Meet Forward Madison FC’s new coach, Carl Craig

Forward Madison FC’s new coach is a free-thinking Englishman with a punk rock past and a bent for inclusivity.
Carl Craig standing in front of members of the team
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

Even in the world of professional soccer, where colorful characters are as abundant as exaggerated fouls, Carl Craig stands out. The new Forward Madison FC coach is a former bike messenger and punk musician who protested against Margaret Thatcher in his native England and once toured with Chumbawamba (of “Tubthumping” fame) in the ’80s. He’s been known to hypnotize players and is described by those around him as “off the wall” and “very much a free-thinker.” But it’s Craig’s vision for Forward Madison FC — the 3-year-old minor league soccer club affectionately known as the Mingos for the fuchsia bird that adorns its crest — that may be the most radical thing about him.

“I see the club as a platform for community development and inclusion,” says Craig. “We’re not going to tick the box for everyone, but we still want to be inclusive in everything we do.”

That spirit of inclusivity has been with Craig from the start. Growing up in Newcastle in northeast England, he trained with the town’s famous youth soccer academy before turning to punk music (he sang and played bass) in his teens and 20s. He describes his first band, The Abductors, as “teenage angst, excitement, that kind of thing.” An early Abductors performance on YouTube shows Craig with a double mohawk, egging on the moshing crowd. By the time he began playing with his second band, Reality Control, progressive politics were firmly embedded in his identity.

Forward Madison FC's coach Carl Craig sitting on a bench

Photo by Paulius Musteikis

“It was evolving into much more of a lifestyle than just a taste in music,” he says.

Craig began selling whole foods out of an apartment he shared with friends before trying — and failing — to open a vegan restaurant. Then, his fortunes changed when the music collective he belonged to needed a soccer coach. That led him to obtain licenses from England’s Football Association — opening the door for him to coach professionally.

In 1994, when an opportunity arose to coach in the United States, Craig jumped, even though his knowledge of American culture was limited. “[It was] ‘Starsky & Hutch,’ ‘Hawaii Five-0,’ people who could afford to have food, take a bite and not finish it,” he says. During his first week abroad, Craig was watching the opening ceremony of the World Cup at a sports bar in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, when the broadcast was suddenly interrupted by footage of former football star O.J. Simpson being chased down a Los Angeles highway by police. “I didn’t even know who O.J. Simpson was,” says Craig. “People were literally crying and I thought, ‘What is going on here? I knew Americans were crazy, but these people are [expletive] crazy.’ ”

Carl Craig with members of Forward Madison FC

Photo by Paulius Musteikis

Over time, Craig acclimated to American life and made his way up the Minnesota coaching ranks. Eventually, he became an assistant and then head coach of the North American Soccer League’s Minnesota United FC — formerly Minnesota Stars FC — where his eccentricity made him a favorite among fans. In one 2016 video captured by a fan on Twitter, Craig is shown celebrating a victory by sliding on his belly in front of the home stands and chugging a beer. The local CBS affiliate proclaimed him “The Most Interesting Man in Minnesota Sports.” Perhaps most enduringly, he began a tradition — which continues to this day — of singing the Britpop anthem “Wonderwall” after home victories.

Yet when Minnesota United made the jump to Major League Soccer in 2017, the team made the surprising decision to replace Craig with a new head coach. That may have ultimately played to his advantage.

Craig’s offbeat personality is a natural fit for Forward Madison, which during its brief existence has established a reputation for doing things differently. From its inception, the team brought in members of its diverse supporters’ groups to weigh in on everything from the club’s name to its logo. Its active social media accounts regularly parody the self-seriousness that typically dominates the sport. And catching a game at Breese Stevens Field, with its brightly painted flamingos and fans dressed in the team’s bold uniforms — including last season’s much-heralded “drip kit” — can feel like entering an all-ages club where everyone is encouraged to be a little bit weird.

That spirit of togetherness continues after the game, too.

“In Minneapolis, there were multiple nights at the pub after the game when Carl would suddenly appear three barstools down, having a deep philosophical discussion with someone he’d just met,” says Forward Madison captain Connor Tobin, who played under Craig in Minnesota. “It’s so easy to close my eyes and imagine him at Crystal Corner or The Caribou, where he would look like one of the regulars and talk to anyone that walks in. That’s just his personality.”

Carl Craig in front of Forward Madison FC logo

Photo by Paulius Musteikis

That personality was on full display during an early April training session. Over the din of traffic from East Washington Avenue, Craig’s Geordie accent could be heard issuing nonstop encouragement. Players — even those in for a brief tryout — were always “fella” or “son.” Even in the near-freezing rain, Craig wore shorts — making it all the easier to see the twin smiley faces he tattooed on his knee when he was 11.

Tasked with filling out his roster for the 2021 season, Craig embraced a comprehensive strategy, prizing intangibles, such as community spirit, alongside on-field prowess.

Forward Madison Chief Operating Officer and co-owner Conor Caloia, who oversaw the committee that conducted the head coach search, says he was impressed by Craig’s approach. “With Carl, it’s really a holistic screening process. It’s not just who’s going to score goals or be great on the field.”

Still, Caloia admits, while community engagement is great, “At the end of the day we’ve got to win games.”

Forward Madison FC players jumping on the field after winning a game

Forward Madison FC celebrated a last-minute goal to secure a home-opener win on May 15 over North Carolina. Photo by Justin Nuoffer/Forward Madison FC

Craig knows this, too. After a disappointing 2020 in which COVID-19 protocols forced the team to play its home games in Wauwatosa, nearly 75 miles away, Forward Madison got off to a hot start this season. The team went undefeated in May, earning Craig USL League One Coach of the Month, before going winless in its next five games. But if the first-year coach is sweating the results, he isn’t showing it.

“[Soccer] has been a vehicle for me to get with people, to share my message if you will,” says Craig. “In a club like Forward Madison, I don’t have to be anything I’m not.”

Jeff Oloizia is a Madison-based writer.