I’m sitting up in the grandstand, one of the most beautiful grandstands I’ve ever been in. I’m not much of a baseball guy, despite the hours I’ve put into MLB The Show, so I haven’t been in many grandstands. But I have been to both Wrigley and whatever they’re calling New Comiskey nowadays, and this one beats both. The game had barely started, it was maybe the 7th minute or something and a House player had just hit the side-netting. I realized that I’d just cheered for a shot for both teams in quick succession. I turned around to the guy who I’d just been talking to, along with my dad, about Forward Madison’s wonderful history of goalkeepers (Dayne St. Clair, Chris Brady) and said to him:
“I’m not even cheering for anyone today. I just want goals.”
The moment the Chicago House had made the Open Cup proper, I wanted to go to their game. I couldn’t make the one against Bavarians, but the moment they won, I immediately made the joke that my good buddy and fellow Sad Bois host Adnan would drive me up to Wisconsin. He’s been probably the only journalist who has consistently covered the club since the very beginning. And while the image of him driving while listening to a wrestling podcast with me in the backseat reading SpiderGwen comics was fun in concept, I ended up convincing my dad to bring me along. So, we set out at around 2 PM on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon to head up to Wisconsin to watch some soccer.
Something that had surprised me the night before was when talking to our CIO and resident Forward Madison season ticket holder Eray, I learned that there was no tailgating at Breese Stevens Field. That’s because there was no parking lot. I’ll get into it later, but basically, it’s almost all street parking. It’s like this stadium was dropped right into a residential area. So, as we sat at the red light right next to the stadium looking for a place to park near the brewery we were supposed to meet up at, I spotted most of the Chicago House training staff just walking across the street into the stadium. I rolled down the window, gave them an “Up the House!” and marveled at how weird it is that this stadium was on such an island. After finally finding a spot, my dad and I headed into Vintage Brewing, where the Flock was supposed to be meeting up, and had some beers. It was a cream ale called “Bee’s Knees,” and it was quite good. But there wasn’t much time because we had someone else to meet up with.
But let me take a moment to talk about Breese Stevens. As I said, it’s tucked right into a neighborhood. On one side is the main street in Madison that leads directly up to the capitol building just 8 blocks away. On the other is a literal residential neighborhood with a school close by. How does something like that happen in the modern world? The old stone wall lining the bounds of the stadium’s lot feels like something out of a lower-division English ground, one that’s been here for ages. That’s because Breese Stevens has actually been there for ages, maybe even longer than some of those English grounds you were thinking of.
Breese Stevens was built in 1926, named after a former mayor of the City of Madison who also happened to own this land until his widow sold it to the city. Madison, if you’re like me and never cared before, is actually a city placed perfectly on a small strip of land between two lakes, Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. Someone might say it’s actually surrounded by five lakes, but the important part is really that downtown isthmus. Not even the legendary Camp Randall is on that territory. But here is Breese Stevens. And the place has some genuine history. As I checked out the inside of the premium club area, which must have been a repurposed dugout or something, I saw some drawings on the wall commemorating some of that history. Jesse Owens ran here back in 1938. Satchel Paige pitched here in 1947. And then there was a marbles tournament.
Look, I should probably get around to telling you why I was in the premium club. But that means I’ve also got to introduce our main character for tonight’s feature: Peter Wilt.
Wilt has been doing this forever. He loves telling stories, and he loves this one especially. Wilt has always been a massive Chicago White Sox fan, but when he was a kid they made a really stupid trade. If I remember correctly, it was when they traded Steve Stone, Ken Frailing, Steve Swisher, and later Jim Kremmel to the Cubs for Ron Santo. If not, that’s on me, but the important thing is what came after. A young Peter was so annoyed with the trade that he sent a letter to then-White Sox owner and GM Bill Veeck to voice his frustration. To his surprise, Veeck responded, giving a detailed reasoning for why he made the deal. Touched by the fact that the GM of a professional ball club would actually respond to some kid’s annoyed rambling, this is something that drove the way Wilt would run every organization he has been involved in for the rest of his life. It’s not just his management style that’s unique, but his propensity to start new clubs around the Midwest. Maybe he got it from Veeck as well, who had been, at different points in time, the owner of five different MLB teams, not just the Sox. But you can point at a soccer team in the Midwest, and you’ll probably find some traces of Schlabst in it.
Schlabst itself is another one of Wilt’s creations. A more alcohol-based one. He calls it “Milwaukee’s Black-and-Tan”, which is the terminology used for a type of beer mixing. It’s Schlitz on the bottom and Pabst Blue Ribbon on the top, two beers that happen to be from Milwaukee and include some interesting Chicago-related history that is a story for another time. The important thing right now is that if you bought the “Peter Package” ticket to the game tonight, you got two free cans of Schlitz. But not a PBR was in sight. Except for the one Wilt snuck in himself.
Speaking of which, we’re finally back in the story because that package also included a pre-game talk with Peter Wilt, Forward Madison COO Conor Caloia, and team President Vern Stenman. This mostly was a lot of talking about the history of “The Mingos.”
The first thing of note is that there was a lot of snow. According to data from NOAA, Madison gets at least a foot of snow per month on average from December to February, with a little over half a foot in March. But it wasn’t just the amount of snow, but the timing, as it seemed to constantly snow whenever they tried to do anything. Even on the day of open tryouts, where future Madison legend and current Fire II player Eric Leonard got his start, it was up to Wilt to go to a nearby hardware store and get all the shovels they had.
Speaking of Wilt, they wouldn’t let him into their offices. Not because they didn’t trust him, but apparently they didn’t technically have an office. So much of the negotiating work that was done to get the team up and running in Madison was done on the street. And it’s perfect that they did it there because from that position they could look around and see the opportunity that was there in 2017. A local minor league baseball ownership group had recently gained the rights to operate in the stadium and were looking for something to put there. As Wilt, a lifelong Sox fan, had put it: “[The area] was a Wrigleyville without the Cubs.” So, Forward Madison became the Cubs.
I said earlier that Breese Stevens was built in 1926, but there obviously needed to be a lot of changes to the ballpark over the years in order to keep up with everything. Most recently, as soon as Forward Madison was announced, the stadium needed a bigger renovation. The grandstand, while still the same stone structure, was reinforced and refurbished. And when you walk out into the park, you see what’s been done has been amazing. Yeah, the press box might still need a bit of work according to Adnan; but from a fan perspective, there’s not much that beats actually standing on the same pitch that, just yards away, your guys are playing on.
The atmosphere wasn’t just helped by the large patch of grass or the 24oz Spotted Cow on draft. It includes the work of The Flock, out in what used to be the outfield of this ballpark. While I never got a full chance to learn all of the secrets, there were a couple of fun unique things around the stadium.
First, during opposing corner kicks, the Mingo fans would make whooping noises. These are supposed to be reminiscent of actual flamingos, although upon further research flamingos honestly just sound like geese. Maybe no one wanted to honk. Anyone, it was fun. I had even more fun when I got the chance to actually be among the Flock during the first minutes of the second half, when Madison scored again to put them up 2-0 on the House in the 48th minute. I wanted to check if the big video board would have a replay of the goal, but immediately was distracted by the giant flag that began to be sent back and forth in front of the supporters that simply read: “ope.”
Honestly, that might’ve been the highlight of the game if it ended there.
But before anything else, I needed to go check up on the cow. If you aren’t aware, Forward Madison has a cow at every game. Technically they have two cows on staff; but Rose Cowbelle, the daughter, mysteriously decided that she didn’t want to come today. The wrangler said that she just didn’t want to get on the truck and they were not gonna force any of the cows to do anything they don’t want to do. But Lionela Bessi was there. I got to pet her and feel weird about eating a cheeseburger about a half hour ago. Why didn’t I add any ketchup?
Actually, I had my burger back in the first half while sitting with a House fan that drove over from Milwaukee. After fumbling around with the massive 24oz cup I was carrying around, it spilled over again because the picnic table was uneven. I figured it’d probably be easier to keep the table steady if there were more people holding the table down. So, I went over and started chatting. I never actually caught the guy’s name, but he’s just one of many House fans that discovered the team through Wilt’s larger-than-life personality and commitment to the idea of an American soccer pyramid. In fact, the history of the Chicago House has more to do with that spirit of rebellion than you’d think.
Originally, the plan was for a Chicago NASL team. I still have the bumper sticker they handed out to everyone. People wanted to bring back the Chicago Sting, even going so far as to create a supporters’ trust to fund a team, but the NASL itself didn’t have much longer and it was honestly just a better idea to try getting into the Wilt-created National Independent Soccer League. The idea behind the league was to essentially be a bridge between independent leagues and the USL so that if a pyramid were to be established, it could be that extra link to make things run smoother. Wilt created the league in 2017 and then almost immediately left in 2018 to help with the founding of Forward Madison. So when he left Madison in 2020, he came back to NISA with his old plan: Get Chicago another professional soccer team. Again.
While there was still the desire to use the Sting name, Wilt and the rest of the Chicago NISA group wanted to put in a bit more market research to produce the name. Wilt had just come back from Madison, who had used a public online voting contest for their name, almost ending up as “AFC Madison.” So Wilt knew a thing or two about looking to the public for help. So, he did just that, opening the floor for names to be presented. I got in on the action, sending in the name “Chicago Municipal”, a name I still would love to see on a team. However, I think everyone had a soft spot for “Chicago Raccoons.” In the end, it was the Chicago House that won out and established the team’s connection not to the classic Chicago Bungalow style, not to the Chicago Housing Association, but to the history of house music in the city of Chicago.
The support was immediate. Not just from those who followed Wilt wherever, but from even more Fire fans who were hooked when CJ Brown was announced as head coach. CJ was no stranger to random Chicagoland semi-pro start-ups, having led Aurora Borealis SC in 2016 between assistant gigs in MLS. But, after just a single fairly disappointing season in NISA, things went south. There are a lot of reasons why this happened, but the league itself just sorta fell apart. Most of the teams that played in that Fall 2021 season would either leave or fold. It’s technically still around, but who really noticed what they were doing since Detroit left? Hell, no one really noticed that the House were still around in the Midwest Premier League until a December game where, under the cover of darkness, they had earned their way into the US Open Cup with a win on penalties after an equalizer just before injury time.
I was in the makeshift House supporters’ section at this point. I’d found some Fire fans who’d made the trip up north because, like me, the idea of this game was just so much fun. And, losing 2-0, the House needed some love. We all agreed that really all we wanted was just a goal to say the now semi-pro team had their cup of coffee with the big boys.
And there it was. 75th minute, a quick breakaway gave Adam Mann a chance to send it in. It felt like that would be the one moment of magic that night.
It’s hard to make up chants about housing. There’s the obvious “Whose house?!” chant, but it gets boring after a while. One of the Fire fans started up a Wilt chant, which was nice as he was in the section with everyone at this point. But chants are difficult. Anyway, my dad just texted me and he said he’s thinking about heading out soon. I told him I’d be out right at full time. He said it might not be full time, the House already scored one. I texted back, with the kind of blase confidence you have when confirming your order with a cashier:
“House not getting another”
So… That was a lie.
The House started pressing harder. It felt like a good showing for a team fighting out of their weight class, but I pride myself on being the “vibes guy” around here. As someone trained in narrative structure and screenwriting, I know when things are “like in the movies.” I’ve also seen enough games where the home team blows a 2-0 lead. This just didn’t feel like it. The foreshadowing just wasn’t there. Right?
There’s AR Smith with an absolute buzzer-beater in the 92nd minute. And with three minutes more of injury time, this was a completely different ballgame. Before I knew it, Smith, announced as a House signing in the same tweet as Mingos forward Nazeem Bartman, had scored again in extra time. Unfortunately, Bartman hadn’t made the 18 tonight.
As time ticked on, the House needed to hold the line. Next to me, Wilt told me that the worst-case scenario would be penalties. But they had the lead. And the House fans had found their song:
“What the Flock?!”
Around the 113th minute, I looked around. This small ballpark, tucked right into a residential area. There was an apartment building nearby, a fairly upscale one. From there, you could probably watch every Forward Madison game for free if you wanted to. Could even get your own beer, and actually make some Schlabst yourself without having to sneak in some PBR. It’s morally wrong to look into other people’s apartments, but I couldn’t help noticing.
Here, in front of me, was a beautiful moment in history. A remnant of a bygone era, where sports were truly open. A time when even amateur sides could walk out from a dusty vacant lot and strike down a team with actual money behind it. The sort of game that wouldn’t be out of place in the time that this ballpark was built. Maybe I’m being a bit exaggerated about the power that Forward Madison holds, but I’m just so distracted right now. The House are narrowly holding onto this lead and…
THIS GUY IS SITTING THERE WATCHING THE BACHELOR!
DUDE! AMERICAN SOCCER HISTORY IS BEING MADE DOWN HERE! I PROMISE YOU, THEY GOT THE WHOLE SERIES ON NETFLIX! THERE’S ALWAYS MORE BACHELOR, WHEN ARE YOU GONNA SEE SOMETHING LIKE THIS EVER AGAIN?!
The final whistle blows and despite the age of some of those in the House supporters’ section, everyone came down to the railing at the bottom. Some, who I assume to be the family of a couple of the players, jumped down onto the pitch to hug their guys. The “What the Flock” chant continued.
I’ll be honest, I think any other fanbase would’ve taken that chant as a declaration of war. Combined with the “Whose House” chant and it’s just an absolute slap in the face. But that’s what makes this sort of rivalry different. There’s no hate here. As some Madison fans walked past, they started congratulating the House supporters. Others even complimented the “What the Flock” chant as being pretty creative. And Eray, who I was with when Madison had gone up 2-0, came by to say hi and immediately compare the Mingos to the Fire. Which, you know what, it’s nice to at least see something familiar. But there was this sense of admiration for the little guy that I don’t think I’ve ever seen. Maybe because, compared to the antics at the end of the Fire’s Open Cup game last season, this was more just sheer disbelief that the House could actually turn this around.
Speaking of the Chicago Fire in the U.S. Open Cup, that is who the Chicago House will be playing on April 26th at The Geem. It’s a former home to both teams. Both teams are also the former home for the recently retired Drew Conner (whose last team was Forward Madison), who is rumored to be putting on a special tailgate with special guest “Magic” Mike Magee? I couldn’t be more thrilled to watch this Derby, a true Schlabst Cup.
Actually, the Schlabst Cup was first created for a game between the Fire and Indy Eleven, the other USL team Wilt had created. In fact, it was the only other time that Wilt had seen two of the clubs he created go up against each other while he was actively a member of one of them. Since then, it’s been the usual title for whenever two of Wilt’s teams play. In fact, when I asked him about the Schlabst Cup, he mentioned that there’s one team everyone forgets. He told me, “I draw a direct line from Minnesota Thunder and my role starting the Thunder to the current day Minnesota United.” So, I guess the Fire took back the Schlabst Cup with a win over the Loons the other week. Just in time to defend it against Wilt himself.
I’ll be honest. No matter how much I care about the House and the narrative driving them, I still want the Fire to win. I would be absolutely pissed if they fell apart against a lower-division side for two seasons in a row. But I still have that same request that I had when I got to the House fans. Just one goal. Cause I’m just cheering for goals tonight.
Soccer is so much fun.