In the beginning there were the fans. And the fans loved soccer. And the fans loved Indiana.
The fans created a virtual team through which they explored their Indiana pro soccer fantasies. Word spread of their fanaticism. Soon, some capitalists (who also happen to be soccer nuts) took notice. They performed some tests of Central Indiana's appetite for a professional soccer product — taking heed that previous versions of Indy pro soccer proved unsustainable. Initial interest seemed promising, so they took a risk.
On Jan. 16, 2013, the North American Soccer League announced it was adding Indy Pro Soccer to its ranks. Among the NASL foes Indy will face: a second incarnation of the celebrated New York Cosmos (a club that back in its late '70s heyday had World Cup stars Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer on its roster) and the infamous Tampa Bay Rowdies (noteworthy for using booze and babes to lure the Cosmos stars into an evening that may have helped lead to their defeat in Tampa the following day).
Three months following the NASL announcement, the city learned the team's name: Indy Eleven. Now, just over a year after committing to the league, Indy Eleven has absorbed the talent, strength and experience it takes to move from amorphous concept to concrete reality: On April 12, 2014, 11 men wearing their official Victory-emblazoned patches will take to the field as the first official Indy Eleven starting line-up.
"We really haven't had our full team together yet," Head Coach Juergen Sommer said following practice on March 14, the day before the team's first Indiana preseason exhibition match against the Tourbeau Soccer Club.
Once the full team arrives, begins to coalesce and the players "feed off the energy and excitement in the city of Indianapolis for the team," Sommer added, "we're going to see a real neat personality of this team come out that we haven't been able to see yet.
"As you can see, this is very diverse group of players: We have players from England, Honduras, Brazil, a player who has played in Norway, as well as local players, players from Indiana, players from the Midwest and as far out as L.A. and New York. We took our time to find the right types of players, and, more importantly, the kind of personalities that come along with each one of the players, how they compliment or have ties with the other players on the team."
Who are they?
Even as this story headed to print, just 10 days before the team's NASL season opener against the Carolina RailHawks at Carroll Stadium, the team continued to work in new players — the latest is of Brazilian National Team caliber.
Monday's signing of Kleberson — who played for the 2002 World Cup-winning Brazilian Men's National Team — adds championship quality of the highest level to Indy Eleven's roster.
On the field, people can expect him to "bring happiness to the pitch," Kleberson told NUVO following Monday's signing announcement. As he has aged, the 34-year-old said, "I don't have the same speed, but have adapted by using strength, vision and experience."
Helping to grow Indiana's premiere level sounded fascinating to him, he said.
"I love the U.S.," Kleberson said. "I've always had a good time here. I'm going to continue my life here and be a part of what they're building."
Guided by the desire to build from the central defense, which provides the essential service of protecting the team's goal, the team began by signing Kristian Nicht, a German goalie who has played in Germany's Bundesliga where he helped a second-division club earn promotion to the top league. When he moved to the U.S. in 2012 to play for the USL PRO club Rochester Rhinos, he opened with six consecutive shutout wins. Last season, he notched seven more shutouts for the Rhinos.
"Soccer is my passion," Nicht said following a recent practice. "It's the best profession in the world — I get to play soccer every day and get paid for it. To be good at something, you have to have a passion — without that passion or that love, you will never be good; hardships and failures will make it difficult for you and easy to quit. At 31 now, I'm not thinking at all of retiring. You have to sacrifice a lot, but I never struggled with that because I love playing soccer so much, so I didn't care about all the other stuff you do as teenager."
As he was being groomed to turn professional growing up in Germany, Nicht went to an academy where athletes trained in the mornings and afternoons and worked with tutors around when they weren't on the field.
"Team sport is the best way to educate yourself," he said, explaining it teaches one how to win, how to lose, how to behave and how to be unselfish. "Soccer is a team sport, but it starts with individuals. You have to bring your best performance and the best energy you have everyday to training. ...Once you have that, you'll be a part of team spirit and the team will come together."
Following Nicht's signing, the team nabbed some young defensive talent in local players, Nathan Sprenkel, formerly of DePauw, to play backup goalie and defender Baba Omosegbon, born in Nigeria, raised in Indy and educated at Harvard. A few months later, John Dawson, who played keeper for Butler, also joined.
Omosegbon, at an Armistice Day event that marked his addition to the team last fall, said that having local roots would drive the Indiana boys to play as hard as possible: "Being local, this opportunity means even more to us. We have the opportunity to develop as players and individuals on and off the field in an environment that is very comfortable for us. We take the opportunity very seriously."
Another major international acquisition followed with the signing of defender Erick Norales, a former Honduras National Team player, who, in addition to a decade's worth of professional experience, made 30 career appearances for the Honduran National Team between 2007-2011.
Then team continued to build through the central midfield — where the team must assert control of possession and distribute well-placed balls for attackers to bury in the opposing net.
"It was the luck of the a draw with a player like Brad Ring stepping away from MLS to be here," Sommer said, referring to their fiery stopper/central mid, who is, like his coach, a former IU star. "We didn't think we'd be that lucky."
Since then, the coaches have been focused on supplementing its core foundation, working in, as Sommer said, "pieces to fill in the shape of the team and the personality of the team."
That shape includes several NASL veterans who have opted to move to Indy: winger Walter Ramirez (who is, like Norales, a native of La Ceiba, Honduras) and forwards Mike Ambersley (an IU grad) and Pedro Mendes of Goiania, Brazil. Mendes earned the NASL 2013 Goal of the Season Award for a 35-yard shot against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
All three of these figures in their pre-season performances have demonstrated fierce attacking skills with an exciting balance of flair and experience.
In addition, the midfield boasts the creativity and drive of Don Smart, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, reared in the Bronx and most recently played for the Virginia-based club RVA FC.
Rounding out the defense so far: Chris Estridge, a native of Brownsburg, Ind., Chris Wey, an Indy native and graduate of IUPUI, and Andrew Stone, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
"We have a good mix of people so it makes practices fun," Wey said, following a recent practice. "At the same time, we're very serious out here and we're getting ready for something special."
To expand the team's European influence beyond its solid German foundation, the team added the U.K.'s Corby Moore, an attacking midfielder who is playing for the Eleven on a two-year deal from the English Premiere League's Southampton F.C. A native of Southampton, the 20-year-old Moore has trained with his club's development academy since he was 8.
Also coming from Europe, though he is a New Mexico native, is 6-foot-5 forward Ben Spencer, who has been playing for Norway's Tippeligaen club Molde. He is also a veteran of U.S. Under-20 Men's National Team camp where he caught the eye of Tim Regan, who serves as assistant coach to both Indy Eleven and the U.S. U-20 team.
Having coaches with widespread connections is the cornerstone upon which the team has depended to assemble its diversity of talent, strength and experience.
According to Indy Eleven President and General Manager Peter Wilt, the team "could not have made a better selection" than Juergen Sommer for its head coach, while assistant coach Regan is "a shining star who is going to be a bright, great coach in the future of American soccer." Wilt added that Regan has already demonstrated significant success in developing local connections, having "had the wisdom to choose a wife from Indianapolis."
A native of Florida, Sommer earned his Hoosier status playing for Culver Academy in high school and IU in college, where in 1988 and 1989 he helped take his team to back-to-back Final Fours (the team earned the third of its eight championship titles in 1988). Sommer made two World Cup teams, was the first American goalkeeper to play in English Premiere League, plus he played Major League Soccer in the U.S. He, too, had the wisdom to choose an Indiana woman as his wife.
"To have someone so well respected in the soccer world and so well connected both nationally and internationally ... he's been invaluable in putting this together. Juergen's a quality guy, a cerebral guy," Wilt said. "I think it's going to be a solid team; it's going to be entertaining and it's going to compete for championships every year. I have full faith this will be a team Hoosiers can be proud of."
At last fall's Armistice Day, which also marked his official introduction to the community, assistant coach Regan told those assembled that he aims to make sure that the team's work is not limited to its time on the field.
"I had the privilege of playing for Bob Bradley (who went on to coach both the U.S. and Egyptian men's national teams) and seeing how he executed on a daily basis, putting together a team and understanding that character and ability are combined for success," Regan said. "We're here to entertain but we also want to make sure that everyone that is a part of our organization and our players feel a connection to you and understand that it's bigger than wins and losses — of course we have to win — but there's a bigger role we have to play in the community."
At last fall's Armistice Day event Lt. Col. Shawn D. Gardner, the recruiting and retention commander for the Indiana Army National Guard (who attended on behalf of Major General R. Martin Umbarger, The Guard's adjutant general), Gardner thanked team owner Ersal Ozdemir "for bringing the world's game to the city of Indianapolis."
The Guard, he added, "is excited to partner with the Indy Eleven, whose very namesake pays tribute to Indy's Eleventh Regiment, commanded by soldier, author and leader, Lew Wallace. The very battle streamers earned by the Eleventh Regiment in the Battle of Shiloh and the siege of Vicksburg to this day still don the command colors of the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team here in Indiana."
Following a "name-the-team" competition early last year, Wilt said he saw some consensus building around military themes, which inspired a trip to the Indiana War Memorial. When asked if there were any specific elements of Indiana's military history that might prove inspirational to the team, Wilt said the War Memorial's collections manager Donna Schmink, "immediately came up with the idea 11— she wasn't thinking of 11 players on the team, she was thinking about Lew Wallace. Tom Dunmore [the team's vice president of marketing and operations] and I put it together about 11 players on the field."
Upon learning that its team name was Indy Eleven, local social media traffic initially tracked more negative than positive, Wilt said. But after the team released an info graphic detailing the name's roots in Indiana history, he said, "the response reversed."
Fans have been flocking to support the team ever since, as evidenced by the sale of 7,000 season tickets — by far the largest base of season ticket holders in the league.
The team originally considered playing at Butler Bowl, which holds 5,000 people. Now they are looking at sell-outs of Carroll Stadium, which has been upgraded to include more than 10,000 seats. It remains to be seen whether the team will inspire state legislators to expand the capturing of funds for the existing Downtown professional sports development area, the first step of a funding plan that would enable the team to collect a user tax on tickets and retail sales at the stadium to cover bond payments. In theory, only users of the facility, which would be owned by the Capital Improvement Board, would be paying for the cost of its construction. But the Indiana General Assembly, in its just-concluded 2014 legislative session, declined to grant the expansion of the local PSDA necessary to start the stadium project at this time.
The secret sauce
If fan support thus far is any indication of what's to come, the stadium — like the team itself — will be willed from fantasy to reality.
"What's really happened is the community has come together behind an idea — and that idea is that Indiana should have its own soccer team that the community could connect with," Wilt said in a December interview on the steps of the Indiana War Memorial.
"They supported it really like no other community in the country; part of the reason is it started from the fans themselves ... just some guys sitting around at Chatham Tap. They got the ball rolling, it snowballed and now here we are today."
Derek Richey, president of the Brickyard Battalion supporters' club, recalled the early days in a recent email: "The virtual team was called Racing Indy FC, and we created a Facebook for it more than three years ago (or so). Soon after there were two other pages — one about bringing MLS to Indy, and another called the Brickyard Battalion, supporting the virtual team Racing Indy FC. How Ersal ever came to notice the page is really still a mystery, but sometime about two years ago we noticed that the Keystone Corporation had reserved the right to create a website called racingindyfc.com (or something to that effect). That's when we first realized who our secret Santa might be. Peter Wilt was already in town by then, traveling the state talking to anyone and everyone about the potential to bring pro soccer back to Indy, so we started putting two and two together."
Now the local supporters' scene has multiplied to include groups organized around the community, gathering for soccer watch parties, to practice game day chants and create displays of tifo, choreographed fan art work used to encourage Indy Eleven to victory and dishearten rivals. Wilt, who has accumulated six championship rings four different American soccer leagues during his career, has built his reputation from the grassroots up, and is often found with fans, watching games and supporting the development of local soccer culture.
In response to a question posed to the Slaughterhouse 19 supporters' club Facebook page about what inspired their involvement, their assessment of the team so far and their hopes for the season, Andrew Retz replied:
"I see many of the same qualities that brought me to love the game of soccer through Toronto FC and the USMNT [U.S. Men's National Team]: An actively engaged supporters group that shows up to every Indy Eleven event en masse, and has done quite a bit of the leg work in terms of the game day experience (chants and tifos/banners namely). Despite the many different lives we lead outside of Slaughterhouse-19 or the Brickyard Battalion as a whole, we have formed life-long bonds in the past year."
As far as this season goes, Retz wrote that he is tempering expectations because it's the team's first season.
"I know it's never easy to start off strong out of the gate with a brand new team and squad," Retz wrote. "That said, I'm quite confident that Peter Wilt and staff have put together an excellent squad that will compete every week. Bottom line, we can compete for a top-three spot in the spring season as long as the team can gel quickly. I suspect come early summer we'll really know how well this team can play together, with a big test against reigning NASL Champions New York Cosmos on May 24. By then we could be in the title hunt for the fall season and we'll really know how far the team has come."
The fans' passion also drives the Indy Eleven staff, a small group that has been working virtually 24-7 stoking the groundswell necessary to sustain the team's momentum.
"There's no better proof of what passionate soccer supporters can do than what the Brickyard Battalion helped accomplish here in Indiana," said John Koluder, the team director of public relations. "My passion for the sport is fueled by the enthusiasm of its fans. The sport in the U.S. has gone from underground to mainstream largely because of their efforts to grow the thriving soccer culture — one that has been here for decades but has only gotten its just due in recent years."
Frenzied enthusiasm provides important psychological stimulation to the players, some of whom are accustomed to the support of very large crowds. Take Nicht, for instance. Hearing 50,000 fans screaming when his German club, Alemannia Aachen, was promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in 36 years still stands out as one the highlights of his playing career.
"I take emotion very deep," he told NUVO. "I need that. One of the big parts of my signing with Indy Eleven is that excitement and support you feel from everyone. I need those emotions for my game."
On Friday night, Indy Eleven will play its final pre-season exhibition match, the first test run of the upgraded Carroll Stadium. The game will be against Coach Sommer's alma mater, the 2012 NCAA National Champion, IU. Spectators should expect a hell of a game.
"The IU soccer player takes tremendous pride in wearing the soccer uniform. He has a deep respect for the history and tradition of the program and for those who previously wore the uniform," Todd Yeagley, the IU men's soccer head coach, said during a recent presentation at Ivy Tech in Bloomington in which he recounted the retirement speech of his father, Jerry Yeagley, who started IU's varsity soccer program.
IU's eight national championships is a feat unmatched by any other club but St. Louis, but it hasn't won since the '60s while IU's most recent title came in 2012, Yeagley noted.
"The IU soccer player considers it an honor and privilege to wear the uniform and he recognizes the responsibilities that go with this honor. Only the highest standard of performance and best effort is acceptable. When the IU soccer player takes the field wearing the IU colors, he holds his head high, never hoping to win but expecting to win. After all, he is an Indiana soccer player."
The twist here is Coach Sommer is also a product of the IU soccer program, as are a handful of his players (three signed currently and others in the wings); they will all be expecting to win as well. And the Indiana guys are not the only ones who are ready to win — futbolers have come from all over the world to play their hardest. They, too, are expecting to win. After all, they are Indy Eleven and, not only do they have decades more of combined experience than the boys from B-town, but Victory is theirs — according to the patch they wear over their hearts.
"We had a word with the players," Sommer said. "Now it's for real, now they're pros, now they're signed here at the Indy Eleven. Now we're hired to go out and come together as a group and win games. I think once our group starts to put the uniform on and take the field, that will take care of itself as we get the ball out and play these games.
"I know the IU guys will be excited to play us. So they'll bring some energy and some pride to the table, too, but we're confident when the whistle blows — and pride and reputation are at stake — we've got some good players out there that will step up and get the job done."
Epilogue (full disclosure):
As a part of the reporting process for this story, I asked that an email be sent out to all the staff, players and leadership of Indy Eleven: Why soccer? What drives this passion?
Hugo Scheckter, who grew up in Laverstoke, England, is the team operations manager. He responded: "To me, soccer is the world's game. You can go to any corner of the earth and find that you have soccer in common with the people there. The opportunity to be a part of something like that was too good to pass up on."
By way of full disclosure (because I have an endless amount of that to do for this story), I am with Hugo. I love the connections I've developed throughout my life to so many people from around the world through the beautiful game.
And just over a year ago, Peter Wilt and I developed an instant friendship based on a shared passion for soccer, which has blossomed to include every single new addition to the Indy Eleven team.
In his response to my questions about what makes soccer so special, Brandon Jett, the staff accountant and director of ticket operations, also remarked on the friendships. "I'm amazed at how it can bring people together and make friends of those who would have otherwise never met," Jett wrote.
Again, like Hugo said, the opportunity to be a part of this burgeoning community was too good to pass up. As a coach at Tabernacle Recreation and the International School of Indiana, and as a player wherever I can squeeze in (including the occasional Indy Eleven staff game), I'm excited about Indiana soccer at all levels! [Did you know Indiana has more than 60,000 youth soccer players?!]
My conflict is irreconcilable when it comes to soccer: When it comes to our state's premiere soccer representation, I want nothing less than for Indy Eleven to win international championships. Think I'm crazy? Let's talk in a few years. And, by the way, a fly new stadium would be an immense asset as the state works toward this goal.
Case in point, we had a building nice enough to win praise from Chelsea Coach Jose Mourinho when he brought his English Premiere League club to play Inter Milan in last summer's Guinness Cup, but the field we had to offer the world's best players did not measure up.
"The pitch was not the best for what we're used to," Mourinho said following his team's victory at Lucas Oil. "That was one of the most beautiful stadiums I've ever played in ... The pitch was not the best, which we understand because this is not a soccer stadium."
That being said, to the best of my ability, I'll try to be sure that all the financial reporting for any bond issues remains open to the sunshine of public scrutiny and placed into proper context in comparison to other stadium projects locally and in comparable markets.
Also, in deference to NUVO's commitment to environmental stewardship, we can explore what type of runoff can be associated with the maintenance of high-quality turf and ask the team management if it is using best management practices. [For now, the question is moot as Carroll's field is artificial turf. Fewer slide tackles. :( ]
Aside from these efforts to be as responsible a reporter as possible given the circumstances, Indy, please indulge me just this one beat. I'm not on the team's payroll, but we are in bed together in an effort to inspire the best soccer in Indiana — not for riches, but for happiness. For me, soccer is where the craziness of the world fades and something more pure and primal rises, grips my guts and commands my attention. My heart warms, my hopes lift, the possibilities are endless. It's game time!