Daryl Shore had only been to Madison once before being named head coach of the city’s new professional soccer team last September. As a member of the Chicago Fire coaching staff, he came to scout players at the 2008 Big Ten men’s soccer tournament.
“I thought to myself then, who would want to live in this freezing cold monstrosity?” Shore recalled in an interview at Breese Stevens Field Tuesday.
Now, that new team has a name, a rabid fan base and a full season in the new USL League One behind it — a season that culminated in an appearance in the first-ever league semifinal. And Shore and his wife have a new city to call home.
Off the field, the team has been a success for owner Big Top Sports and managing director Peter Wilt. On the field, it was a rocky road at times — Forward Madison FC briefly lingered at the very bottom of the standings of the 10-team league in the middle of the season — but ultimately the group Wilt and Shore put together were able to grind out a series of gritty results to clinch a spot in the playoffs with a 1-0 win over Lansing Ignite on the final day of the regular season.
Lansing’s ownership has already announced the team will fold, despite finishing second in the league and also making the semifinals, demonstrating how fickle lower-league professional sports can be. With the strongest average attendance in the league — 4,292 fans came to every league match on average, and many more bought tickets to exhibition matches against top-level teams from MLS, Germany and Mexico — an ownership group that’s had nearly 20 years of success in minor league baseball, a fan base that shows no sign of losing interest, and a core group of players returning, Forward Madison FC looks poised to succeed for the long haul.
On the field, it’s impossible to argue that an appearance in the semifinal, ending the season with a hard-fought playoff loss to the league’s top team, denotes success.
Just a few days after that loss, team captain and center back Connor Tobin isn’t feeling it yet, despite about 30 fans greeting the team bus with cheers and chants when it arrived back at Breese Stevens Field.
“I think there is something to be said for us taking ourselves out of the hole that we were in, but I really felt, because we were able to dig out of that hole, like we were going to be able to do something special and that would have rewarded what people have built,” Tobin said.
The season began with away losses to Chattanooga Red Wolves and North Texas and a 2-1 win at Orlando City B, which included the club’s first-ever goal by Josiel Nuñez. The home season began with a goalless draw at home to Greenville Triumph in a snowstorm followed by a 3-1 win over Toronto FC II, featuring the club’s first home goal by Paulo Júnior.
Along the way, the club made it to the third round of the US Open Cup, beating second-division side El Paso Locomotive 3-0 in the process, and was the last third-division team standing in the nationwide tournament.
During their run to the playoffs, both Shore and Tobin attributed the team’s success to “grit” and to the vociferous support of The Flock, the team’s supporters group, and the fans in general — 140 of whom made the trip to Lansing for the ultimate game of the regular season and 40 of whom went all the way to Frisco, Texas for the semifinal.
But, obviously, it takes more than intangibles to win games over the course of a 28-game season.
Tobin credits the team’s willingness to work hard and work together, and especially called out a couple players who went above and beyond.
“(Midfielder) Eric (Leonard) became someone that, for this team and the makeup of this team, was indispensable,” Tobin said. “His willingness to sacrifice his body for the team. It was a huge part of us turning things around. Obviously he’s young in his career and there’s things he needs to work on but I think everyone fed off that attitude.”
Shore also singled out Leonard as a player who exceeded expectations.
“He was a player that came into our invite tryouts, and we signed him right out of our invite tryouts,” Shore said. “He wasn’t highly touted I guess is the way to put it. But I think he’s probably the one guy that played a lot of games and played a couple of different positions for us that we’re really pleased with his performance.
“The other one for us still is (left back) Christian (Diaz) because he was a little bit of an unknown,” Shore said. “I mean we knew his pedigree, we knew where he had played, but he also had been out for a good six months where he hadn’t played. So to get what we got out of him, I don’t want to say it was a surprise, but it was an added bonus to have the quality that he brought to our club.”
Diaz had played in Liga MX, the top league in Mexico, before getting his first shot in the US with the Flamingos. He performed well enough this year to the Madison’s sole representative on the USL League One Best XI and get an invitation to train with Minnesota United of MLS.
Tobin also highlighted midfielder JC Banks, the first Wisconsin native signed to the team. Banks, 30, is a Milwaukee native who’s spent the last nine years playing on lower league teams across the country.
“JC is just … he’s such a good footballer,” Tobin said. “So smart, and when he kind of dropped deeper into a deeper role alongside Eric, it helped Eric. It advanced Eric’s game but also steadied everyone else around them. He steadied the whole team.”
Beyond the crucial role he played in the midfield, keeping possession and commanding the middle third of the field, Banks scored some key goals — including the one against Lansing to clinch a playoff spot.
Off the field, the team was a success, too, said Wilt.
“It absolutely met my expectations and exceeded them,” he said. “I think the one area that really exceeded expectations was in a merchandise sales. And, you know, it’s wonderful going to the games and seeing everyone in Forward Madison gear. I also get a kick out of seeing so many people just wearing pink flamingo garb that isn’t even from us. It’s become a kind of a cultural touchpoint.”
Wilt said it helps that the owners have plenty of experience in minor league, community-based sports.
“The best thing about having Big Top behind us is the experience they brought to the table, and the human resources. We certainly have dedicated soccer staff but we also had shared staff. And some of those shared staff from the baseball side have been invaluable in our business,” he said. ”My first Mallards game had to have been more than a decade ago and I recall saying to a friend of mine I was at the game with, that this is the best sports value in the states. It’s really well-run organization, it’s fun, and those guys got it more than a decade ago and they’ve only gotten better since.”
Not every team in the league was as fortunate; of the four new independent teams in USL League One’s inaugural year, only three will return for 2020 as Lansing Ignite announced earlier this week that it will cease operations.
“It’s unfortunate, but if you’re an owner in lower league sports, if you think you’re going to make money in year one you’re probably in it for the wrong reasons,” Shore said.
It became such a refrain for Shore and Tobin and other players to praise the fans in postgame interviews that it began to sound like pandering. But even now that the season is over, they’re not letting up.
“What our fans have done this year is truly indescribable,” Shore said. “I’ve been around, I’ve been a part of a lot of teams. I’ve been around a lot of levels, and what has happened here … you can’t measure it.”
Shore especially praised the Flock’s efforts to diversify the fans of a sport that, in the US, has been largely followed and enjoyed by a mostly-white audience.
“I think you have to give the leaders of The Flock tremendous credit for what they started out, what they initiated, what they wanted their group to be about, and what they wanted, the diversity that they wanted in their group,” Shore said. “So you have a Flock group of Latino fan base, an African American fan base, a ladies fan base, you know, an LGBT fan base. But what they did is they all merged together to form one fan base.”
Shore said the club was intentional about efforts to engage those fans, on social media, out at community events and, maybe most importantly, on the sidelines. The players made a habit of visiting the Flock at the east end of the stadium after every match, win or lose, and staying long after the final whistle to take pictures with kids and sign autographs.
“We had to tell them (to greet fans after) the first two games, and then after that you don’t have to tell them anymore,” Shore said. “But when you have a captain like Connor Tobin who’s as passionate about what we are trying to bring to the city, and how engaged he was with The Flock from day one. When your captain leads by example, you have a lot of players that want to follow your captain. We just felt like it was very important that after every game, regardless of the results, that we got over and showed our appreciation not just to The Flock, but to all the fans.”
“There’s a level of gratitude that you have to show because so many people that are outside the club really built this thing,” Tobin said.
Plans for the 2020 season are already underway, as the club has options to extend contracts of several players and is deciding this week which contracts to extend. Only goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre signed a mutli-year contract, and Shore said several players hit “triggers” so their contracts will automatically be extended. Some others will have to go through a bit of a negotiation. Shore said there will be some turnover, as there is in every professional sport, but there will be many recognizable faces next year.
“I think it’s important that we have a core group of guys back,” he said.
Contract decisions could be announced as soon as next week.
Those players that come back will be competing in a considerably larger league; despite the loss of Lansing Ignite, the league will jump from 10 teams to 14 as new club Union Omaha will join, as will older clubs Rochester Rhinos and Penn FC. Two MLS academy teams — New England Revolution II and Inter Miami USL — will also join the league.
“The league is growing so that part is exciting,” Shore said. “I think Omaha is going to be pretty awesome. I think they’re trying to emulate a few things from us. I know that the owner has been here, their GM has been here, and they’ve seen a little bit of the behind the scenes of how we operate.”
Shore expects an increase in quality on the field, too.
“I think the competition is going to get greater,” he said. “I think what’s going to help is that everybody that’s been playing in the Championship now sees that the USL League One is actually a high level. So I think you’ll have some players not be afraid to take a step backwards to get more playing time. So the pool of players will still be there. It’s just now finding those guys that fit what you want to do. Any time you add more teams to a league, the competition is going to get harder and the level of play is going to get better.”
Tobin remains uncertain about his own future. He revealed to Madison365 that he’s been playing with a torn labrum since a collision with goalkeeper Dayne St. Claire during the August 24 win over Richmond Kickers.
“We knew at the time he got me pretty good, but obviously it was a little bit more substantial than what maybe it was originally thought,” he said. “So I got confirmation this last week that I have some issues going on. Torn labrum and some other objects floating around in there. I think it’s important at the end of every season to take stock of where you’re at and both in regards to how the previous season went, but also where you’re at mentally and physically. I think that process becomes even more important as you get older.”
“We’d love to have him back,” Shore said of Tobin. “He has to make some life decisions, though.”
If he does decide to hang up the cleats, Tobin said he’s grateful for the time he’s had here in Madison.
“I’m so thankful that I ended up here this year. The fans and the community piece, a lot of ways, restored my faith in football,” he said. “It was in a lot of ways really special to be up here this year. Now what does that mean for next year? That’s one thing I’m still working through.”
Either way, Tobin, 32, knows pro sports is never a guarantee, either for a player or a community.
“You can’t take this for granted,” he said. “It’s something that with any community or family or however you want to describe it, it takes constant work. It takes constant work from the club side. It takes constant work from the fan side. But I would hope that, at least from my end, but I hope other people feel it, that when that works, put it in and you have those genuine conversations and you come alongside each other, that what you can build is, I mean, it’s incredible, but this, the sense of community when it’s real, and authentic and raw like it was this year. There’s nothing better.”
The team will host one final event to appreciate the fans — a season-ending party tonight from 5 to 8 at Breese Stevens Field. Players are expected to arrive around 6 pm. Select merchandise will be on sale at the Flamboyance team store.