Between greeting fans at Georgia Street and conducting multiple interviews, including one with former U.S. men’s national team attacker John Harkes for SiriusXM, Indy Eleven Head Coach Juergen Sommer was a busy man Thursday. As the match kicked off after months of breathless anticipation, Sommer spoke to local reporters about a wide swath of issues. Among the topics discussed: the local pool of soccer talent, the possibility of joining MLS in the future, and which player from the ICC match he would choose to build a team around (fair warning: his answer may come as little surprise).
This is obviously a very special time for folks that are from the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis to have such high quality teams here playing at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a lot of fun.
Do you foresee any sort of ripple effect for Indy Eleven from this game?
Well, we get a lot of interest and a lot of enthusiasm toward Indy Eleven as to what we’re doing, whether it’s tryouts or season tickets or merchandise or scheduling for next year. We get a lot of questions, especially concerning the schedule. But I think there will definitely be a great trickle down effect for us in terms of support and just overall in the soccer community.
What’s the difference between building a college program and a professional program?
Just a bigger stage. The sky really is the limit for us, and we’re very fortunate with the ownership group that we have. We’re committed to what we’re trying to do; (we have) great partners in the city of Indianapolis and all the infrastructure that’s already here for us to benefit from.
It started a little while ago when we opened the gates with the first tryout. We literally had to close the floodgates because we had so much interest coming in. It was overwhelming and we couldn’t handle it all at once. But day by day we just kind of chip away and keep trying to put the best organization together that we can.
Any former IU players making appearances?
Yeah, you know I was really pleasantly surprised because we basically had an open tryout to begin with. We had some IU guys in there, we’ve got IU guys that are playing professionally in other areas right now that weren’t available but are interested. But we also had guys that weren’t IU guys that were here in the community who we think can really get in there and be a squad player on the roster and help us build this team.
Any Vince Papale’s in there? (Papale was the inspiration for the 2006 film “Invincible,” in which a former college football player makes the Philadelphia Eagles at the age of 30.)
Yeah, there’s a few. We’ve had a lot of great talent come in and we’re looking at that younger age group of 20-22, 23, but we also had a couple of veterans in there that had numerous years of European experience and just recently came in for this opportunity or relocated here. So, we’ve got a lot of good choices right now. We’ve go to just keep building from here, as we go forward toward the end of the year.
Do you get a sense that you’re making real inroads here in the city? This is an auto racing city, the Colts dominate … do you get a sense that you’re getting the team in there even though it hasn’t taken the field yet?
Yeah, I do. You know, part of it is the ownership group and their commitment. This event is a big stage for that. You look at the other cities around the U.S. that are hosting this tournament, and we don’t really fit there in the New Yorks and the Miamis of the world, the LAs of the world. But there really is a commitment here to kind of move our program forward. I really like the fact that (owner Ersal Ozdemir) not only lives in the state of Indiana, but lives in Indianapolis, works in Indianapolis, his company is here. His reputation is at stake.
That’s really a bonus for us because a lot of teams that are out there, whether it’s MLS or NASL, a lot of their owners are ownership groups that don’t live locally, so they’re not there week in and week out. We have that here with Ersal. He’s very committed. He’s here tonight, he’s touching every part of the event in our organization. That’s really unique in sports today.
Why do you think soccer could catch on here like it has in some of those other cities?
Well, I just think the youth participation on both the men’s side and the women’s side is very strong. We’ve got some great gals that represent our Olympic team and our World Cup teams that have come from Indiana. A number of men’s players here as well have gone on to great success. There are a number of universities, college programs that are here. I’ll go back, obviously, to Indiana University with the eight national championships on the men’s side. I think Notre Dame has three championship on the women’s side.
Then you’ve got other programs; Butler, IUPUI, Evansville. We’ve got a great talent pool that’s already here, and it’s getting better and better every year. Look outside the region a little bit and you’ve got Akron, Xavier.
There are some great programs out there that will complement what we are doing here, so lots of talent here, lots of enthusiasm for the game. As you can see tonight, the soccer fans are here. They’re getting a chance to celebrate and be heard. I think it’s a different community that’s out there than maybe some of the other sports have.
Are you looking to recruit new soccer fans tonight as well?
Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of people that we’ve seen downtown are coming for the experience. They want to see what’s going on downtown. And again, I think that benefits us, Indy Eleven, with all the great amenities that are in the city of Indianapolis. How easy it is to park, to get something to eat, and walk down Georgia Street, get to the stadium, and get in and out of the facility easily. That’s definitely going to pay huge dividends for us down the road, but there’s a lot of just casual fans that are out there for the experience and the atmosphere that will hopefully be created here tonight.
MLS has announced plans to add four expansion teams by 2020. Some have named Indianapolis, along with Detroit, as potential Midwestern cities where an expansion team could be added. What possibility do you see for Indianapolis adding that MLS team in the next couple of years?
I know we’re very excited about we’re doing now. I’m not really looking any further than that first game. We’ve got to get our first game going, get our team together, continue to build our organization the right way with the right people and do as well as we can in the NASL.
If that leads to things down the road like an expansion, then so be it. If we’re doing our job, and we’ve got a competitive entertaining team on the field, and we continue to build a good organization—a lot of those leagues have certain thresholds and criteria of things you need (stadia, training facilities, budget, front office). I don’t know the particulars of that.
I know that with this group we’re excited to be with the NASL. The NASL is really growing, adding two more teams next year, Jacksonville and Oklahoma City, and then some more teams after that. So the league and the game schedule get longer and longer every year, more competitive, which is right where we want to be. The responsibility is really on us to shine and do the most with that opportunity.
But the MLS continues to grow. You saw Manchester City and the New York Yankees come together for a new franchise in New York City, which is exciting. I heard the Crew just sold yesterday to a new investor group, so a lot of interest in sports franchises and investment is definitely out there, but we’re excited about our team, what we have here. We have our hands full.
Do you view tonight’s match as a test run for the marketing muscle of Indy Eleven as far as getting fans out to the game?
Yeah, I think so, a little bit. It’s a different environment, a different game than the NASL or MLS, but the fans are definitely here. I think we’ve seen that. The city ran trying to be a future site for the World Cup and did extremely well in that process. I think that put Indianapolis on the radar, as did hosting a Super Bowl. The city and Indiana Sports Corp, they just knocked the ball out of the park, and I think the country took notice.
With all the great events that we host here between the Indy 500 and NCAA basketball, and obviously the success of the Colts and the Pacers, it’s a sports town. There aren’t a lot of great sports towns out there around the country, and this is definitely a top notch sports town. Athletes want to come and live here and play here. I think that’s going to help us build our franchise.
Did the “big sports town” reputation sell you on joining Indy Eleven?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve been living here for a long time, since 2002. Knowing that this opportunity, the way it was shaping up, the players that were getting involved, the ownership group, and the fact that I was still involved in the U.S. Soccer Foundation, I can definitely see this market being a great soccer market. I just wanted to be part of it and help build it from the ground up.
Real world restrictions don’t apply. You can start a franchise with one player from Chelsea or Inter. Who do you pick?
Oh, boy (pauses). That’s a tough one. I’ll have to say the goalkeeper. You’ve got to go from the back. We’re going to need a good goalkeeper when we start, so I’ll take Petr Cech and say we’ll build from there and go forward. But there’s a lot of great players on show tonight, so it’ll be a special treat for all the kids out here to see some of them.