From South Bend to Columbus to Sellersburg, soccer fans in Indiana are ready for 2014.
That's when Indy Eleven, a North American Soccer League team formed earlier this year, will begin competing at Indiana University-Purdue University's Carroll Stadium.
Indy Eleven currently has more than 4,500 season ticket holders, including many who are part of the Brickyard Battalion, the team's official supporters group. Also known as the BYB, the group has more than a dozen affiliates and thousands of members all over the state.
Derek Richey, the group's president, said if the current trend continues, there could be anywhere from 20 to 25 affiliates by the start of the 2014 preseason.
Richey said that kind of support wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago. He said the growth in soccer's popularity has been largely due to a new generation that plays soccer and watches international and premier team play constantly online and on television.
And Richey said the growing passion for the sport in Indiana, along with a skilled marketing team, puts the Indy Eleven at "a whole new level" in comparison to past professional soccer teams in Indiana, including the Indiana Blast and the Indianapolis Daredevils, which disbanded in 2004 and 1974, respectively.
Tom Dunmore, vice president of marketing and operations for Indy Eleven, said the team is here to stay. Dunmore said he believes the team won't experience the same failures as other professional soccer teams in Indiana.
"I really don't think we're going to see that with this team just because of the level of interest and the foundation that's around the team," he said.
And that foundation, he said, begins with the fans.
"Without the fans, you don't really have anything," he said.
John Koluder, the team's spokesman, said that is especially true in the case of Indy Eleven. He spoke specifically about the BYB, which formed in 2011 to support Racing Indy FC, an imaginary team conjured to convince professional soccer leaders that the city could support a team.
Richey, who helped create the Facebook page for Racing Indy FC, said he and the other founding eight members of the Battalion "couldn't believe it was real" when the North American Soccer League made the official announcement in January that it had granted Indianapolis a franchise.
The league is professional but is a tier below Major League Soccer.
Richey said it was one of the moments when "you just have to pinch yourself."
Koluder said it was "phenomenal" that the BYB supported an imaginary team for two years, especially since "they were kind of getting to the point where they didn't think something would happen."
He said their passion for the sport was a key part of the team's creation.
"Without them, we would not be here, plain and simple," he said.
Dunmore said the BYB created a strong base of support, which helped create "strong momentum for ticket sales right after the team was announced."
The response from fans has been "beyond our expectations," Koluder said And that's true of the player response as well, he said.
About 250 players applied for the first and second rounds of tryouts, which wrapped up Friday morning. That's nearly twice as many as Juergen Sommer, the team's head coach, had been expecting.
Sommer said he has been pleased with the turnout at the player tryouts so far, with talent coming from Indiana, across the United States and abroad.
Thirty-seven players took to the field at Carroll Stadium during Thursday's tryouts, including 20 players from Indiana, 13 from other states and 4 international players.
Brad Callahan, a 23-year-old forward from South Bend, was one of 10 players called back from the very first round of tryouts that took place July 16 and 17.
Callahan played for the Indiana Invaders - a team based in South Bend that played in the Premier Development League from 1998 to 2011 - when he was in high school and came to the tryouts because he wants "to play pro soccer for a living."
He was "really excited" when he heard about Indy Eleven.
Baba Omosegbon, a 23-year-old defender from Indianapolis, was also one of those returning during the second round.
Omosegbon, who went to Indiana Blast games while growing up, said he couldn't pass up "the prospect of playing locally."
There was "the chance to be able to play in front of familiar faces and in a familiar environment," he said. "It was something that I had to take advantage of."
Sommer said the 10 players the staff brought back from the first round gave him and other coaches a "measuring stick" for the new players trying out, including Francesco Giusti, a 21-year-old Italian defender.
Giusti said through a translator that it was "a great honor" to be called to tryout for Indy Eleven. He said he was "proud to be here," especially because of the strong fan base already present in Indiana.
Sommer said that strong base is a big deal, especially for the players, referencing his experience playing professional soccer for eight years in England. He compared the fans in the Brickyard Battalion to those in England, saying they create an atmosphere that is full of energy and completely unique to soccer.
"I can't wait until the first game kicks off and those guys are out in full force and cheering on the team and the players," Sommer said. "The players really thrive off that."
Richey and the other members of the Brickyard Battalion, as well as other soccer fans across the state, are "looking forward to the start of the season."
And Dunmore had advice for Hoosiers who might be more skeptical about the sport, which he said is different from other U.S. professional sports because it has "non-stop action," it will never take "20 minutes to play the last two minutes," and the atmosphere is crowd driven, with highs that culminate in the explosion after a goal.
"Come out to a game with an open mind next year. Have a beer if that's your thing and watch the game, and I think you'll probably find you get into it once you give it chance," he said. "Most people around the world do, and I don't think Americans are really so different, as we're seeing in the growth of the sport in the cities that are giving the sport a chance."
Megan Banta is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.