The April 1st friendly featuring the newly-minted Indy 11 and reserve side of traditional powerhouse Chicago Fire is more than just an opportunity for playing time. It represents an opportunity for the expanding city of Indianapolis to share its beautiful sports tradition with the growing American soccer culture. Seen mainly as playing second fiddle to larger regional cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Louisville, Indianapolis - and greater Indiana, for that matter - is taking another step to make itself a 'name to know' in the soccer world.
Indy11 vs Chicago Fire Reserves, Tuesday, April 1, 6:30 p.m. CDT, Boilermaker Soccer Complex, West Lafayette, IN; tickets $15 or $11 at the gate
The sports culture of Indiana can be defined no better than ‘traditionally Midwestern'. This tradition is truly embodied in the amateur athletic history known throughout the close-knit small towns and the epicenter, the capital city of Indianapolis. For most, Indiana is best known for its basketball heritage, featuring legendary coaches (Wooden and Knight) and an elite club of past and present great players (from Larry Bird to Eric Gordon). Sports culture is community centered, featuring the most passionate high school sports fans I've ever witnessed.
Among these small towns, you can seemingly walk into any local watering holes and meet an old-timer townie who will still boast about playing against Steve Alford before he was an All-American at Indiana University. Before school consolidations and the multi-class athletic organization system, witnessing the high school team make a deep run in the state basketball tournament was a source of great joy for the small town citizens. The widespread support seen today is still unparalleled by other states.
Moving from the hard-court to the pitch, Indiana is not foreign to soccer. On the collegiate level, the IU and Notre Dame programs are national powerhouses, with eight titles residing in Bloomington and this year's cup presently adorning in South Bend. Our own Harrison Shipp heralds from the latter school. Until now, the only pro team was the FC Indy Pride women's team, which features a moderate fan base, but whose supporter apparel I've seen in my travels. Of professional players born in the state, Will Bruin, Perry Kitchen, and former Fire player Demarcus Beasley stand out the most.
In the Hoosier state, similarly with most of the U.S., soccer growth is beginning on the small community level. High school teams newly-formed in the 90s now find support similar to the more popular basketball and football programs.
As a whole, Indianapolis is growing power in the sports sphere. After a long drought following the Reggie Miller Pacer days that shed first light on the small corn town, Indianapolis regained attention in 2006, when Peyton Manning led the Colts to a Super Bowl win. It has since hosted a Super Bowl (in 2012) and cheered on the hometown Butler University (under)Bulldogs to a national title game just miles from its campus in 2010. At present, Pacer fans are riding high with their league leading record. Colts fans meanwhile are recovering from a rollercoaster of emotions after trading away Peyton Manning (to which I say, LOL) and rallying behind the cancer battling coach Chuck Pagano. Soccer-wise, the city also held a summer friendly between Chelsea and Inter Milan last year, part of the International Champions Cup soccer tournament. Home of the NCAA headquarters and a weak attempt at a 2024 Olympic bid, the sports influence of Indianapolis will only continue to grow in the coming years.
With the formation of the Indy 11 in January 16, 2013, headed up by former Fire president/GM Peter Wilt, supporters in place ("The Brickyard Battalion") were initially hesitant to accept the Indy 11 brand, but now seem ready to embrace a true pro team in their city. Those same fans had formed the group a few years earlier - in 2011 - as part of a grassroots movement to bring an MLS team to the city. Multiple supporters' group formed on Facebook with the idea of building a uniquely Indianapolis team. Drawing from the city's famed racing tradition, they called themselves the Brickyard Battalion (from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 'The Brickyard') and rallied behind a non-existent team they called 'Racing Indiana FC.'
'The Brickers' got their wish when Wilt became actively involved in late 2012, furthering an outpouring of support from the soccer community. With the NASL announcement a few months later, the Brickyard Battalion was formalized as the official supporters' group. Derek Richey, president of the Brickyard Battalion, sees the Indy 11 tapping on to an existing new generation of soccer fans.
"There is a younger, 20- or 30-something group of soccer supporters that are definitely making their voice heard when it comes to supporting soccer," claims Richey. This same group might even include more non-traditional sports fans that finally have the opportunity to express their love of the sport. He also sees the Indy 11 fitting in comfortably with the Colts and Pacers; "We have a strong tradition here of supporting all our teams, and I think for the first time, that tradition will hold true for soccer as well." Before the season kicks off on the campus of IUPUI, more than 8,000 season tickets have been sold, a prideful statistic for Richey.
The Fire vs. 11 match is being played on the campus of Purdue University, located roughly halfway between the shortest line connecting the two respective host cities, in Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue does not have a men's soccer team, featuring only a women's team which finished mid-table in the Big Ten conference the last few seasons. Notable alumni include 2005 grad Lauren Sesselmann, a regular on the Canadian national team.
The team plays at the newly renovated Varsity Soccer complex with a new press box, locker rooms, euro-style shaded west stand, and modern scoreboards. While I doubt pro teams would have enjoyed playing in the previous edition of the stadium, it is not foreign to high-caliber matches. Within the last decade, Purdue played a home friendly against the Mexico national team and hosted early rounds of the 2007 NCAA women's soccer tournament. New stadium in hand, this friendly seeks to benefit both Indy 11 and Purdue.
Travis Miller, site manager and founder of SBNation's Purdue blog 'Hammer & Rails', believes this is a good event for Purdue and helps expand the Indy 11 base. "Purdue is one of the few Big Ten programs without a men's soccer team and given Indiana's national success in the sport it is a bit of a surprise that Purdue was chosen over IU," explains Miller.
Continuing the Midwest hospitality tradition, allow me to be the first to welcome you to northern Indiana. If you are driving to Lafayette, grab a pre-game drink at Harry's Chocolate Shop (spoiler: it's not a chocolate shop) and admire the Ivy league-esque red brick buildings of the Purdue campus. You might even find me at the Chocolate Shop drinking a Boilermaker (look it up) before marching to the Section 8 stand and cheering on the Fire.
Michael Frank loves writing about soccer growth in the U.S. and the Chicago Fire. Follow on Twitter @Chi_Skyace.