On April 12, with more than 11,000 fans coating the Carroll Stadium field in a jet wash of noise, Indiana’s voyage into professional soccer stepped into the 21st century as Indy Eleven’s starting lineup walked under the cheers and onto the field for the first time in history.
Defender Chris Estridge, an Indiana University product who was raised a half hour drive from the stadium, felt the goosebumps creep up his neck as the Brickyard Battalion vibrated behind one of the goals.
“Walking out in front of the fans was incredible,” Estridge said. “To see the turnout we had, I was a little bit in awe of the city, of what the team and the front office and everyone had accomplished to get to that point. And it was loud. Trying to communicate with our goalkeeper was especially difficult. He had to yell and scream just to be heard over the noise.”
The game, ultimately a 1-1 draw with the Carolina RailHawks, began Indiana’s professional soccer journey in the NASL anew. The renewal was notable for a few reasons, one of which was the fervency with which Indianapolis responded to Peter Wilt and owner Ersal Ozdemir’s relatively new project. The club sold more than 7,000 season tickets in the offseason, and the biggest logistical issues during the opener were the long lines for concessions and merchandise, more a sign of overloaded enthusiasm than ill-preparedness.
One more common thread runs through the Eleven’s project - hometown kids. Lots of them.
Of Indy Eleven’s 21 players, 10 are either from the state of Indiana or went to college in-state. Five players on the roster finished their college careers at Indiana University, a run that spans almost every season since 2001 and includes three national championships. Three - Nathan Sprenkel, A.J. Corrado and Dylan Mares - are from the same Indiana town of 14,000. Three more players are from Indianapolis itself and represent in-state schools Butler and DePauw, while two played college soccer in Carroll Stadium itself at IUPUI.
The team’s connection with IU, which has won eight national titles since 1982, is no accident. When Indy Eleven hired coach Juergen Sommer last summer, the coaching staff dedicated countless hours scouting its own backyard. With limited resources and a talented staff, it allowed Indy Eleven to corner the market on its speciality - the midwest, and specifically Indiana. As a result, the club is sodded from the loam of the state at every position. Forward Michael Ambersley, who scored the first goal in franchise history, is the oldest IU grad on the roster and helped the Hoosiers win back-to-back national titles in 2003 and 2004.
“Indiana University is quite unique, with a long history of the continued leadership of the Yeagley family, whether it was Jerry when I was there or Todd now,” said Sommer, who became the first American keeper to suit up in the Premier League for QPR in 1995. “It really is a big extended family. For me, you look at the guys that have been there, the guys we’ve picked up - whether it’s a Brad Ring, who was a little bit older, Chris Estridge, who came through the program too, Mike Ambersley helped them win a national championship in 2004, A.J. Corrado wins the national championship - it’s guys who know how to win games.”
The way Indy Eleven pounced on Corrado is a prime example of the club’s locally informed opportunism. After a standout career at IU that included a national title in 2012, Corrado was drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes in the third round of the MLS SuperDraft in January. Sommer was high on Corrado, but when he saw the midfielder play in Arizona during the preseason, he’d gotten the sense from inside San Jose’s camp that Corrado was likely to sign. So he moved on.
Corrado made it through the preseason with the Quakes, but San Jose coach Mark Watson told him that without a San Jose side in the reserve league, playing time was likely to be scarce. The versatile midfielder left just before the start of the MLS season. Sommer didn’t wait long. Corrado signed with Indy Eleven on April 8, and days later he was on the field against the RailHawks in the club’s inaugural game.
“(Indy Eleven) was something I was really interested in,” Corrado said. “Playing my college soccer in Bloomington, I know they had been able to see me multiple times through school, and I think it was just for me a pretty obvious transition. I was happy they offered me the opportunity to come out and play for them.”
The connection to the state drills even deeper. Sommer won a national title in the midst of his four-year run at Indiana in 1988. Eight of the club’s nine front office staffers have ties to Central Indiana, and three are Hoosiers. Ozdemir is a graduate of in-state rival Purdue.
Indy Eleven hopes to continue its expansion in a way that balances the local and international, which was echoed when the club signed Brazilian international Kleberson and local kid Corrado within a week of one another. Time will tell if professional soccer finally digs its heels into Indiana, but so far, so good.
“We want to develop the kids that are around us,” Sommer said. “We don’t want to take everybody in from somewhere else, from the outside. We have a responsibility to develop the best talent that’s around us, and want to continue to do that. Good talent continues to come through the state of Indiana. We want to be seen as a club these guys want to play for.”