Interviewed and Written by: Michael Battista
Chicago is set to welcome a new professional soccer team in 2021.
The National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) announced last week that soccer pioneer Peter Wilt is leading an investor group to bring a team into the market for next year.
The team, whose name and home venue have not been announced yet, is scheduled to begin to play in Fall 2021 as part of NISA’s 2021-22 season. It will join members such as Detroit City FC, Michigan Stars FC (Pontiac, MI), and the New York Cosmos. NISA is a third division professional league, two tiers below Major League Soccer, and competes at the same level as USL League One.
Wilt is not a stranger to either Chicago or starting soccer teams. The McHenry, Illinois native helped launch the MLS’s Chicago Fire in 1997 and acted as the team’s first President and General Manager. He has also helped lead efforts to start numerous teams in the various divisions of the U.S. Soccer system. These include the professional women’s side Chicago Red Stars, the Indy Eleven (now in Div. 2 USL Championship), and Forward Madison FC in USL League One.
In an interview with Chicago Sports Nation, Wilt said he was ready to bring a new team to Chicago and was ready to put both his knowledge of the city and of NISA to good use.
“I think (I’ve) started more professional soccer teams than anyone in history and all the ones I started were during, quote-unquote, ‘normal times’. So this is a first for me,” Wilt joked during a Zoom interview.
The NISA announcement marks a return to NISA for Wilt, who co-founded the league in 2017 with Jack Cummins (a DePaul University graduate and owner of Cummins & Associates, Ltd). Cummins passed away early in 2018 and Wilt left a few months later to help start Forward Madison in Madison, Wisconsin.
He later left Madison after it’s inaugural 2019 season to take a position within the United Soccer League front office, however like most things this was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.
“USL had me flying around the country,” he explained. “Meeting with people, especially supporters groups and front office staff quite a bit up until mid-March. When COVID happened and soccer shut down, my position was shut down, went on pause and it didn’t start back up.”
“So the two main factors (behind this); a passion for the project and then, uh, I need to do something with my time,” he joked.
He went on to explain that when NISA approached him during the summer with a chance to return and start a new team, he realized he had an opportunity to put his passion and knowledge of the city forward to help start his fifth team.
NISA commissioner John Prutch called Wilt a friend who he was happy to welcome back into the league.
“Peter’s coming back home,” Commissioner Prutch told Chicago Sports Nation. “He is an icon in the sports world, in the soccer world, and specifically in Chicago. So having a NISA club in Chicago with Peter at the helm is very exciting.”
NISA’s Executive Vice President of Expansion Joshua Prutch told Chicago Sports Nation that the league could not ask for a better representative for soccer, especially in the Midwest.
“I would even call (Peter) a Pied Piper of soccer,” VP Prutch said. “I think (it’s) not only what he is going to do for the Chicago market in the club that he is building, but I think it’s going to resonate throughout the league. Having him as part of the boardroom or participate in some of our board of governors calls as an operator, as well as an owner, I think it’s only going to enhance the experience of all of our clubs and the fans that support those clubs.”
The move comes as NISA continues to expand in both member teams and reach within the soccer landscape. A new team is set to start in the Spring season, with two more including Chicago coming in Fall. NISA has also begun to develop relationships with amateur leagues around the country. One of these, the Midwest Premier League, includes Chicago’s two-time National Amateur Cup champion RWB Adria and DeKalb County United from DeKalb, IL.
One major aspect of NISA is its lack of territorial rights, a common system used in both USL and MLS that allows teams to control certain areas and negate internal competition within them. For example, in the case of the Chicago Fire no other MLS team can start within the city and the surrounding area without the team’s approval. Without these, NISA allows for more teams from the same area to join the league, which it believes will help form rivalries and develop bonds between the teams and the diverse community groups most cities have.
Wilt is a strong believer in this idea and has criticized the fact that the Fire are still the only men’s professional outdoor soccer team within the city after 23 years.
He compared the city to both Los Angeles and New York, which have multiple professional teams at each divisional level within them.
“There’s no reason there can’t be multiple NISA teams in Chicagoland,” Wilt said. “Anywhere you have either a geographic differentiation between teams you can create your own fan base – even right across the street from each other… Chicago is such a multilayered, diverse, melting pot community. There are dozens of potential ways you could create teams. I’m not saying you could have dozens of teams in Chicago, but you certainly could have, you know, three or four without a problem because you need venues that can serve three to four thousand fans. And those are all over the place, a small college or a high school facility. You know, they each offer better and worse amenities and locations accessibility, but they also each offer access to a different group of fans. And then as that ownership group builds their organization, they’ll build it in a way that will be attractive to some people and not to others.”
VP Prutch, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and played soccer within it, not only thinks Chicago could play host to more than one NISA team but thinks some of the already established historical entities could thrive in a professional league.
“You have some natural clubs,” VP Prutch said. “(RWB) Adria comes to mind. I grew up in suburban Chicago and I played for a lot of different club teams (that were) usually associated with the municipality.
“(Milwaukee) Bavarian across the border in Wisconsin, a Gazelle TKO in Kalamazoo. These are clubs not run by billionaires. For these clubs who have won national championships historically to not be given the opportunity to play professionally, I think is, is a shame. I think we should be supporting these independent clubs that supported soccer for the past 60, 70 years.”
Both the Commissioner and Vice President mentioned to Sports Nation that more announcements should be expected for the Midwest area.
In terms of response to the team’s announcement, he has gone over fairly well online. Wilt noted that the support reaffirmed his belief that fans are “looking for a team that will represent Chicago.”
“What we’re trying to do is reach out to the community and be there for them,” he said. (Be a team) that will be a community organization that happens to play soccer.”
Commissioner Prutch believes that reason alone is one of the biggest reasons why the Chicago NISA team can succeed.
“I think our approach and Peter’s approach is a community-based club,” Commissioner Prutch said. “I think that has the best chance in Chicago of succeeding versus something that’s manufactured.”
Wilt will be keen to bring in the knowledge and experience from his last venture in Madison. During its early ground building, Forward Madison FC became known both within its own community and on social media for its marketing and overall light-hearted tone.
The team whose mascot and logo are plastic flamingo lawn ornaments and unofficially a dairy cow named “Lionela Bessi,” became the standout for USL League One in its first season.
The team has over 15,000 followers on Twitter, the most of any team in the league, and continues to engage in new ways with the community and “Flock” Supporters Groups.
“A lot of people call me a builder of teams. I really think I’m an enabler of teams,” Wilt said when discussing the successes in both Madison and Indianapolis. “To me, successful teams have a tribal mentality. They’re an extension of the community. They share the community’s values. They’re a representation of the community they exist in. And Madison was a great example of that. Their identity and brand of the team reflect that of the community of the city.”
This is not the first effort to bring a non-division 1 professional soccer team to the city. In the past five years, expansion teams planned, first with the North American Soccer League (Div. 2) in 2016 and again with the USL Championship (Div. 2) in 2017/18. The NASL went on hiatus following its 2017 season and is currently battling the United States Soccer Federation in court, while USL’s bid for a Chicago team went quiet in 2019.
Wilt, who was a part of the failed NASL attempt, explains each attempt to enter the market has its own visions and hurdles. The USL bid, for example, was contingent upon building a stadium as part of a real estate development. Once that fell through, the idea of a team was not pursued further.
Now in 2020, despite the high amounts of optimism Wilt and his team are fully aware of the challenges. Including the normal hurdles that come with getting a soccer team from the whiteboard to the pitch, he and his group also have taken into account the ongoing pandemic. The usual steps such as meeting with local groups such as youth soccer programs or service organizations now have to be done remotely or handled in new ways.
Wilt explained that this was one of the reasons why the team will be launching late next year.
“We’re trying to start a team in 2021 in part because of a good bit of optimism that the world will be a little bit more normal than it is right now,” Wilt explained. “If it’s not, I don’t know that we won’t pause things.”
This point was echoed by NISA’s Commissioner John Prutch, who told Chicago Sports Nation that member teams should not feel pressured to perform if the time is not right.
“One of the things that’s important for us is to make sure that when (teams join), that they’re ready to go pro,” Prutch said. “Our attitude is if someone is not ready to play, they shouldn’t play, but that doesn’t mean that they have to leave the league. That just means they take a breather and get ready.”
During the on-going Fall 2020 season, two of NISA’s teams sat out the competition due to the effects of COVID and the financial hassles that playing behind closed doors would incur. One of these teams, San Diego 1904 FC, is owned by European soccer stars Demba Ba and Eden Hazard.
For his part, Wilt is positive that the situation will be more manageable at that point. He’s hoping fans will be able to attend the team’s first match next Fall.
“I’m pretty confident that there’ll be a vaccine by then and supporting and building professional soccer teams will be a bit normalized,” Wilt said.
According to Wilt, the application will “knock on wood” be accepted within the next few weeks. After that, he hopes to have the website launched so fans can suggest Chicago-based names and colors for the club.
It’s just one of the ways he and his team hope to include the community in the development and future success of the team.
“When (fans) make the submission, not just submit the names and submit the suggested team colors, but also give a justification for (it),” he said. “And that kind of makes sure that they put some thought into it and they’re connecting it to Chicago.”
“Whatever name we end up with, it’s important that it is relevant to Chicago.”
Featured Image: Soccer Stadium Digest