Retired goalie Juergen Sommer has seen a lot of high-level soccer in his career — from vantage points on a championship-winning IU team, the U.S. National Team during two World Cups, the English Premiere League and MLS.
After more than a decade of professional play, he returned to Indiana and began coaching at various levels. On Tuesday, Indy Eleven named Sommer as the team's first head coach and director of soccer operations.
Legendary coach Jerry Yeagley, who nurtured Sommer's talent at IU and helped connect him with the U.S. National Team, supported the decision.
"Juergen has overachieved at every level and has wonderful tactical awareness of the game, but the most important trait he possesses is that he is extremely good at building personal relationships," Yeagley said in an Indy Eleven press release. "As the coach of a new professional team you need someone that can pull everything together and create the chemistry needed to make your club a championship caliber program, and Juergen is the ideal choice to do that."
Ahead of Tuesday's announcement, Sommer took some time to talk with NUVO about himself and his plans for the future.
NUVO: Why did you take this job?
Sommer: Indiana has been such a big part of my life. I went to Culver Military Academy for high school. I grew up in South Florida. My family had friends and clients in business from Indiana, folks that had second homes down there, who recommended the school, so I went up to the academy had a great experience.
And met some real influential folks that helped pushed me on to Indiana University, and I walked on to Jerry Yeagley's program in 1987 at IU.
I just felt like Indiana has really been in my roots and my soccer background for a long time with the success I was able to be a part of at the Indiana University men's soccer program — we won national championship my sophomore year and we went back to the finals my junior year.
Jerry helped move me on the national team scene prior 1990 World Cup. All that good guidance, good people around me that have always steered me in the right direction and really helped look after me, led to long professional playing career.
Eventually, I met my wife at IU, and we settled back here in Indianapolis. I've coached all levels here in Indianapolis. Carmel Dads club from kindergarten to fifth grade, coached club soccer players with Carmel United Soccer Club that went on to state cups and regional championships — most of those guys went on to play college, a few of them made it to the national teams and three of them are in the MLS today.
So, for me, I feel this is right place to be, the right time.
Definitely, the sport is at a point where it has reached its tipping point. I really believe the MLS and the NASL and our U.S. National Teams, men's and women's, have really turned the corner and are a big part of our sports fabric here in the United States. So I'm really proud to be part of this professional soccer team here in Indianapolis and will use all my resources to grow it the right way and hopefully make it a force in professional soccer in this country.
NUVO: You've alluded to having to do a lot in a short period of time. How long will it take to identify your players and how are you going about doing that?
Sommer: For every team that I've been on, that's always an ongoing process. Teams are always looking at players, always evaluating new talent. So that's something that's obviously has already begun and we continue to monitor on a day-to-day basis, week to week.
Are we going to be as strong in week one of the NASL as we will two or three years down the line? Probably not, hopefully not. You're always looking to get bigger, stronger and more competitive. But what I want to do is start here in the state of Indiana for most talented folks that we can find, some of which are here in the state, some of which are out playing in the current NASL or Major League Soccer or the U.S. national team and see if there is an interest for those folks to come back.
I think we've got a tremendous amount of resources in the state of Indiana and within the immediate region. Look at the Indiana men's soccer program what they've done over the years. Notre Dame's women's program is phenomenal, their men's program is strong — one of their players is on the U.S. National Team right now. IUPUI is getting better and better. Steve Franklin started a great program there. Isang Jacob is really raising the bar on that program. We have Louisville with Ken Lola, who is fantastic coach. He developed a super program at up at Akron and that program continues to shine.
So we have Akron, Louisville, Notre Dame, Indiana, IUPUI, University of Indianapolis — regionally a lot of talent that's already here. So we really want to take a look at that and see who is available and who would be the right choice to come to the Indy Eleven and add some value. Also, we're getting interest of international players wanting to come to the U.S., come to the Indy Eleven.
But, for me, I really want to build a strong background of young U.S. players that will have a platform to play and develop their skills and hopefully move our team to the highest level and create future playing career opportunities for those players.
So pick a strong U.S.-based, young, dynamic team and try to find the right mix of international players to come in and help, give us a little diversity and knowledge of the game and try to blend the chemistry together.
NUVO: What is the pitch when you approach a player?
Sommer: Indy Eleven being a part of the NASL ... the league has had historically a tremendous amount of influence in this country, so it's a great to be part of that and see that grow. For young players coming up, you've got a storied, rejuvenated North American Soccer League that's growing and expanding rapidly...
So my pitch really is: It's a platform, it's an opportunity to be seen and play and develop full-time professional players. They're very hard to find. Even in the MLS, for the size of our country, 20 teams is not a lot of teams ... you're talking 14-15 players per team. There really isn't a lot of opportunity.
What I see here in Indianapolis: You've got a fantastic sports town that's really sports-minded, that is great at hosting events, that really gets behind their teams, extremely loyal. You've got a platform where you can play and showcase yourself. For any young player or up-and-coming player that's the place you want to be. You want to be on a team where you're going to play, you're going to be seen, you can grow and you can develop and make mistakes and be OK and keep moving forward.
There are very few teams where young players can come out of the gates and find a role to play; it's very difficult. With our men's national team and women's national team, unless you're a fully proven professional player, there are no opportunities there anymore because the professional game around the U.S. has really grown in the last 10-15 years — it's become a very competitive landscape. Even the top 20 players drafted into the MLS, if half of those stick from one year to the next, you're lucky. There are just a lot of senior players out there and it's difficult to break in.
We have an opportunity to start a franchise from ground up, so we'll be looking for young, talented players and experienced players that recognize what we're gong and provide them the opportunity to be a part of the Indy Eleven.
NUVO: What will it take to grow U.S. soccer to the level we see in places like the English Premiere League?
Sommer: Take this year, for example. Look at the Champions League. Two German teams, Bayern Munich and Dortmund, were both in the final. The quality of those teams goes back to their domestic league. Their domestic league went through a rejuvenation here in last five to six years — they really refocused on making the league more significant, more dynamic. Most of the German players that play on the German National Team very rarely leave their country. They play in the Bundesliga [Germany's pro soccer league]... That's very similar to what you see in England and Italy and Spain — that a lot of the high-end domestic players stay in their country.
My point is, for our men's national team and professional soccer in this country, whether it's NASL or Major League Soccer, it's very important for those leagues to grow and become more and more competitive. As our leagues become more and more competitive, there is a greater interest for players to stay within the United States and grow and play their professional, domestic futbol here in the U.S. That will make our national team better.
I was part of the early group, really after the 1990 World Cup. Other than college soccer, that was the highest level of outdoor soccer we had — most of the players had to go abroad to get that experience.
From my group on the 1994 World Cup team, players like Tab Ramos were in Spain, John Harkes and myself were in England, Paul Caligiuri and Claudio Reyna and others were in Germany. So you really had to go outside the U.S. to get that experience. And the European leagues have been growing and growing. The new formation of the English Premiere League, the Champions League, they keep raising the bar of competition their players are playing in week in and week out.
As our men's national team starts to face some of these countries, they are realizing that the European players — with their domestic leagues coupled with of their clubs are also playing in champions league — they are playing a very high level of soccer week in and week out. So we have a lot of catch up work to do. Granted, those leagues have been around for a hundred years in the European countries and we're only been 16 years old. So, to be fair, we're not doing too bad, but there is a big difference. For our men's team to really compete on the international stage, at an Olympic level or World Cup level, we have to have our players playing at the highest level possible here in the U.S. and abroad.
If you look at our men's national team now, the majority of those players are playing abroad in Europe ...
That's where in the NASL league becomes very important because as that league thrives and flourishes — the New York Cosmos are coming back, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers — as they get better and better, and the quality of play and coaching gets better and better, it will just be better for the players and opportunity.
NUVO: Is it naïve to think Indiana will be able to develop teams capable of performing at the top professional level?
Sommer: When I first started with the national team in 1988, it was kind of the running joke that other than John Stollmeyer, who was on the 1990 World Cup team and a real stand out at Indiana University, in the Hall of Fame there, if it wasn't for John, other than one other guy from St Louis, there really wasn't a Midwest presence. Most of the players on the team, they were either East Coast, New York, D.C, Miami, or West Coast influence, San Diego, Los Angeles. There was a real small representation of Midwesterners on men's national team, and I'd even say on our women's national team at that point.
But I think Jerry Yeagley and the IU men's soccer program really broke the mold open there. You can see where they are today with eight national championships. Notre Dame has three national championships and their men's team was ranked No. 1 in the country last year for a long part of the year.
To really think you'd find that quality of soccer in Indiana is kind of unheard of. You'd expect to see that in Florida, Texas or California or Arizona, but you tend to find those programs and universities here in Indiana that are turning out a lot of players — especially on our women's team. I think we have five or six current gals from Indiana on our women's national team.
Indiana is a real interesting and dynamic state in that respect. That's why I think the opportunity is right for a professional team. Maybe even sometime down the road — with a new women's league just getting started this year — there may be an opportunity to do that as well.
If Indy Eleven gets to point where they have a soccer-specific stadium and training facility, I think that would be very easy to add, or fold in a women's' team.
NUVO: Every editor I've ever worked for has imparted some kind of wisdom that sticks with me. Is it like that for coaches?
Sommer: From the coaches and the influential people you come across in the game, you always pick up great tidbits of information and advice in the conversations you have, either in the heat of the moment or a pressing time when you need some sound advice.
I remember speaking to Jerry when I first went to England and found it to be very difficult to break in to the teams there and found myself wondering, "Am I in the right spot? What am I doing here? Is this really gonna work?" He basically just told me, "Hey, if this is something you really want to do, then you need to stay there and kind of keep plugging away and make it happen and kind of work yourself into a situation that you begin to flourish. And it's never going to be easy."
He talked about starting the IU program and the challenges he had ... I think we'll see the same here with Indy Eleven.
We'll have our challenges starting a new professional soccer team and sports franchise in the city, but I'm really impressed with the general manager and ownership, Ersal Ozdemir and the staff he's hired. We'll keep overcoming those obstacles day by day.
It's always a very challenging environment to be in for any athlete. Jerry has just been committed to the program, and you can tell as a player he is committed to his players, he is committed to university, and he is committed to do anything within his power to make it right — to make the program professional and provide you with what you need as a student athlete at that university and also to grow the game outside the university and provide you with additional opportunities.
That's same philosophy we'll take at Indy Eleven here. We're looking for the best players we can find who will really contribute to what we're trying to do as a team and organization. Likewise, we'll return that favor to the players and hopefully move their careers and opportunities to a higher level ...
NUVO: Not to stereotype, but soccer players are a notoriously rowdy bunch, how will you keep your players in line?
Sommer: As a professional soccer player, I've been fortunate to be a pro player from when I was about 20 till I was about 33, so I've had a long run of variety of different teams here in the U.S., the English Premiere Team, U.S. National Teams, World Cup teams. You really have to create the culture and the environment to know where the boundaries are for the players.
You never want to take that enthusiasm or rowdiness or competitiveness away from the players. You actually are trying to find that and bring that out of them. But, at the same time, you have to teach them how to be professional player: How to take care of yourself, how behave on and off the field, how to respect your teammates, the organization, the coaching staff. That's an ongoing process of teaching and working with players.
Young players make mistakes; coaches make mistakes. Knowing that you are safe in that environment — whether it is the locker room, the field of play or the organization itself — that we'll work to help each other and look after each other.
We want to give them room to grow and express themselves and be creative — rowdiness definitely comes with that. You don't want to take that away because that is a competitive edge that energizes the fans as well and makes the games exciting. We want to be able to bring that element to your matches. You definitely don't want to take that from your players, but they also have to learn what's acceptable and what's not acceptable.
NUVO: What will Indy Eleven's style be? What will the team be known for?
Sommer: From quietly being the coach here already we've gotten so much interest from all over the world. I've gotten emails from as far away as Africa and Argentina to the UK, Denmark, Holland, Mexico. It's unbelievable the variety of interest of players from around the world are already expressing, they want to come try out and have a look at the Indy Eleven. That's a great testament to what our general manager and our owner are doing so far, and the quality of the league itself, the NASL.
I believe in the city of Indianapolis. It is a very diverse city, a multi-national city, the great companies we have here, whether it is Cummins or Lilly or Dow AgroSciences ... Those types of players will be comfortable here in Indianapolis and find it very easy to live and call this their home.
From a style of play ... even the U.S. is really struggling to put their stamp on: What kind of team are we? Are we a hardened Germany? Very physical, very strong? Or are we more South American ... Brazilian-type flair?
If you look at our national team now, we have a combination of both. We have very flair-type, creative-type players, we've got hardworking, energized American players that really put their heart and soul on the field. We've got a great influence of some domestic German players that are able to play for our national team that Jürgen Klinsmann's (the U.S. national team's head coach and former German soccer star) brought in.
I really would like to see our team know that they have the ability to be open and creative and show the flair when it's called for. But we are definitely going to be a hard-working, organizes, German kind of disciplined type team, as well. Defense wins championships, but you need that creative flair to open the game up. I'm definitely not going to be the type of coach to hold our players back from wanting to create and play, but it has to be in the right areas of the field at the right times and make sense, so that's just part of the learning process of what it takes to win league games and get into the playoffs and win championships.
We're definitely geared to try to be as successful as we can on the field, which means doing well in the league, hopefully winning the league, playing for the NASL championships and the U.S. Open Cup where will be going up against MLS teams.
Just watching the MLS teams that played this weekend. Look at the Seattle/Vancouver game played Saturday night: Highly competitive game - 55,000 people in Seattle — very technical. We are going to come across teams like that. And we have to be prepared. The only way you prepare for that is through discipline and hard work and really understanding from a strategy standpoint where to be on the field and how to perform.
But I'm not going to handcuff the players so that they can't play a certain way if they have the ability to be creative and bring that flair to the table, absolutely, we love to see that because we definitely want to be entertaining for the community and the fans — and we want to be recognized as we play the game the right way.
NUVO: Is there any message you really want to be sure to convey?
Sommer: I don't only look at it from coaching standpoint. We're taking a big step here for professional soccer both on the men's side and, hopefully, the women's side for the City of Indianapolis. I know when they unveiled the opportunity that we were going to have pro team at the coaches' convention here in January, and all the significant announcements after that, the City of Indianapolis has been terrific to support the movement in the Indy Eleven. I think it's going to be extremely important, not only for the success of the team but the franchise, that if we can continue to harness the city support and really build this franchise properly, we're going to have a tremendous success here for a long time.
The fact that Peter Wilt was able to get Chelsea/Inter Milan here for an international match is very hard to do. I played in London for Queens Park Rangers and one of our biggest rivals was Chelsea. One of my coaches was the assistant coach there for a number of years. It's a wonderful club, extremely difficult to get them in our backyard. I don't know how they did it.
If we can get stadium piece correct and continue to grow the Indy Eleven in the right way and the fans and the Brickyard Battalion continue to support the team, I think we can have great sports franchise here – an international sports franchise —for a long period of time.The swell from the grass roots — it's amazing to see the season ticket sales and for the international game — it's definitely here and the time is right do it, and the international community supports it.
My biggest ask would be that we continue to get that support from city and really grow this opportunity. Given the ownership group and the general manager, and as the team comes together, we're gonna have a great opportunity to put a great franchise out there. I think, year in and year out, we could be competing for championships as well as hosting big international matches.
We were on the final list of the 18 cities to host the World Cup. I was on the bid committee that the Indiana Sports Corp put on and they did a wonderful job putting the bid package together — we were tied only with Seattle in the No. 1 position in the final 18 cities.
I was out in Washington D.C. last weekend for the 100-year anniversary of U.S. soccer. We had a big gala dinner on Saturday night and the FIFA [International Federation of Association Football] rep from CONCACAF [Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football] got up and spoke and pretty much indicated that by 2026 he thinks the U.S. will have the 2026 World Cup here in the United States.
When you really look at it, if we're starting we're starting in 2014 ... it's a ways away but it's really not that far away. In the City of Indianapolis, it'd be really fun if we could put ourselves on the map and begin to host some of those games here.
Big picture, that's what I'm looking at, too, down the road. I think next World Cup we have in the U.S. will far surpass any of the records that were set in 1994 – some of which are still held today (record ticket sales and attendance at all our games with bigger venues and more revenue generated). I think we'll blow all those out of the water and it will be fun.
There is big interest to get the game back here again.
It'd be great for Indianapolis to be part of that party. You see how well the city did hosting the NFL and the Super Bowl. This would be great to have month-long event where you are hosting multiple games and bringing international teams into the community. The Downtown is just so wonderful, it's set up perfectly for an event like that. It would be in the summer. If we could be up and running and really humming at that point, I think it'd give us a lot of visibility as well, both for the city and the team.
NUVO: Are you going to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup?
Sommer: Well, with my role now with the team ...
NUVO: Of course! How long will the season run?
Sommer: The season ... We hope to get players in here by early 2014 ... You have a February/March pre-season timeline. You have two mini seasons: April, May, June, they'll be off in June, then we'll regroup July, August, September, then the playoffs begin in October and finish in mid-to-late November. Then the players will be off part of December, part of January and get back after it at the end of January.
It's a full 12-month playing, training, development opportunity. There will be pre-season and post-season travel. If you're a professional player and you want an opportunity to play, this is a great place to do that.