, and my other teammates. The level was really high, and I liked it a lot.”

Payne spent five years in Portugal before electing to come back to the United States, reconnecting with fellow Alabama native and UCLA alumnus Chandler Hoffman before signing with USL League One club the Richmond Kickers. Prior to the 2023 season he moved back to the Midwest with Madison and has become a staple in the club’s back line.

Now 26 years old, Payne has started all 36 games across the USL League One regular season and playoffs for the Flamingos since signing with the club, logging three goals and five assists a season ago as the side returned to the USL League One Playoffs for the first time since its inaugural season in 2019.

On Wednesday night, Payne will return to Chicago alongside his teammates to face the Chicago Fire II in the Second Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Madison has had one memorable Open Cup victory in its past, a 3-0 win against the USL Championship’s El Paso Locomotive FC in the 2019 tournament, and with a win at SeatGeek Stadium the side would earn another chance to take on second-tier opposition.

Stephen Payne has been ever-present in Forward Madison FC's lineup in USL League One since joining the club prior to the 2023 USL League One season. | Photo courtesy Drew Beach / Chattanooga Red Wolves SC

There’s also the opportunity for Payne to face the organization he briefly suited up for in the Fire during his academy days which adds a little bit of extra motivation.

“I still know a lot of the coaches in the organization,” said Payne. “You always play with a little chip on your shoulder like you have something to prove, but it’s not about me at the end of the day. It’s about Forward Madison getting the win and us advancing in the Open Cup, so that’ll be our goal and hopefully we can achieve that.”

After the platform the side built a season ago in returning to the playoffs, Madison has made an undefeated start to this campaign. It took a 3-0 victory against Central Valley Fuego FC last Friday night in its most recent league outing, while Christian Chaney’s two goals sent the side to a comfortable 2-0 win against amateur side Duluth FC in the opening round of the Open Cup.

With the League One title, the newly created USL Jägermeister Cup and the Open Cup to take aim at this season, the expectation this year for the Flamingos is to vie for silverware. While the club’s personality has become known nationally for its vibrant culture, Payne and his teammates want to be known as winners on the field as well. 

“The club has been known for a lot of things on the media side, jerseys and different stuff,” he said. “But we want to definitely create a winning culture here and show that we have talent, and we have good players and we’re definitely able to achieve something. We have three competitions, the league, the USL Jägermeister Cup and the Open Cup, and we want to try and make a run in all of them this year. So, it’ll be important to get the win on Wednesday.”

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