Indy Alchemy: A Budding Soccer City?

Indy Eleven might make Indianapolis into a soccer city
by Doug Starnes   |   Monday, August 05, 2013

Checkered Flags – column on Indy NASL (Indy FC) & the Indianapolis soccer scene.

The Bar

Massachusetts Avenue is Indianapolis’s trendiest street.

Its diagonal trajectory from the city’s northeast side to the heart of downtown is punctuated by some of the most unique restaurants, bars and shops the Circle City has to offer. Most summer afternoons, its broad sidewalks, murals and book-end green spaces play host to a meandering collective of urban professionals escaping their cubes, students whiling away the summer hours doing nothing in particular and that enviable class of culture-makers who seem to find every Mass. Ave in every city in America. 

Sandwiched between a martini bar and a comedy club, on this particular summer afternoon, Chatham Tap, an English style pub that has established itself as the premier soccer watching destination in the city, is a bustling blue bedlam of terrace songs, pints and Chelsea replica jerseys.

I’m here to interview Daniel Jones, one of the bar’s owners, just hours before Chelsea and Inter Milan play at Lucas Oil Stadium as part of the inaugural International Champion’s Cup in what is surely the biggest soccer event in Indianapolis history.

Daniel tells me Chatham Tap has been ground zero for the city’s sizeable contingent of Chelsea supporters since about noon, a full 8 hours before the ICC match is scheduled to kick off. He’s done 5 interviews already today. His staff is about twice its normal size for a Thursday and has to yell and push its way through the rabble just to deliver food, drinks and checks. Although he wishes he were a savvy enough restaurateur to have created this soccer hub intentionally, he concedes much of it is purely accidental.

“We knew we wanted to do an English pub. I was in to soccer and thought it would be cool to have a place to watch the matches on a big screen with sound. I thought I’d find maybe 10-15 other people who wanted the same thing.”

We’re interrupted by an awkward outburst of “Carefree,” the famous Chelsea terrace song and Daniel, a Manchester United fan grimaces visibly as the assembled chorus self-consciously mimics a British accent in an effort to make the song sound right.

“They sing ‘blue is the color,’” Daniel explains as he gestures casually to the song singers. “To me, green is the color.”

A bar that started as a neighborhood pub that hoped to show soccer on weekend mornings to a small group of loyal patrons now uses big soccer matches as earnings benchmarks. England vs. USA in World Cup 2010 is still the bar’s white whale.

“It made our year,” Daniel says of the standing room only, overflow at capacity, 10 hour soccer bacchanalia that helped solidify Chatham Tap’s reputation as the place to watch soccer in Indianapolis. Today is turning into another red letter day. At 4:30 p.m., with the crowd showing no signs of tiring, Daniel is about $2,500 ahead of where he’d normally be on a Thursday afternoon.

The packed crowd launches into another rendition of  “Carefree.”  

As our interview concludes, a kid in an Inter Milan jersey walks in and pauses at the door. No one hurls abuse or even notices the blue and black striped jersey, but he still orders his food to go.

The Match

I say goodbye to Daniel and hop in the car for the short drive to Lucas Oil Stadium. The local sports talk radio personalities are discussing the upcoming match in a way I’ve not heard before. Rather than the bemused and dismissive platitudes traditionally bandied about by legions of AM radio Jim Rome acolytes, the local personalities are actually giving the evening’s event weight and encouraging their listeners to go check it out. This is a thing. This is a thing they don’t necessarily understand, but this is a thing.

Outside the stadium, throngs of fans can be seen tailgating, clogging the entry gates and knocking the ball around in numerous pickup games. Many wear Chelsea and Inter jerseys, but I also see Portugal, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham, Barcelona, and Boca Juniors jerseys. This is a soccer match rather than a Chelsea or Inter Milan match.  

I arrive at the press box at Lucas Oil Stadium and am struck by the ratio of soccer specific media to local sports-in-general media. The grizzled sports writing vets who have to cover the event as a one off curio, a demographic that would have held unassailable sway over the same press box 20 years ago, were the match even a possibility 20 years ago, are now vastly out represented by reporters from Fox Soccer, ESPN, BBC and Sky Sports. John Harkes eats cheesecake. This is a thing.

The match is played out on a horrible field in a beautiful stadium in front of an announced attendance of 41,983. Early in the first half, Victor Moses picks up a ball in his defensive third, eludes an Inter Milan challenge and then embarks on a 60-yard run before squaring the ball to Oscar who cuts inside and curls a searing effort into the opposite top corner of the Inter goal. After an incorrect penalty call and a 2nd half red card to Hugo Campagnaro, Chelsea run away 2-0 victors.

I descend from the press box with the other media folks to the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium to listen to Walter Mazzarri and Jose Mourinho hold their respective post match press conferences. Mazzarri is punctual but speaks no English and doesn’t have the star quality of Mourinho.

Mourinho is beyond fashionably late and is as dashing, clever and arrogant as ever.

The field was awful but the stadium is fantastic.

Winning the trophy doesn’t mean much.

Lampard is fine and the best player will play.

Hazard can be a top player, not just a top talent.

I ask him a question mostly because I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance again. It’s a softball question and has almost nothing to do with the article I’m writing, but this is a thing.

The Rub

On the way home, I try to process the evening. Two of the most storied clubs in European history have just played a match in my home city. Their 90 minute drama was played out against the backdrop of a much more prolonged storyline to which they were likely completely oblivious:

An expansion NASL team that has yet to name a roster or even play a match is trying to focus the undoubted local passion for soccer into support for a 2nd tier domestic franchise.

Indy Eleven punched well above its weight in helping to organize and support the Chelsea vs. Inter Milan ICC match and seemingly took full advantage of the exposure through highly visible advertisements, game day promotions and by heading up media coordination and making club president Peter Wilt and manager Juergen Sommer available for interviews.

After Thursday’s match, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Indy Eleven were on everyone’s lips. One of these things is not like the others.  

But, as my game day experience suggests, the local passion for soccer is disparate, unfocused and just a little desperate to belong. Add to this whirling mix of inscrutable passions the fact that MLS just announced plans to add 4 more franchises to the league by the 2020 season and Indy Eleven has made no secret of the fact that it would welcome an eventual move to MLS, although successful campaigns in NASL remain its current focus, and you get the sense that although Indy Eleven is in the right place at the right time, harnessing the zeitgeist may prove to be a mammoth proposition.

It struck me as odd that a bar in Indianapolis would be packed wall to wall with people who aren’t from west London and yet passionately support a west London club, albeit with fake cockney accents and a decidedly less vitriolic defense of the neighborhood pub (Daniel is still a Manchester United supporter, after all, and the Inter Milan kid received not even a sideways glance). When I realized that those same people would balk at the idea of supporting a Chicago or Columbus club as being too “other,” I had to laugh.

What separates the Manchester Uniteds, Chelseas and Inter Milans from the world of the US domestic professional leagues isn’t necessarily their otherness, but the power of their history, tradition, ethos and legend. Essentially, the power of their brand. Chelsea was founded in 1905 by Gus Mears and has survived and flourished enough to reach a point where a gaggle of Midwesterners decked in blue and packed into a bar in Indianapolis on a Thursday afternoon in celebration of the club isn’t all that weird.

Indy Eleven is on the Gus Mears end of that spectrum at the moment. Although soccer fans are undoubtedly here, in this country soccer is still a niche sport. What makes soccer in the US unique from other niche sports like lacrosse, is that it has grown to the point that it no longer produces full spectrum fans that love the game over a particular club. Therein lies the challenge for Indy Eleven.

How do you turn a Chelsea fan into an Indy Eleven fan?      

Just before Chelsea and Inter Milan kicked off, Juergen Sommer popped into the press box to answer questions from local media interested in how Indy Eleven planned to capitalize on the attention the ICC match had focused on the city.

I asked him if reality was suspended and he could start Indy Eleven by signing just 1 of the players on display that evening, who would it be?

“Oh boy, oh boy … that’s a tough one,” Sommer responded. “I’ll have to say a goalkeeper so you have to build from the back. We’re gonna need a good goalkeeper when we start so I’ll have to say Petr Cech. So we’ll build from there and go forward.”

At Chatham Tap before the match, a happy couple unironically dressed in Di Matteo and Torres jerseys wondered aloud whether they should and then decided to purchase Indy Eleven shirts on sale behind the bar.

Whether or not Indy Eleven can perfect this strange alchemy that turns an Indiana Premier League Chelsea supporter into a Hoosier NASL Indy Eleven supporter remains to be seen, but the club’s considerable grassroots work and ambitious international level marketing efforts certainly seem to be laying the foundation for a healthy franchise.

Build from the back and go forward.         

Doug STARNES

Nationality:
USA
College:
Baylor Univ.
Club Domestic:
Indy Eleven
Club Foreign:
Fulham
A reformed goalkeeper, cheese enthusiast, beer aficionado, and all around unrequited lover of The Beautiful Game, Doug currently resides in Indianapolis and is chomping at the bit to cover Indy Pro Soccer in all of its soon to be glory.
DOUG'S SPONSORS