Chicago House AC don’t get here without Tony Halterman.
The goalkeeper’s quick-twitch double save deep in stoppage time against Bavarian United of Milwaukee was one of the highlights of the First Round of this 2023 Open Cup. But Halterman, 32-years-old and humble about everything he does – from his work-life to his game-saving, good-as-goals interventions – saw it less as an act of heroism and more the result of basic preparation.
It’s his job, the way he sees it. And he’s not one to toot his own horn.
“It was pretty much pure reflex to make that first save,” said Halterman, who lives outside Chicago, actually outside of Illinois altogether, in northwest Indiana – and drives in to train with the team two to three times a week. “I pride myself on having quick reflexes and I put myself in the right place at the right time – gave myself a good chance at it.”
That humility bubbles over again when he describes the follow-up save. “I was fortunate with the second one because after the initial save, the ball continued to move in the same direction and it fell right where it needed to for me,” added the goalkeeper, formerly of DePauw University and several stints overseas with Sporting Kristina of Finland and Sweden’s Nordvärmlands FF.
A Man for the Tense Times
There’s no success without luck. That’s a fact. Here’s another fact: there’s no success on a soccer field, in a knockout tournament, without a goalkeeper who’s up for the big occasions. Halterman, in a team whose personnel is evolving all the time and skewing youthful, fairly well defines House’s gritty identity.
“We’re the team clawing for success in the final minutes,” head coach Matt Poland, who coached Halterman in Finland, summed up the spirit alive at Chicago House – the latest club launched by American soccer impresario and Open Cup evangelist Peter Wilt. “We’ll never give up; we’re relentless.”
Halterman’s game-saving heroics at Langhorst Field on the campus of Elmhurst University in Chicago’s western suburbs, with the rain turning to thick mist and collecting around the floodlights, are not his first for the club. He chuckles a little when thinking back to last Fall and the time when floodlights, no matter how water-logged or dim, would have proven awfully helpful.
A Shootout in a Blackout
“No one had experienced anything like it before,” said Halterman about that time in Massachusetts, during a marathon four-month Qualifying cycle, when the lights went out – and the play went on.
“Daylight was fading, there was a lot of overtime to go, and no sign the lights were going to come on.”
Chicago House had battled at Randolph High School (over a thousand miles from Chicago) against Brockton FC United, one of the top semi-pro outfits in Massachusetts, to a 1-1 draw through 90 minutes in their fourth and final Qualifier A win meant reaching the Open Cup for the first time. The referee-team took a huddle and decided to cut extra-time short and go straight to a penalty shootout.
Halterman has a mind as quick as his reflexes. And it sprung to action.
“I told the refs, ‘hey you need to change the color of the ball at least, for everyone’s benefit’,” Halterman said of how he finally, after much cajoling, convinced the ref to make use of a yellow, high-visibility snow ball. “I couldn’t believe they tried to fight me on it.”
A Marathon in the Inky Dark
The shootout went to nine rounds. Predictable, given the circumstances. Halterman, never one to shirk responsibility, stepped up to score from the spot before – in what one can only describe as total darkness – he saved a second kick of the day to give his team the chance to move on. “In that darkness, you couldn’t see many of the shooters’ cues, so I needed to change my process a little.”
After Vuka Bulatovic scored the winning kick for Chicago House, the champagne flowed, if only briefly. The players had to ran off to a nearby Planet Fitness, where they all booked 24-hour memberships in order to have a place to shower and change before returning the rental vans and scurrying back to Logan Airport for a plane back home.
After all, there was work the next day for every member of the all-amatuer team.
For Halterman, that work is Construction. He manages his own company, Timber Wolf Construction and Woodworking. The work is varied and it suits him. He takes on a wide array of jobs from “full basement and bathroom renovations to handyman stuff.” He does: “Whatever needs doing.”
That’s the spirit that’s seen him become a symbol of this young club, founded in 2020 with professional intentions, but forced to downshift into the amateur world with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The younger players look to him for guidance. They take their cues from the big man, who seemed to fill the whole of the goal at times of great stress in the First Rounder against the Bavarians.
“He’s one of only a few guys in the team with a lot of experience, and he’s a great mentor,” said coach Poland, who’s younger by two years than Halterman – and who put out a young backline for the First Round, many of them just recently graduated from college ball. “And in games like that [against the Bavs] having an older and calm, secure goalkeeper, who’s been in these situations before, is crucial.”
Coach Poland, who brought Halterman in as one of his first orders of business when he took over House’s head coaching position in 2022, laughs a little when asked about his No1’s placid demeanor. Especially when alarms are going off.
“He’ll always tell you ‘I was in the spot and I knew where it was coming’ but I’d love to see a little more excitement about it,” laughed Poland, remembering the celebrations after House booked passage to the Second Round. “But the guys feed off the security he provides. He has a unique way of being a very important aspect of our success.
“He’s incredible to have on this Open Cup run,” the coach added.
Forward Ahead to Madison
And that run continues on. Up next is a date with professional side Forward Madison (of USL League One). The Wisconsin club just so happens to be another founded by the prolific Wilt, a four-time Open Cup winner from his days as GM/President of MLS’ Chicago Fire.
It just so happens that Halterman, when, as a little kid who stumbled into the goalkeeper position by accident and necessity, spent his days idolizing the Fire. Its players and its trophies. “I was a huge Zach Thornton fan,” he said of the Fire’s dominant netminder from the late 1990s-early 2000s – now the MLS club’s goalkeeper coach.
Back then, youth academies at MLS clubs weren’t a useful reality. So Halterman had to go elsewhere for his chances. Now, though, he might just get an opportunity to play against the big-time pro hometown team he grew up supporting. And with everything on the line again, as it always is in our Cup, it will be up to Halterman to keep things tight at the back and to help that dream live on another day.
“A chance to play the Fire,” he repeated the words with a sense of wonder. But he’s quick to pull the emergency brake and cut the thought short.
It’s in his nature, after all, to keep things under control.
“There’s gonna’ be a winner and a loser so all you can do is give yourself a chance to win,” he said, reverting to that place of calm where men like him can find that right place at the right time. “We’ve got to go out and fight for everything and hope it’s in the cards. As an elder in the team, I have to make my head as cool and leveled and composed as possible, so the younger guys can see where you’re at.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.