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Indy Eleven - A New Club is Born
Pre game

Chapter 2 - Another Sellout in Match 2

Just hours before the long-awaited debut of the newest addition to the already robust Indiana professional sports landscape, a drought that has endured in the least likely of places—London, England—was being cast into serious doubt.

Arsenal had just huffed and puffed its way to a tense penalty shootout defeat of second-division Wigan Athletic in the English F.A. Cup semifinals. The triumph, drab and unglamorous though it was for lengthy spells, put the club and its long-suffering swathes of supporters within touching distance of celebrating a trophy for the first time since 2005.

But in Indianapolis, a city renowned for its passionate sports fans, that pitiful label—“long-suffering”—was about to be placed squarely in perspective.

Ten years had passed in central Indiana since the Indiana Blast, the last ill-fated attempt at professional soccer in the area, ceased operations. And while interest remained strong in one of the most active soccer hubs in the Midwest, no professional club had filled the void in the interceding decade—until Saturday night, when a sold-out crowd of 11,048 spectators poured into Michael A. Carroll Stadium and played a starring role in the dawning of the Indy Eleven era in the Circle City.

Against a longer standing name Carolina RailHawks, Indy XI played the first meaningful contest, scored the first goal, and registered the first point in its history. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but all of that seemed secondary to what anyone attending the match or watching on local channel My INDY TV or ESPN3 would have seen: the culmination of a year of tireless behind-the-scenes work and clever marketing, as well as a spectacular endorsement of the potential of second-division soccer in the United States.

That Saturday night attracted throngs of fans, many of whom waited in line outside the gates more than an hour before kickoff, was also a testament to the will of the people and the power of a well-crafted vision. It is altogether possible that the scenes would never have played out if not for the optimism and enthusiasm embodied by the Brickyard Battalion, the club’s official supporter’s group.

Over 11,000 attended the game

Formed in 2011, a full year and a half before the NASL awarded an expansion team to Indianapolis, the soccer-minded troupe originally formed a Facebook group pining for a local professional club, assigning to it the fictional name Racing Indy FC.

The moniker didn’t stick. Indy Eleven was instead selected as a tribute to a Hoosier volunteer regiment that served for the Union in the Civil War. The passion, however, did. With chapters dispersed throughout the Hoosier State, the group has been instrumental in mobilizing droves of support for the team. For their part, owner Ersal Ozdemir and president and general manager Peter Wilt, whose effort and devotion to the Indy Eleven cause have been invaluable, have repeatedly credited the Brickyard Battalion, or BYB for short, as the engine without which the organization would have stuttered before it started.

Unsurprising, then, that Derek Richey, president and co-founder of the BYB who represented the at halftime, referred to April 12th, the date of the inaugural match, as “The Day” in an emailed account of the experience he had been anxiously anticipating for years.

“I think I felt a great sense of warmth—maybe almost euphoria,” Richey said. “It was sort of like a dream, but it was real. The team was real. The stadium was real. I kept thinking I should pinch myself. The Day was finally here. There were a couple of moments I felt this: once driving into the parking lot for tailgating and seeing the hundreds and hundreds of people tailgating and having a great time, all of them wearing their Indy Eleven tees and BYB scarves. All this excitement built around a professional soccer team in Indy.”

“And then as I stood at midfield for the opening ceremony, I looked over and saw a full BYB section,” he continued. “A loud section. I scanned the whole stadium. Everyone was so psyched for the game to start. You could really feel the anticipation in the air. It was palpable.”

"I felt a great sense of warmth—maybe almost euphoria,"
-derek richey, brickyard battalion-

One of the figures committed to converting that palpable energy into audible noise could be found as a capo at the front of the BYB section, facing the mass of people packed into one of Carroll Stadium’s two newly minted stands of bleachers. Thomas Wachtel, a member of Slaughterhouse-19, a boisterous branch of the BYB that “is rooted in the values of the punk and hardcore community,” had been ill much of the week, but could not be deterred from playing a part in this historic curtain-raising.

Before the match and during the first half—until his voice gave out, he said—he helped lead numerous original chants and songs that reverberated throughout the venue.

“It’s a strange thing, because in a lot of ways we’re making this up as we go along,” Wachtel said. “With Arsenal there’s 127 years of history and fan culture and philosophy. Indy Eleven has one game, and that’s simultaneously really scary and hard, and really exciting. Building something is really gratifying, and when we started singing last night the noise was the coolest moments of my life. It’s amazing and I’m so happy and proud of this city.”

The pride felt by Wachtel and countless others was underscored from the outset; after Ozdemir offered a heartfelt message of gratitude to the fans, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard—who was donning an Indy Eleven jersey—and U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN) both gave brief but rousing speeches. Though they represent opposing ends of the political spectrum (Ballard is a Republican; Donnelly is a Democrat), both were united on this night, as each unequivocally lauded the return of professional soccer to the Hoosier capital.

"I want to hear the support of the entire state, from Fort Wayne to Merrillville to Evansville to Richmond and Indianapolis, “ Donnelly said. “Everyone, let's hear it for Indy Eleven!"

Jurgen Sommer Greets the Crowd

Also among those in attendance was NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson, who seemed bullish on the trajectory of Indy Eleven in coming years.

“[Indy Eleven] want to be one of the top clubs in the country,” Peterson said. “That’s an exciting goal. People react and I think when they leave here tonight, they’re going to say, 'That was an unbelievable soccer match.'"

With both teams reticent to make the first lethal mistake of the nascent season, the action on the pitch occasionally fell short of inspiring the incredulity Peterson predicted, but the atmosphere certainly did not. 

Eleven thousand fans densely packed into newly refurbished Carroll Stadium, a hybrid track and soccer stadium that also houses IUPUI athletics, made their presence known early and often.

As expected, the epicenter of partisan support for the home side came from behind the west goal, where the BYB stood and chanted in unison throughout the game. Moments ahead of kickoff, the group’s aesthetic pièce de résistance was revealed—a massive tifo, painted in the club colors red, white and blue, that scaled the entire height of the section. On either side of an inch-perfect depiction of the Indianapolis skyline, the words “Our City, Our Time, Forever Indy” were unfurled as a stirring tribute to the occasion.

High above the locally minded tableau, the national flags of each country represented on the Indy Eleven roster—Germany, Brazil and Honduras, to name a few—rippled in the wind.

In short, a new chapter of soccer in Indiana—not to mention a fresh, global outlet for sports fans of all persuasions and backgrounds—was opening in style.

“The atmosphere was electric; it was like having a 12th man on the team,” Indy Eleven Head Coach Juergen Sommer said following the game. “You could really see our players came out with a lot of character and fight, even late in the game, trying to create chances to go forward. It was just a wonderful environment to see.”

The Brickyard Battalion produced an opening day tifo

Sommer, who suited up for several clubs at multiple levels of the English soccer pyramid during his career as a goalkeeper, including Luton Town and Queens Park Rangers, compared the intensity favorably to that which he experienced across the pond.

“I would say it was even higher than [the lower divisions in England],” Sommer said. “It wouldn’t rival a Premiership game just because the crowds are bigger and the level of play is higher, but if you look into the First Division in England (League Championship), this is on par with some of the clubs that are playing there now.”

“So, with the crowd that we had and the energy out here, this was every bit as good as some of the European teams and the countries that they play in," the former USMNT goalkeeper said. "I know our players really enjoyed it. Great atmosphere, fans were fantastic, Brickyard Battalion was on their feet for 99% of the game. It makes for a fun work week because guys know what’s in store on Saturday, and they’re going to work hard to be on the field—that’s exactly what we want.”

Sommer also touched on the perks of the cycle perpetuated by rabid support. Essentially, he said if the fans continue to show up en masse and in full voice, more top quality players from Indiana, other parts of the U.S., and abroad will be interested in joining the project.

As it happens, the excitement has already helped attract at least one player with world-class pedigree.

Kléberson, the 34-year-old marquee club signing who carries with him the most eye-popping CV on the roster, was announced less than two weeks ago. In keeping with Indy Eleven tradition of honoring players’ nationalities, the unveiling took place at Fogo de Chao, an authentic Brazilian steakhouse situated just a block from the club’s downtown office. (German goalkeeper Kristian Nicht, the very first signing in team history, was introduced at the Rathskeller, a German restaurant also located in downtown Indy.)

"Kléberson, the 34-year-old marquee club signing who carries with him the most eye-popping CV on the roster, was announced less than two weeks ago"

As for the South American midfielder, he has played in some of the most intense environments in the world at both the club and international stage. Since starting for Brazil and assisting one of Ronaldo’s two goals in a triumphant 2002 FIFA World Cup final for A Seleção, he has lent his creativity to Manchester United, Turkish club Besiktas, and Flamengo, one of the most prestigious clubs in his native country.

Despite having graced the hallowed grounds of Old Trafford and the Maracanã in the past, though, the seasoned pro seemed genuinely impressed by the crowd Saturday night.

“I understand that this league is a level below the MLS, but the crowd showed that we can be the highest level of soccer in the United States,” Kléberson said after the match via fellow Brazil native Roberto Opice, a trilingual aide and scout who has helped ease the transition to Indy for Spanish and Portuguese speakers.

“Everybody’s doing a great job—not only today but since I got here,” Kléberson continued. “The city has kind of embraced us in a way that is nothing different from England, nothing different from Brazil. If the city keeps doing that, I’ll be more than glad to play for these fans.”

Mike Ambersley was impressed with the crowd

Michael Ambersley, a former Indiana University standout, arrived in the Circle City as a veteran of the NASL, having excelled in a three-year stint with league rivals Tampa Bay Rowdies, who will travel to Indianapolis this weekend. Thanks to his scoring contribution to Saturday night's encounter with the RailHawks, his name will be forever etched into Indy Eleven lore. His 43rd minute strike not only fired the home side in front but accounted for the first NASL goal in club history.

When the man of the hour was asked if he could remember a similar crowd since joining the league, a laugh betrayed his answer before it ever escaped his mouth.

“No, I’ve played in front of big crowds, but nothing like this,” Ambersley said. “I give all the credit to the Indy Eleven staff and fans—it’s going to be big to have them behind us all year.”

In yet another indication of the high interest level in the debut, a smattering of observers assembled on the top floor of the parking garage across the street, apparently hoping to catch a glimpse of the action from an unorthodox vantage point. Thus, the announced attendance of 11,048 may have, in fact, underestimated the size of the crowd.

Mike Ambersley Scores Indy's First Ever Goal

Commissioner Peterson, who soaked in the buzzing environment for himself, could not have helped but feel a sense of encouragement for the future of the NASL. The turnout for a league newcomer in Indianapolis, a city where professional soccer had failed several times before, would seem to stimulate and amplify chatter of NASL expansion into comparable markets, especially in the Midwest.

“Well, this will be a great story for us throughout North America,” he said. “Being able to show how they built a club, the excitement shown by not only the fans, but the politicians, the companies in the area, that’s just fantastic. When we talk to expansion clubs, that’s what they’re looking at—what’s going on with the last couple of teams that came on. But it could help us directly in the Midwest. We’re interested in couple of places, won’t tell you which ones yet, but when we talk to them next week and tell them the story of what happened here, absolutely it’ll help.”

For now, though, Indy Eleven appears to have created something special and sustainable. The perfect alchemy of the BYB-led grassroots movement, a well-established soccer scene from the youth ranks through college, and an ambitious, multitalented staff has laid the groundwork for long-term success. 

"I’ve played in front of big crowds, but nothing like this."
-mike ambersley-

It remains to be seen whether sellouts become commonplace at Carroll Stadium, but the attendance doesn’t look like it will be a flash in the pan; 7,000 season tickets have been purchased, a figure that emboldened the club to pursue a path to a soccer-specific stadium earlier this year, well before Saturday’s opener. Legislators rebuffed the first attempt to secure funding, but some admitted they would entertain the idea next year if demand continues to blossom.

“There are going to be bumps in the road, and I think we have the processes to handle them,” Richey, one of the masterminds behind the growth of the BYB, said. “I believe in the whole BYB team, and all their hard work and preparation. That doesn’t mean we have a plan for every unforeseen situation, but does mean we have the framework in place to adjust, make changes, and make the next experience even better for everyone.”

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