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From Farmland to Flamingos: The 96-year journey of professional soccer in Madison

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Forward Madison FC may be the city’s first professional team, but the world’s game has strong roots in the community.

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A baseball game is played at Breese Stevens Field, now the home of Forward Madison FC.
Wisconsin Historial Society

It was 2009 and the USMNT had just brought down Spain in the Confederations Cup. I was 16 years old and immediately hooked by soccer. Over the years, I’ve been a devout fan of the game, and always considered myself to have a pretty decent grasp of the sport. Naturally, when Forward Madison FC came to fruition I was excited. However, I realized I didn’t actually know much about the history of the game in my own community. That being said, a few months ago before a league game at Keva Sports Center a man was handing out a book entitled Alive & Kicking: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Soccer by Keith Binns. I didn’t think too much of it, but I gave it a quick once over and realized that it was very Madison-centric. Recently, I decided to pick up the book again, reading more in depth instead of just skimming. Although the book can read like a memoir, the book does a good job explaining the history of the sport in Madison. I’d recommend this book to anyone who has a vested interest in Madison soccer. By no means is this an exhaustive history of Madison soccer, but I figure it’s a good start!

1923

Farmland is acquired by the City of Madison from the Stevens family with the intentions to build an athletic facility and is named after former Mayor Breese J. Stevens.

1926

The city places a grandstand on the acquired Stevens property.

1930’s

Federal funds from the Works Progress Administration are used to take local sandstone and build the walls around Breese Stevens Field.

Early 1900’s to 1950’s

Soccer is brought to Madison by a diverse group of immigrants. (Keith Binns’ himself was an English immigrant.) When he arrives in 1955 the City of Madison has no designated soccer fields and the sporting goods store doesn’t have soccer balls.

1956

Keith and others approach the City of Madison Parks Department, and they create the first soccer pitch at Franklin Field on Madison’s south side.

1957

Madison Soccer Club is formed and admitted to Division B by the Wisconsin State Soccer Division. After the 1958 season they win promotion to Division A. A vast majority of their games are played in the greater Milwaukee area.

Early 60’s

Clubs begin popping up in other communities across the state, including Waukesha, Janesville, Beloit and Appleton.

1964

Bill Reddan, the “Founding Father of Wisconsin Soccer,” introduces soccer as a club sport at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

1966

Dr. Jack Heiden approaches the Madison Soccer Club to start a youth program. He is an avid hockey fan, and he had read that the Russian hockey team kept in shape during the off- season by playing soccer. The Madison Youth Soccer Association is formed with Dr. Heiden becoming the first president. Dr. Heiden’s son, Eric, is a part of the first youth soccer program, and he eventually goes on to win 5 individual Olympic gold medals in speed skating.

1970

There are now 5 teams in the greater Madison area: Madison Soccer Club, Internationals, Golden Eagles, Dynamo and Chargers. They come together to form the capitol division of the Wisconsin State League.

Many of the soccer players are foreign students studying at the university. None of them are better than Ola Olsen. Before Ola arrives in Madison, he scores for his native Norway in European Championships qualifying match against France. He plays 14 seasons for Lyn-Oslo scoring 119 goals in 219 appearances. During his one season of play in Madison, he plays 16 games, winning all 16 and scoring a 45 goals as a midfielder.

Madison also gets its first taste of international soccer. Karlsruhe Alemenia, a top amateur club from Germany, plays Madison Soccer Club. The game is publicized around the city and 1800 people flock to Warner Park to watch Karlsruhe take down Madison 3-0.

1974

Madison Soccer Club splits into two entities, Madison United and Madison 56ers. This division creates an instant rivalry.

Madison United decided to take their talents abroad and set up a tour of England, Holland, Belgium and France.

They need funds in order to travel. To achieve this, United comes up with a unique idea. The team sets out to play the longest game of soccer the world had ever seen.

The Guinness World Record at the time is 37 hours. Each player finds a sponsor that will pay a penny per minute played. The game begins on a Saturday morning at 7:30AM and finishes Sunday night at 9PM — 37.5 hours. The shirts beat the skins 122-118. There are 164 corner kicks and 9 penalties given. Madison United plays a number of exhibitions on the trip against local amateur teams. Highlights of the various trips include taking in a Chelsea training session, and matches against Belgian giants Anderlecht. The Madison United youth squad takes on the Anderlecht Juniors and loses 4-0. However, the men’s team takes on the Anderlecht over 30 squad, which includes two former Belgian internationals in Martin Lippens and George Heylen, and beats them 4-1. Madison United go on to have similar trips throughout the following decades to Jamaica, Mexico and Canada.

1972

Madison public schools offer a soccer program for boys.

1974

The first game between two all-female soccer teams takes place in Warner Park. The Super Shells play the Binns Bombers.

1977

Men’s soccer becomes an intercollegiate sport at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bill Reddan is the first head coach.

1979

Soccer becomes a high school varsity sport for girls.

1980

Madison United’s women’s team takes a similar trip to England and Holland. One of the main highlights of their trip is playing the defending winner of the European woman’s club championship, Rood-Wit Dames Herentals. The game is played before an exhibition between two of Europe’s top men’s clubs: Berchem from Belgium and Ipswich Town from England. Although Madison struggles against Rood-Wit Dames Herentals, 20,000 fans fill the stadium — a wonderful experience nonetheless. They find more success in their games against the opponents from England and Belgium winning multiple matches.

Breese Stevens field has worn with time and is projected to cost the city $300,000 to tear down. Instead, $360,000 is invested to convert it into a soccer stadium.

1981

Women’s soccer becomes an intercollegiate sport at the University of Wisconsin.

1995

Coach Jim Launder leads Wisconsin to a NCAA Division I Men’s soccer championship, defeating Duke 2-0 in the final.

2005

The Madison 56ers begin competing in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). They go on to win the NPSL Midwest region in 2006, 2007 and 2010. They now compete in the Midwest division of the United Primer Soccer League (UPSL) and also play at Breese Stevens Field.

2014

Artificial turf is installed at Breese Stevens Field.

2018

Forward Madison FC is founded as Madison’s first professional soccer team.

More renovations begin at Breese Stevens to better suit Forward Madison.

2019

FMFC will begin its inaugural season in April.

If you want to find more information on soccer in Madison, check out the history of Breese Stevens Field and the Madison 56ers.