*This story originally appeared on the18.com. It is being shared with the permission of its author, Joe Reina.
In the heart of downtown Milwaukee, just a mile from the shores of Lake Michigan lies American soccer’s oldest success story that deals not in grass and touchlines but turf and boards.
The Milwaukee Wave has operated for nearly forty consecutive years and is the oldest continuously operating professional soccer team in the United States. That remarkable feat is not achieved through sheer luck, but rather, meticulous attention to detail. It's an entire organization that has bought into doing things the right way because for the Wave, success is not an option, it's an obligation.
This demand for domination was earned. The first decade of the franchise’s existence helped set the bedrock for the team’s growth thanks to legends like Peter Knezic, Art Kramer and Tony Pierce to name a few. No titles came back to Milwaukee, but attendance boomed in the late 1980s when the Bradley Center became the Wave’s new home, proving that there was a market for indoor soccer in the city.
In 1992, the Wave brought in a new head coach by the name of Keith Tozer, a former professional indoor soccer player turned coach who had managed several teams across the country. This partnership would prove to be the pivotal moment in the franchise’s history.
Tozer brought six league championships to Milwaukee during his 21-year tenure with the team while becoming the winningest professional indoor coach in North American indoor soccer history.
“I learned a ton as a player from him,” said current Wave head coach, Giuliano Oliviero, “not just on the field but off the field. The professionalism that he brought, the attention to detail that he brought, what he asked from me as a player, what he asked from me as an assistant coach, all helped me grow into the coach I am today.”
After Tozer’s departure in 2014, the Wave underwent some other major changes both on and off the field. Oliviero switched from player to coach and began the difficult transition of managing a group of players who had been his teammates less than a year prior.
“Anyone that says that they’ve got all the answers when they start coaching is probably not correct, to put it mildly,” said Oliviero. “It took me some time to develop. The tough part was that these were my teammates, these were my friends, and now I was their coach, so separating the two at the time was difficult.”
“There were certain things that were in place [under Tozer],” Oliviero continued, “the Milwaukee Wave had a winning tradition and that stayed with us. Through the years, I’ve added my personality to the team, but it takes time, and I like where we’re at right now.”
In addition to the managerial change, the team was bought by Mike Zimmerman and joined the ROC Ventures brand. Along with the new ownership, the team updated its logo, its colors and most visibly, the team’s home field; ditching the traditional green for a now infamous black that has become synonymous with the Milwaukee Wave brand.
As fans crest the steps and make their way into the UWM Panther Arena, they are greeted with the most frightening sight in all of indoor soccer: the black turf. For opposing players, the black turf is one final reminder of what’s in store for the next 60 minutes and anyone who has played with or against the Wave can attest that Milwaukee embraces its team in a way that few cities can replicate.
“If you can play in Milwaukee, you can play anywhere,” said Wave captain Ian Bennett.
“Even if you’re a player from another team, if you can play on that field and handle all the fans and everything, you can play anywhere.”
The unique playing surface is just one example of the Wave’s innovation and influence in the sport. Milwaukee also consistently ranks among the best in the MASL for attendance with over 3,000 fans turning up on average.
Constant music, incessant noise from supporters and arena announcer Van McNeil all come together to create one of the best fan experiences in all of American soccer.
“Playing here, the lights are brighter,” said Bennett, “you can get nervous, you can embrace it, but it’s just a great atmosphere.”
On the turf, the Wave works hard to uphold the standard of play that the team’s legacy requires. After a frustrating campaign last year, Milwaukee currently sits on top of the Eastern Conference with a four-point lead over the Florida Tropics and a game in hand, at the time of writing.
Though he hesitated to give a specific goal for the Wave this year, Oliviero was quick to praise his squad’s consistent growth as the season has progressed.
“Every week we get better,” he said. “We’re winning games even when we’re not at our best, and we’re excited to see the ceiling that this group can get to.”
Milwaukee last won a Championship in 2019, defeating the Monterrey Flash 5-2 in front of 7,900 home fans, having come up short in the previous six seasons. With the new ownership, the new branding, the new management and many new players, claiming a seventh title kept the winning mentality strong within the organization and reminded everyone that championships remain the expectation for the Wave.
“When the final horn sounded, to be on top, to be the best at your profession, it was a very special feeling,” said Oliviero.
“To have a championship at the home field again,” said Bennett, “where you can celebrate with your friends and family, it’s incredible.”
“You know, sometimes when you play in these championships, you get a little nervous, but to be honest, from the opening whistle to the end, I had no doubt. It was a championship, but it felt like a regular game, and I’m not gonna lie, that was probably the easiest championship I’ve ever won.”
For Oliviero, titles are always to be cherished, but that drive to keep winning is just as important.
“I’ve won it as a player, player-assistant coach and as a head coach so each one is beyond special and it doesn’t get old, you wanna compete every year for a championship.”
This year’s team has already equaled last season’s win total in eight fewer games, and Oliviero has noticed a resemblance between his current squad and the one that beat Monterrey in Milwaukee four years ago.
“There are a lot of similarities, as far as the style of play,” said Oliviero.
“We have an idea of what we want our play to look like and it’s getting to where it was in 2019.”
Bennett agreed, saying, “this season the whole dynamic has changed and everything is getting back to the old-school Wave mentality.”
This mentality that the two-time MASL MVP referred to is a constant theme that everyone within the organization believes. From the ownership through to the players, winning is central to everything the team does.
“We’re expected to win,” said owner Mike Zimmerman, “that’s just our culture here. Even for the senior management, everybody wants to win.”
While looking back on his time as a player for the Wave, Coach Giuls, as he’s affectionately known, provided a unique perspective on this mentality.
“You go through all the years, you look at your stats, and that’s great, but at the end of the day, you want to be a champion. That’s kinda what kept me in Milwaukee, the ability to win championships.”
The franchise has long been a barometer to which other teams compare themselves. Everything just means more for Milwaukee and this dedication to being the best pays dividends every time the Wave takes the field.
“When I came here, it was honestly like coming to Barcelona or Real Madrid,” said Bennett.
“They don’t rebuild, they always try to win championships. With all the legends that have played here, there’s some prestige when you wear a Wave uniform that’s different from all the other teams.”
Success on the field is not the only reason for the Wave’s massive following. The team is also heavily involved in the area’s soccer community with its youth club and summer camps that bring in a tremendous amount of attention year-round.
SC Wave is a premier youth soccer club in Southeastern Wisconsin, that has several branches around Milwaukee. Many Wave players like Bennett, Andre Hayne, Marcio Leite and Luan Oliveira are also coaches, which helps get younger fans closer to their heroes and develops a sense of belonging between the team and the community it represents.
“It’s been a great joint venture between the two groups,” says Oliviero.
“Our players love to coach. They love being around the game and they love being around players that are striving to become better.”
It also creates a top to the youth soccer pyramid that for too long didn't exist in Wisconsin. Since then several players have made the jump from SC Wave to the first team and that number will no doubt grow as the years go on.
This commitment to the future success of the club will only help ensure that the team, which has operated continuously since 1984, will keep its place as American soccer royalty long after the stars of today have moved on and the next generation takes their place.
With the team’s 40th anniversary coming in 2024, Zimmerman and his team are excited and already planning exactly how to celebrate the tremendous milestone.
“We know we want to do it in a big way,” he said. “We’re going to make a big deal out of it.”
Back between the boards, there are no prizes for guessing what the team’s expectations are for the future. Giuls and his squad are looking forward to the playoffs and have set the bar high because settling for anything less than greatness is not the Milwaukee way.
"Winning a championship as a coach is something that I'll never forget,” said Giuls. “Watching those guys enjoy that moment was great and now we’re seeing this group striving for the same.”
As soccer becomes increasingly profitable in the United States, it can be easy to look at the present without remembering what it took to get here. These stories, however, are key to understanding how American soccer became what it is today. These are our legends. These are our roots.
The landscape of American soccer has constantly taken new shapes, like a sheet in the wind, and it should be remembered that the Wave kept their heads when all around them were losing theirs. While teams and leagues alike formed and folded across the country for decades, Milwaukee remained the lone constant, and a powerhouse to boot.
“We work hard, day in and day out, in every facet of the game because that’s what’s gonna keep us consistent, staying towards the top every year,” said Oliviero.
“Our competition knows that and they know that when they come to Milwaukee or Milwaukee comes to them, they’ve gotta be at their best to beat us.”