Behind the Scenes at Indy Eleven, America’s Newest Soccer Club
Editor’s note: Indy Eleven plays its first match this Saturday evening when the team battles Carolina Railhawks in the NASL, the second division of US soccer. The debut of a brand-new soccer club is an exciting milestone in the growth of the sport in the United States, so we wanted to capture the excitement and to find out what goes on behind the scenes before a league game is played. We sent World Soccer Talk’s Bo McMillan to Indianapolis, where Indy Eleven were gracious enough to allow him complete access around the office and with the team, where Bo was able to be a fly on the wall during the exciting period of this club’s history. Here’s what he discovered.
Eight people sit around a table in a small corner office in downtown Indianapolis. It’s early, and a slew of coffee mugs cover the table, sending wispy bits of steam towards the ceiling.
The Indy Eleven office is inconspicuous. A small sign hangs by the front door of a large building, all but lost among the bustle of the city around it. You’d easily miss it if you weren’t looking for it. Inside, though, things are different. Each member of the staff wears the red and blue of their club. Most elect to wear a pullover or a t-shirt with the Indy Eleven logo, some wear suits with a pin depicting the crest. If the outside is inconspicuous, the inside is anything but.
The team members sit around the table, chatting idly, and waiting for the meeting to start. Moments later, Peter Wilt walks into the room. Even if you’d never heard of him, you’d know he was important by the way everyone responds to him. He seemingly unintentionally commands the room.
Peter is the General Manager, and by the looks of him, with an Indy Eleven scarf around his neck, the club’s biggest fan. His name may be familiar to those who closely follow soccer in the States, especially near Chicago. Peter has had his hands in the creation of several clubs, but he’s most known for the inception of the Chicago Fire, one of the oldest clubs in MLS.
Peter takes a moment to open his notebook then looks up with a smile.
“Raise your hand if you’re overwhelmed,” he begins.
The room unanimously confirms his suspicions by putting their hands in the air. They have smiles on their faces, but they know time is of the essence. Every single person in the office has one date on his or her mind, April 12th. The kickoff to the 2014 North American Soccer League season, and Indy Eleven’s first-ever competitive match, happens in just days. They’ve had fifteen months to prepare, but ask anyone in the office and they’ll tell you they’d love another fifteen.
Indy Eleven was first announced in early 2013 as a NASL expansion team. The NASL, which is comprised of thirteen teams, is categorized as a Division II soccer league in the United States, and sandwiched between MLS and USL PRO. The league itself is relatively young, but names like the New York Cosmos carry a lot of history in the States. The Indy Eleven staff have several goals, but chief among them is to become the flagship team of the NASL. Usurping teams like the Cosmos is a tall order in itself, but to have that goal in mind before a single regular-season game has been played is nothing short of ambitious.
Ambitious is actually a word that perfectly defines Indy Eleven. These men and women sitting around the table are fighting to make this club relevant in a city that holds two of the biggest sporting franchises in the United States, the Indianapolis Colts and the Indiana Pacers. They don’t see these teams as direct competition, but they understand they’re coming into a market that’s become accustomed to sporting excellence.
“The challenge is to prove we’re a credible organization,” Peter Wilt admits. “To prove that soccer can be successful in Indiana. There’s a large void in the sports marketplace in Indianapolis that Indy Eleven fills. All the kids who grew up playing soccer? Now they’re adults. They have a passion for the sport, not just because they play the sport but also because they follow it on television and on the Internet. [Soccer] is very accessible now, much more so than even five years ago. They all have their favorite teams in Europe but now they want a local team they can feel connected to.”
These things are on everyone’s minds as they sit in this meeting. The hands go down, Peter continues to smile, and they dive into it. The first order of business? Ponchos. The sun is shining through the windows, but rain is expected later that night, and for the next three days. This will threaten two friendlies scheduled for that time period. Several minutes are spent discussing how many ponchos to order and whether or not to have a logo included on them. It’s tedious, and numbers fly around the room, but they know it’s important to be prepared to contend with the elements if they want fans showing up to their games and sticking around.
Next? Garbage. Tom Dunmore, vice president of marketing (editor’s note: and former Pitch Invasion blogger), has a separate meeting in a few minutes to discuss logistics of trash pickup after matches. They also discuss electrical issues at Carroll Stadium, their home field, and where the food trucks will park on the property. The meeting isn’t glamorous by any means. The squad itself isn’t even mentioned. But these are critical elements that have to be running smoothly in the background if they’re to achieve the excellence they’re striving for.
Directly after this meeting is another. The previous meeting was subdued, efficient, and logistical, but this one is bustling. It takes place in the same small corner room, but nearly everyone is involved. The room is literally overflowing with people. Among them is Juergen Sommer, Indy Eleven’s head coach, who sits on one of the windowsills because all the seats at the table are taken. Others sit on the floor, some just outside the meeting room door. There isn’t enough room to come close to accommodating everyone, but they make do.
There’s an air of anticipation as the meeting kicks off. Just yesterday, Indy Eleven sent out a press release announcing the signing of Brazilian midfielder Jose Kleberson. Everyone is expecting the former Manchester United player, and 2002 World Cup winner, to be a huge boon to the franchise. At 34, he’s no longer in his prime, but they all believe he still has a lot to offer on the field, and they know his name alone will draw audiences.
“Anyone see the Kleberson billboard on their way into town this morning?” Peter asks.
The room erupts with voices keen to share their excitement over the huge sign displaying their new superstar’s face.
John Koluder, head of public relations, slyly raises his hand.
“I saw the billboard yesterday,” he says, then pauses for a moment. “While Kleberson was in my back seat.”
The room erupts again. Even if Indianapolis’ commuters don’t know who Kleberson is, they’ll see the words “World Cup winner” next to his face. It all comes down to credibility. They know they have it, but now they’re trying to prove it to the community. Kleberson is a symbol that the world’s game has come to their city.
The afternoon brings yet another meeting. This one focuses primarily on the friendly later that evening against Peter Wilt’s former club, the Chicago Fire. The normal meeting room that was filled earlier is still taken, so the most critical staff members for tonight’s match sit around what is essentially the lobby of their office space. Schedules for the night are handed out, and they’re specific. At 6:53pm the teams will come out to warm up, and at 7:18 they’ll clear the field. The clubs will have a few minutes to do some final preparations in the dressing room before the national anthem kicks off at 7:30. At 7:32, the teams shake hands, and 7:33 sees the coin toss, Finally, at 7:33 and 45 seconds the whistle blows. It all seems overly planned and tedious, but the discussion centers on ensuring the start time is as close to 7:30 as possible.
One of the major challenges is the fact that the friendly will take place at Purdue University, not Carroll Stadium, where the majority of preparations for the season have taken place. Purdue is nearly an hour and a half away and there’s a lot to do to make sure everything goes well. Since Indy is hosting the friendly, it’s their responsibility to take care of the Fire and set them up with anything they need. Locations of proper dressing rooms and transport to the grounds are immediate issues that need resolving.
Peter is one of the few lucky enough to have nabbed a seat on the couch. His laptop is in front of him, his schedule is to his side, and he’s on the phone with his contacts over in Chicago. Somehow he’s juggling it all, and what’s more impressive: he’s completely composed. If he and his team are going to pull this off, he has to be. It’s not just about tonight, or even April 12th. This is the birth of a franchise, and Indy Eleven have made sure they’ve hired the type of people that can keep up with this balancing act.
A little while later, John Koluder sits in his office organizing social media for the week of the club’s launch. He’s typing instructions to his staff while explaining the climate of the office. “It’s exhilarating. It’s….frantic…” He struggles to find a few words that can sum up the past fifteen months. Outside his office someone runs down the hallway at full speed. “I’m running with scissors!” she screams as she whizzes by. “That,” John says as he points to the now-empty hallway. “That’s what the climate around here is like.”
Talk to anyone in the office and they’ll tell you Indy Eleven is seeking to do something special in not just the NASL but the United States. They want to reach a level of success that seems lofty. Their five-year goals are audacious, including filling an 18,000-seat stadium and offering the best sporting experience in Indianapolis. But they haven’t given themselves these lofty goals just to inspire their staff; they really believe they can achieve them. Of course, everything goes back to their main goal: “We want to win championships and serve the community. Everything else is an extension of that.” That mission statement is loaded. Competing for championships is straightforward enough, but how does a club adequately reach out to a community at such an early stage in its development?
“It’s hard to say how the community will respond to you,” says Koluder. He believes it’s critical that all of Indiana, not just Indianapolis, believes this is their team. “Yeah, it’s less direct competition with the other teams [Colts, Pacers, Indians] and more just creating the emotional bonds we need to build a grassroots fan base.”
Grassroots. That word may as well be on the club’s kits. Indy Eleven’s tagline is, “The World’s Game. Indiana’s Team.” To properly serve the community, this club must become the community.
“It’s the Brickyard Battalion, you know?” Says Wilt. “And the Indiana Soccer Association, and community leaders that really stepped up and supported this. It’s a bottom-up, grassroots effort, which people have taken ownership in. They feel like this is their team, and that’s the key to any successful sports franchise. It’s important that the community feels a sense of ownership, and that’s hard to do in a short time period. Normally that emotional connection comes over generations. But it’s special here because those emotional connections have been created in very short order.”
Peter’s statement is bold. That type of connection to a team can take decades. But he means it, and later that night he would prove it.
Once the staff gets to Purdue later that day they meet for a few moments to ensure everyone knows what they need to do. When they’re done, they split and each person does his or her best to stick to the schedule outlined earlier that day. As they work, everyone seems to have the same question, “Are people going to show up?” No one is sure exactly how many people will come tonight. They’ve sold plenty of tickets, but it’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Indianapolis, and the wind is uncomfortably strong, while the clouds threaten rain.
Any fears of a small turnout are quickly erased the minute the gates open, however. People pour in and before long the stands are full. Most notable among all the supporters is the Brickyard Battalion, the hardcore supporters group of the Indy Eleven. They occupy a small set of bleachers behind one of the goals and they’re so loud they drown out the announcer’s voice coming over the PA. They sing songs about Indy and beat a massive drum, making their presence felt across the small venue. It’s exactly what Peter had talked about. These fans were sold, and Indy hadn’t even played its first competitive match. This group barely knows most of the players, and they’ve only known the name of their club for just over a year, yet they cheer like they’ve been supporters all their lives.
The match starts, and wears on. Indy Eleven fall behind the Fire, but the passion on the sidelines never fades. The fans continue to sing, and Peter Wilt can be seen walking around the stadium, moving from group to group, never making it far before being surrounded by both Indy Eleven and Chicago Fire fans. He does disappear for a time, and then reappears amongst the Brickyard Battalion. He stands on the highest bleacher seat; hands raised high in the air, in full voice, with a scarf around his neck. He’s looking upon something he’s helped create, watching what his hands have made.
Emails from Indy Eleven staff continue to come in that night until well past 1:00am, more than seventeen hours since the staff arrived in the office that morning. They’ll be back in the office at 8:00 am tomorrow, too. Then they’ll do it all over again later in the week when they scrimmage Indiana University. Rest will not be in abundance in these last days before their debut. Every day will be critical. Sleep is for those who aren’t busy creating their own dreams.
Editor’s note: To learn more about Indy Eleven and to find out how to get tickets, visit the club website at www.indyeleven.com The club’s supporters group also has its own website, which can be found at www.brickyardbattalion.com