An Open Cup Romantic at Home with Chicago House

Peter 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.
Jonah Fontela

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 First Round of the 2023 tournament with an Open Cup 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.

Chicago House in a shootout during the 2023 Qualifiers

“There’s about a dozen,” he said, before landing on the one – still loaded with emotion 17 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.

The 2006 Fire with the historic Dewar Cup (the original Open Cup trophy)

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. Chicago House AC barely survived the long travel and penalty-shootout power outages of the all-amateur Open Division Qualifying Round in the Fall.

This most recent club Wilt 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) There were a series of unforeseeable incidents and obstacles.

Now playing in the amateur Midwest Premier League, and with an all-volunteer staff (himself included as CEO and president), there are more mountains to climb than expansive views to savor for House.

“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.”
2023 will be Chicago House’s first Open Cup Proper

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 downshift into the amateur world with a skeleton crew of unpaid die-hards keeping the lights on. “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. The way he sees it, there’s a chance for Chicago House to keep the dream alive. And that’s what the Open Cup is all about.
Peter Wilt (far right) and players tour Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood (photo Chuck Carlson)

Coached by Matt Poland and captained by South Side native AR Smith, Chicago House begin their 2023 Open Cup Proper at home in Elmhurst, Illinois on March 22 against the near-century-old Bavarian United of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Wilt, who was once involved with the effort to bring an MLS franchise to the city of Milwaukee, knows that a win against those Bavarians – who finished Open Cup runners-up in 1994, during the pre-MLS days when the tournament was all amateur and semi-pro – could bring more tests of loyalty.

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.

It’s a long and hard road for any Local Qualifier to even reach the Open Cup Proper

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 of 2022, and then in Nashville and Randolph, Massachusetts, a few miles outside Boston, after that as Chicago House fought their way to their first-ever Open Cup Proper.

“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.”

It’s rare for an Open Division side to reach deep into the tournament, but Wilt sees no reason his players should be fatalistic. 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.

“The Open Cup Proper is 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.”

Top photo courtesy of Nuccio DiNuzzo and the Chicago Tribune.

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.