Peter Wilt has looked at life, and soccer, from both sides now.
As president and general manager of the Chicago Fire in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his MLS team was always one of the alpha clubs in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, winning the tournament three times during his tenure. This spring, in a similar executive capacity with fledgling Forward Madison F.C., Wilt’s Wisconsin side is the last USL League 1 team left in the brackets, the confident underdog.
Wilt is actually enjoying this ride a bit more. “It’s so cool for David to go up against Goliath,” he said. “It’s more fun to punch up than punch down.”
Forward Madison – known more familiarly and ironically as the Flamingos – already managed a couple of early, road knockouts. They eliminated the 2018 national amateur champion Bavarians SC (Milwaukee, Wisc.) in the First Round and then, impressively, stepped up in class to defeat full pros El Paso Locomotive of the USL Championship (3-0).
On Wednesday, May 29, Madison head to historic St. Louis Soccer Park to face St. Louis FC, another USL Championship side. And if the Flamingos win that one, then it will be another preseason target reached.
Last Team Standing
“One of our goals this year was to be the last League 1 team standing, and we did that,” said Forward Madison head coach Daryl Shore, who was an assistant coach with the Fire during Wilt’s years there. “We also wanted to be the only League 1 team to play an MLS team, which would happen in the next round. Then the rest will be gravy.”
Madison’s march through the tournament is no fluke. This is a talented roster, filled with international athletes of considerable experience who were recruited by Wilt and Shore through long-held connections. The lineup features players from such far-flung shores as Mexico, Ecuador and Panama. Josiel Nunez, in particular, is a standout, a classic No. 10 playmaker who oddly wears No. 70 on his back. He has been capped 14 times by Panama and was signed through an agent who once represented legendary Mexico keeper Jorge Campos.
Nunez’s performances are being noticed in some high places – which was the whole idea when he signed with Madison.
“When he nutmegged two players and then back-passed by another, that highlight was on Bleacher Report,” Wilt said. “For Josiel, this is a platform hopefully that will lead to MLS. He’s 26, and the window is closing. But we’re fortunate to have him.”
A First for Madison
In their first season of existence, the Flamingos are the first-ever professional club of any kind in Madison, in any sport. This is, after all, the ultimate college town; home to the University of Wisconsin and its many Big Ten teams. So far, the city has welcomed Forward Madison with open arms and checkbooks too.
The city’s governors spent about $3 million to upgrade historic Breese Stevens Field, increasing capacity from 3,000 to 5,000. Other improvements included suites, a supporter standing section and a rooftop hospitality area under a canopy roof dating back to 1926.
“It’s an old stadium that has new life,” Wilt said of the former home of baseball’s pre-World War II Madison Blues. “Satchel Paige pitched here. Jesse Owens ran here.”
Fans have come in flocks. In fact, that’s what they call themselves, the Flock. It is all a play on that flamingos nickname, which requires considerable context.
Madison is a city known for its unique sense of humor, which is part of the story. The Onion, the satirical magazine and website, started here. Kentucky Fried Theater flourished in Madison, founded by the Zucker brothers who would create the such classic films as Airplane and the Naked Gun series.
Flamingo Mystery Solved
Back in 1978, the self-mocking Pail and Shovel Party was elected to the Wisconsin Student Association, promising to convert the organization’s funds into coins and to place them in pails for students to pillage. Instead, the party erected a replica Statue of Liberty in Lake Mendota and placed thousands of plastic flamingos on the campus’s Bascom Hill.
The flamingos were soon relocated all over the town and Madison’s “official bird” later became the plastic flamingo, by city ordinance. Local owners of the new pro soccer club named the club “Forward,” which is the Wisconsin state motto, but were wise enough to take advantage of the municipality’s playful reputation. The team’s crest includes a curled-up flamingo. The team’s colors are pink and two shades of blue. The pastels make you think the club is playing in Miami, not in famously frigid Madison.
Forward Madison is a partial affiliate of Minnesota United of MLS, at least during its first year in operation, which can lead to potentially awkward situations. Minnesota may send down a player and expect him to get match time, only to have Wilt and Shore feel otherwise. The Flamingos can’t use any of the Minnesota roster players in Cup matches, which disqualifies three starters. Then there is the real potential that Madison may next play Minnesota in the tournament, if the Flamingos win their Third-Round game.
First, there is a trip to St. Louis. The two sides played each other this season in an early exhibition match. Saint Louis FC won 1-0 in a competitive contest. Madison keeps losing the coin flips that determine the home team in each round of Open Cup play, which means another trip, this time to St. Louis. This is their third straight heads-or-tails, home-or-away defeat, which represents an unlucky 1-in-8 statistical chance.
“I’d like to get a look at the coin they’re using,” Shore said with a chuckle.
Wilt offers a different solution. He’d like to see the lower-seeded club host every round of the U.S. Open Cup. “There’s some logic to that,” Wilt said. “The Cup game is more likely to be a big deal for the fan base of the lower-seeded clubs, and those teams are less able to afford the travel.”
The travel experience to El Paso turned out to be particularly difficult in the previous round, because players were booked on three separate flights with three different arrival times. The Flamingos nonetheless prevailed with patient, counter-attacking tactics for a three-goal win that looked more one-sided on the scoreboard than on the field.
With that victory, Madison won the $25,000 prize that goes to the club from each lower division that advances farthest in the tournament. The players already have bonuses built into their contracts for Cup victories. They’ll likely get more now, although their coach has a very Madisonian idea about what to do with the $25K.
“That money can buy a lot of plastic flamingos,” Shore said.