Nothing tickles the cockles of pro/rel advocates quite like the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the pyramid-wide competition in American soccer whose first-round games kick off March 21-23.
One of the leading philosophers of the open system is Peter Wilt, the first president of MLS's Chicago Fire in 1998-2005, a tenure that included three Open Cup titles — and he also celebrated the Fire's title in 2006. In the 2023 edition of the tournament, Wilt has a new Chicago-based team in the tournament, but it’s not the Fire — that would be Chicago House AC, a team he launched in 2020.
‘The House’ qualified with wins over Brockton FC United (Massachusetts), Metro Louisville and 1927 SC (Indiana). It faces off against Bavarian United (a Milwaukee-based club established in 1927).
“Starting The House was kind of a labor of love,” said Wilt. “It was an opportunity to bring men's outdoor pro soccer back to Chicago.” (The Fire had moved to Bridgeview, Illinois, in 2006 before returning to Soldier Field in 2020.)
But like many times in pro soccer, tt was more difficult and time-consuming than expected. The pandemic-induced chaos made it a slow start for Chicago House, which started in NISA but dropped down to a regional amateur league, the Midwest Premier League.
“I thought there was ownership in place to fund the team and so I agreed to go in and launch it,” Wilt told Soccer America. “After I was already in it, I found out that there was no ownership committed. ... New ownership came in and they weren't as well-funded as the initial one was and so we struggled through our first year.”
It’s not the only challenge Wilt’s faced in his several recent endeavors. When he was trying to launch NISA, he couldn’t get its eight teams to agree on “anything.”
In addition to the USL Championship and USL League One, MLS Next Pro launched in 2022 to the dismay of open system proponents. But the root problem?
“On the preponderance of the obstacles, I'm convinced that the problem is not the system itself, but the people involved,” said Wilt. “I think there's too many people being selfish and looking out for their own interests. It causes competing efforts.”
Between his time with the Chicago Fire and launching Chicago House AC in September 2020, Wilt's work in the game included spearheading the launches of the Chicago Red Stars (NWSL), Chicago Riot (defunct MISL team), Indy Eleven (NASL and USL Championship) and Forward Madison FC (USL League One), and serving on the USL's market development task force on fan engagement.
SOCCER AMERICA: Last we talked, in April of 2020 you had just gotten furloughed by USL weeks into the pandemic. Did you ever go back to working for the USL in its fan engagement department?
PETER WILT: Nope. Justin Papadakis, the USL's COO, told me, 'Once we start playing games again, we'll get you back in.' I'm still waiting for my phone to ring.
SA: But by the looks of it you've stayed busy. Give us a quick recap on Chicago House’s story.
PETER WILT: Initially, it was intended to play at Soldier Field in the NASL, [but] we were blocked from playing at Soldier Field. That prevented us from getting a lease.
SA: What happened next?
PETER WILT: That fell through, and I went on to start NISA. That didn't really get off the ground — my business partner [Jack Cummins] died and I couldn't get eight teams to agree on anything. So I left and started Forward Madison and John Prutch, who did get NISA going, asked me to come back and start a team in NISA in Chicago — the one that we had been planning for NASL.
By that time, [the Fire] had moved to Soldier Field and that opened up an opportunity at SeatGeek Stadium where they had been playing. I thought, 'OK, there's a void there, let's put a team there.'
I thought there was ownership in place to fund the team and so I agreed to go in and launch it. After I was already in it I found out that there was no ownership committed to funding it. That ownership had backed out. New ownership came in and they weren't as well-funded as the initial one was and so we struggled through our first year.
We weren't able to pay a lot of the bills. We did OK, tied for fourth place out of 11 teams. We were third in revenue for the league. Our expenses were over our revenues, and we couldn't sustain it.
We retrenched into a regional, amateur league last year, the Midwest Premier League, and that has been a marvelous experience. It's a well-managed league, professionally operated both on the league-level and when it comes to other teams. It's growing like weeds — they're in their third year and are up to 37 teams already in seven states. Their vision is good, I think it aligns with what Jack Cummins and I had envisioned for NISA — an open system with promotion and relegation. And no territorial exclusivity.
SA: Territorial exclusivity?
PETER WILT: That's an important thing that too many people are overlooking. They're all focused on promotion and relegation, which obviously is important, but equally important is not selling exclusivity to territories.
In the Midwest Premier League, there's over half a dozen teams in Chicago alone. That's the way it should be! If the market will bear it, let anyone who wants to have a team have a team.
I think that enhances the other teams in the same market.
Last season we lost our first game but then went on to not lose any more games in 2022 — 13 games undefeated, including a great Open Cup qualifying run with some dramatic games.
We're in the Open Cup on March 22 against the Milwaukee Bavarians, which is my neighborhood team. They play less than a mile from where I live.
SA: Chicago House and Bavarians play in the same Midwest Premier League. Is there already a rivalry there?
PETER WILT: I'm excited, I love both teams, the Bavarians are a historic club going back to the 1920s. I followed them for over 40 years myself. [Chicago House] played them once in a Midwest Premier League and we tied 1-1. It was one of the games where both teams felt they could have done better.
SA: Chicago House claims an emphasis on social justice in a diverse city like Chicago. What does that look like on the ground?
PETER WILT: It looks like our players, coaches and staff make the city better. Our players and our coaches volunteer their time with a group called New Life Centers, which is an intercity social organization that feeds the poor and gives kids positive alternatives. Our players and coaches in particular serve as referees for their weekly soccer games at the organization.
The truth is, we don't have a lot to give back financially. We don't have enough to give to ourselves. But we give where we can. For the Open Cup game that we're hosting, we're donating 50% of all of our advance tickets, and giving the front of our jersey over to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago and NorthWest Indiana. Then we're auctioning off those jerseys and contributing all of those proceeds to Ronald McDonald House.
Those are the things that we do. We're not an MLS team, we're not high-profile, but we try to do the right thing.
Chicago House captain A.R. Smith played college ball at Butler in Indianapolis and youth ball with the Chicago Fire's Development Academy teams.
SA: In a perfect world, what does Chicago House Athletics Club look like in five or 10 years? What are the barriers to making that happen?
PETER WILT: I think we're advancing and growing on and off of the field. On the field, that means playing at a higher level. I'd like to grow with the Midwest Premier League. It's hard to see what the landscape of pro soccer is going to look like in five years after the World Cup is in this country, but I'd like to think that there will be an open system, a pro league, that offers lower division option but will eventually offer a first division option. That was the original vision of NISA. Which unfortunately has somewhat stalled.
If Chicago House can be a part of that pathway, that would be terrific. It may be playing a third division level, or who knows, even a second division level. Or maybe, it's still amateur.
SA: How has NISA been impacted by the growth of USL and rapid rise of MLS Next?
PETER WILT: Yeah, I've said this a lot. The open system advocates over the years have spent a lot of time and energy over the years complaining about closed systems and the [U.S. Soccer] Federation. Maybe there's some truth to their complaints.
But on the preponderance of the obstacles, I'm convinced that the problem is not the system itself, but the people involved. I think there's too many people being selfish and looking out for their own interests. It causes competing efforts.
One of the reasons I couldn't get NISA started at the beginning was because there were four different open system groups that were trying to essentially do the same thing. And it was a matter of not wanting to divide power or money. So we're fighting ourselves. If everyone could just work together in the independent or open system, they'd have a better chance of reaching their goals. So I don't think MLS or USL is the obstacle that some people make it out to be.
The truth is, if someone is sold on the open system, and they feel strongly that soccer should be played in an open system, they're not going to be lured away by a closed system.
You could make an argument that Detroit City is a team we really thought was sold on the open system, and lo and behold, they sold out and joined a closed system league [Detroit City joined the USL Championship for the 2022 season]. Ditto Miami and Oakland Roots.
So there are teams that went to the other side — but I don't think that wasn't about what USL or MLS offers as it is about what the open system is not offering.
SA: You can't blame a team for looking at its options and choosing the best one for it?
PETER WILT: I understand it. I'll put it that way.
Photos: Courtesy of Peter Wilt
USSF is OK with a closed entity which hordes the Training and Solidarity payments and monopolizes the stream of youth talent in this country. Meanwhile all the lower leagues operate as near-nonprofits, fighting it out arena-style until those team die off, combine, or get absorbed by the closed monopoly. Am I the only one that thinks the USA soccer pyramid is a joke? Just waiting for the day the DEI mob comes for USSF, when no manner of gum-flapping and virtue-signaling will save them.
Intersting article and it seems this is a typical situaion whereby the leadership for the game is left to individuals
Great article, interesting name for a team, Chicago House. Mr. Wilt has a lot of experience. The only question I would have is, how anyone presenting themselves as open league expert, and any one conducting the interview, how you can have a conversation about open leagues and not bring up UPSL. UPSL is 400+ teams, 30 conferences, 48 teams in Texas, 45 in Florida, similar in California. My son has been playing UPSL since he was U13, many of the MLS Next Academies are putting teams in UPSL. Kiddo played 3 MLS in UPSL, U23, U19 and U17, teams last year. The Texas teams in Houston do not have to travel outside the Houston area for games, this is huge in terms of running a club, there are no bus, lodging or meal expenses. UPSL is beginning to integrate the formerly closed latino clubs in our area, adding the level of play and the fan experience. Living in a bubble? Thanks again, have a nice day.
Well worth looking into reason for the team name-an homage to the inclusiveness of worldwide music phenomenon known as Chicago House music.