“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 led the then-brand new Chicago Fire to four Open Cup titles between 1998 and 2006. And he’ll now face off with that very club he helped birth in the tournament he loves best.
His new project, the all-amateur Chicago House AC, are making huge waves in the current edition of the Open Cup. They upset pro side Forward Madison of USL League One (another club Wilt helped bring into existence) to set a date with the Fire in the rarest of Windy City Derbies – one that spans all four tiers of American soccer.
Catching Fire Early in MLS
Wilt 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 the club’s inaugural year of 1998. Ask the 62-year-old which memory sticks out most from the tournament and he’ll hesitate. But not for long.
“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 five 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 Wilt 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 (and displayed at the top of this article) – 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,” added Wilt, who now faces the slightly awkward circumstance of meeting his old club head-on in his favorite tournament at that very same venue – now wearing a different name: SeatGeek Stadium. “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 unique Open Cup 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, Chicago House, had to claw and scrape to book their upcoming Cup showdown with the Fire.
Same Chicago, New Frontier for Wilt
Chicago House barely survived the long travel and penalty-shootout power outages of the all-amateur Open Division Qualifying Round in the Fall. And since then, they’ve needed last-gasp heroics from outstanding goalkeeper Tony Halterman and an unlikely come-from-behind 3-2 win on the road in Madison to set up a test against the top team in their own home city.
In all, including the Qualifying Rounds, House have played five 2023 Open Cup games. That’s quite the contrast to the Fire, who’ll make their debut on April 26th when the two teams meet.
Founded in 2020, House had to pull back from an initial launch as a third-division professional team in NISA (a league Wilt 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. But the prolific Wilt doesn’t start a club without a purpose in mind.“In a city like Chicago we should have a dozen pro soccer teams, all with their own identities,” he said from his current home in Milwaukee 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.
Chicago House Hog Cup Spotlight
“We spent more money than we had,” Wilt said 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. And this run in the Open Cup is getting House’s name out there in a big way. The team’s coached by Matt Poland, still only 30-years-old but “going places” according to Wilt, and captained by South Side native AR Smith – who scored twice in extra-time to send Forward Madison out in the Second Round.
“Every road deep into the tournament might be a conflict of some kind for me,” laughed Wilt, also a founder and first president/GM of USL Championship side Indy Eleven – still alive in the Open Cup.
“Chicago Fire, well maybe that’s a bridge too far, but who knows,” Wilt said before House’s First Round win over the Milwaukee Bavarians – and before the club’s run picked up steam. House are now one of only two amateur sides left – the other is Tulsa Athletic – and they stand to win $25,000 as the Open Division side to reach the farthest in the tournament if things go right on April 26.
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. And that’s what makes this current campaign so special for him – and for fans of the underdog everywhere.
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 pushing a new club – a new alternative – into the conversation.
“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.”
And he sees no reason his players shouldn’t believe. Success, depending on who you are and where you are, can be defined a hundred different ways. And he’s always preferred his own road.
Top photo courtesy of Nuccio DiNuzzo and the Chicago Tribune.
“The Open Cup Proper is a tremendous boost to the players, to the fanbase of the team and for all it represents.” said Wilt, heading into a clash with his own past and a legacy he helped build at the very stadium where his favorite Open Cup moment played out.
“I’m the CEO and president,” he laughed, days away from carving out an Open Cup moment to rival all those that came before. “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.