By Kathryn L. Knapp
Peter Wilt knows what it takes to build a successful soccer team. In 1997 he took on the challenge of bringing professional soccer to Chicago. Sixteen years later, the Fire is going strong in Major League Soccer. Is his goal to get a MLS team in Indianapolis? Not necessarily. Wilt said the club has one vision – to bring a soccer club to Indianapolis that can rival the best in the world.
“We want to be a team that any league in the world would want us to be a part of,” Wilt said. “If we can be a first division team, then entering MLS may not be an option. We want to be the best team we can be so that any league would want us.”
While Indianapolis is a smaller Midwestern city it has a rich tradition of hosting the biggest sporting events in the country. It’s the 12th largest city in the country. But would or could soccer be a sustainable option for the circle city? Wilt said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.
“The reaction from the community has been amazing,” Wilt said. “I don’t think I realized what a large soccer community this was. The way the community has embraced the team and made it its own is incredible.”
With Indy Eleven set to kick off in April 2014, every day is a busy day for the club. There is no down time. To date, the club has inked sponsorships with Honda and Diadora. And they’re selling out season tickets like crazy. The club will play at Carroll Stadium on IUPUI’s campus. The stadium will seat 12,111 people. Season ticket sales are nearing 7,000 (6,666 as of October 20). The club expects to sell out the majority of its 15 home matches.
“Human nature is to worry about sales and winning games,” Wilt said. “Alone that’s not enough. We want to get everything right from parking on game day to concessions and the overall atmosphere at the game. If we can get all that right, we will have an opportunity for a long-term team.”
When asked what the biggest difference was between starting the Fire in 1997 and Indy Eleven in 2013, Wilt said the marketplace and time.
“We are 16 years forward,” Wilt said. “This start up has been more successful from a business standpoint. But overall, times have changed. The biggest effect is the number of young adults that really care about the sport. 18-35 year olds get a lot of credit. The reason for growth is because of the access to the sport online and on TV. Video games even have current players. Fans see it. They feel it. They want their own local team to support.”
The youth market in Indianapolis is steadily growing. Indiana Soccer currently has over 60,000 youth members and 8,000 active coaches. College programs throughout the state consistently rank among the best in the nation. Children who play on traveling teams in Indiana will eventually end up playing on a pitch in Indianapolis. Construction is currently underway on a new sports complex thirty miles north of Indianapolis in Westfield. Grand Park Sports Campus will be home to 31 outdoor and three indoor soccer fields, ready for day or night play.
“The new soccer park in Westfield is amazing,” Wilt said. “It’s going to be a youth soccer capital. It’s one of the highest youth soccer ratios of any city in the country.”
Before Indy Eleven was even announced, there was a soccer fan group forming in Indianapolis – The Brickyard Battalion. Established on August 3, 2011, the Battalion has been lobbying for a team in Indianapolis. Their dreams are slowly becoming reality.
“The Brickyard Battalion got us off to a good start with emotional connections that sometimes take generations to build,” Wilt said. “We’re creating that without players and without games. We still have a long road to go, but a real soccer team has the chance to be embraced.”
The name Indy Eleven honors the initial enlistment of the 11th Indiana Regiment during the Civil War. Their motto is “The World’s Game, Indiana’s Team.” And when it came to appointing a head coach, Wilt said they had a mission.
“We wanted to hire the Jerry Yeagley of pro soccer, someone that wanted to stay and build Indy Eleven for the long run,” Wilt said. “Hiring Jeurgen Sommer, a locally connected coach was important. We not only hired a local coach, but we hired a darn good coach. We couldn’t be happier with the work he’s doing.”
Sommer played high school for Culver Academy, college soccer for Indiana University and has coached youth and college in the state. His playing career included stints in England and for MLS clubs. He’s also played and coached around the world with the U.S. Men’s National Team, but Indiana is the place he’s always called home. The opportunity to be a part of creating a new legacy in his home state was something he couldn’t pass up.
“This is always something I’ve wanted to do. I was just waiting for the right opportunity,” Sommer said. “There’s a really rich culture of soccer in Indiana, a deep tradition for the game. The pendulum is swinging in the right direction. We are outpacing expectations. It’s pretty exciting.”
When Wilt started at the Chicago Fire there were no soccer-specific stadiums in Major League Soccer. The Columbus Crew built the first one, which opened in 1999. Since then, a number of MLS teams and NASL teams have built their own stadiums. By the end of Wilt’s tenure at the Fire, Toyota Park was under construction. It opened its gates in 2006. Among the plans for Indy Eleven is to build a soccer specific stadium. The club would like it to be located in downtown Indianapolis. Early talks consisted of a smaller stadium. But now, with growing interest, a 20,000 seat stadium is more of a reality.
With any new project, the club is bound to make some mistakes along the way. Wilt said they are prepared for that
“What’s important is we own the mistakes, try to fix them and then make improvements,” Wilt said. “Everything we have in place will give us great success for at least one year. But we’re going to have to deliver.”
Kathryn L. Knapp is contributing Editor of ChicagoLand Soccer News
|Throwback Thursday - Pre-NASL: Los Angeles Defeats Washington For 1967 United Soccer Association Crown|
|RailHawks Exercises Options On Contracts Of Seven Players|
|Nassau County Celebrates Cosmos Soccer Bowl Success|
|FC Edmonton Adds Goalkeeper Farago To 2014 NASL Roster|
|Four Cosmos Players Sign Contract Extensions Through 2014 NASL Season|
|Scorpions Re-Sign Defender Janicki For 2014 NASL Season|
|Minnesota United Exercises 11 Player Options For 2014 NASL Season|
|Silverbacks 2013 Season: By The Numbers|
|Minnesota United Helps In KARE 11 Food Fight|
|NASL Bids To Overcome Obstacles|
|New York Cosmos||14||9||4||1||10||31|
|Tampa Bay Rowdies||14||5||5||4||3||20|
|Minnesota United FC||14||6||2||6||2||20|
|Fort Lauderdale Strikers||14||5||3||6||-2||18|
|San Antonio Scorpions||14||3||1||10||-9||10|
|San Antonio Scorpions||12||6||2||4||4||20|
|Tampa Bay Rowdies||12||5||3||4||5||18|
|Minnesota United FC||12||4||2||6||-5||14|
|Fort Lauderdale Strikers||12||2||2||8||-14||8|