An Open Cup Evangelist at Home with Chicago HousePeter Wilt has four Open Cup championship rings from his days as President and GM of Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire – and he’s going for a long-shot fifth with new club Chicago House AC.
No one loves the Open Cup like Peter Wilt.
“It’s the greatest soccer tournament in the country – maybe in the world,” said the long-time executive and American grassroots soccer impresario. “Crazy stuff always happens. The lights go out. There’s weather. Someone unexpected does something unexpected. You name it.”
Wilt is the only man in the Qualifying Rounds of the 2023 Open Cup with a championship ring. And he’s most definitely the only one with four – all earned during his days with the Chicago Fire.
Catching Fire Early in MLS
He was the Fire’s first president and general manager and helped breathe life into the club with a sensational MLS and Open Cup double in their inaugural year of 1998. Ask the 62-year-old Wilt which memory sticks out most from the tournament he loves best, and he’ll hesitate. But not for long.
“There’s about a dozen,” he said, before landing on the one – still loaded with emotion 16 years down the road. The year was 2006 and he’d just been fired as the Fire’s President and GM after bringing four titles to the club. He was behind the goal with Section 8, the super-fans who protested his dismissal, at Toyota Park in Bridgeview – a stadium whose construction and opening Wilt orchestrated earlier that year.
The Fire, who he still supports, had just won a fourth Open Cup crown in the space of eight years. After the award presentation, goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who Wilt had signed along with all the players out celebrating on the night, took his winner’s medal off and hung it around his old boss’ neck.
“I just burst out balling,” Wilt remembered of that moment, captured for the ages by a photographer from the Chicago Tribune – the very newspaper whose sports page a young Wilt used to learn how to read at the kitchen table while growing up in the city’s western suburbs. “I was just there balling my eyes out and surrounded by the fans.
“It was the high-point of my connection to the Chicago Fire,” he added. “And it was so special because it was from a player who was showing appreciation for what I’d done there.”
Many Open Cup Moments to Savor
There are other moments. Too many to count. A collection of glorious and cherished frames, frozen in time, for one of American soccer’s great and colorful builders.
Hometown hero (and current Fire assistant coach) Frank Klopas’ dramatic golden-goal in extra-time of the 1998 Open Cup Final stands out. “How he jumped over the advertising boards,” Wilt remembered, the broadcast call of that night still echoing in his ears: The Fire Does the double. “Remarkable.”
And there’s the 2003 decider at Giants Stadium against former Fire coach Bob Bradley. That was a team that Wilt had to “rebuild from scratch” after busting the salary cap and jettisoning some of the biggest names in MLS at the time. Josh Wolff, Hristo Stoichkov and Peter Nowak were among them.
But it’s not just the medals and trophy-lifts. It’s the bottom to the top, and all the spaces in between, that captured Wilt’s heart. He’s a vocal advocate of an open system for American soccer, so it makes sense.
“The Open Cup, if you think about it, exposes the opportunity and the beauty and the potential of having an open system where merit wins out,” said Wilt, whose newest experiment in his beloved city of Chicago hasn’t exactly had the same catapult-into-the stratosphere start that the Fire did.
Same Chicago, New Frontier for Wilt
Wilt’s latest labor of love is a long way from winning Open Cup medals. Two games deep in the Open Division Qualifying Rounds, Chicago House AC, the club he founded in 2020, had to pull back from its initial launch as a third-division professional team in NISA (a league he also helped launch with hopes of a more open system, complete with promotion and relegation).
Now playing in the amateur Midwest Premier League, with an all-volunteer staff (himself included as CEO and president) there are many mountains to climb before even qualifying for the Open Cup Proper.
“In a city like Chicago we should have a dozen pro soccer teams, all with their own identities,” said Wilt from his home not far from the Highbury Pub – where you can find him for a beer and a chat with a game blinking away on a screen behind the bar. “And we, as a club, have a platform to help promote progressive ideals.”
The club’s name is a nod to the city’s rich history of nonprofits, like Jane Addams Hull-House and Chicago House (and Social Service Agency), the city’s early LGBTQ support organization and a frontrunner in AIDS outreach.
The name is also a nod to the electronic house music scene born in the city in the early 1980s.
So Many Challenges for Chicago House
“We spent more money than we had,” Wilt says with a rueful half-smile when asked what went wrong – why Chicago House had to let its whole staff go and downshift into the amateur world. “Of course there was this virus [Covid-19] and it reduced our opportunities to attract fans, sell tickets and sponsorships during our launch.”
But he’s confident that this step back is only temporary. And with winter coming fast and hard, there’s still a chance for Chicago House to keep its Open Cup dream alive.
Coached by Matt Poland and with former Oakland Roots striker Seo-In Kim in the side, Chicago House play Metro Louisville FC in Indiana on November 19. A win there, and with a final Qualifying Round in December, there’s a place at the big table of the Open Cup Proper beyond.
Should that materialize for Chicago House, Wilt might find his loyalties tested up against some of the clubs he’s helped thrust out onto the American soccer landscape.
There’s Forward Madison of USL’s League One, which Wilt, whose first project was the fabled Minnesota Thunder, helped found in 2018 as its first managing director. Then there’s Indy Eleven of the second-division USL Championship, where Wilt was the first president and GM.
And, of course, there’s the Fire.
“Every road deep into the tournament might be a conflict of some kind for me,” laughed Wilt, also a founding member of Chicago's NWSL Red Stars. “After [Forward] Madison it could be Indy Eleven and, you know, the Fire after that. Maybe that’s a bridge too far, but who knows.”
Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. The beauty of the Open Cup, and the reason Wilt holds it so close to his heart, is that it’s built on a foundation of possibilities. On Why Nots instead of No Ways.
A New Road (Bumps and All)
For a man who’s won the biggest prizes in American soccer (Wilt has an MLS Cup ring from 1998 to go with his Open Cups) he’s still happy to be out in the cold, scarf wrapped around his neck against the late autumn chill. He was on hand at Hales Franciscan High School in October, where Chicago House needed penalties to see off Fort Wayne 1927 Sport Club.
“A club needs to fill a need in the community,” Wilt responded when asked why he’s still out there starting up soccer clubs. “I need to see an opportunity or a pathway to success.”
Success, depending on who you are and where you are, can be defined a hundred different ways. And Wilt has always preferred his own road.
“Qualifying for the Open Cup Proper would be a tremendous boost to the players, to the fanbase of the team and for all it represents.” said Wilt, who’s still happy to pitch in wherever he’s needed. “I’m the CEO and president,” he laughed. “But I’m still the guy who picks up the pizzas.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.