INDIANAPOLIS – The numbers were tossed around as a badge of honor for a growing franchise and the gauge of interest the world’s game had in the Hoosier State.
Seven-thousand season ticket deposits were put down for the Indy Eleven-Central Indiana’s foray into the professional soccer world through the North American Soccer League. Interest peaked among others in the community as evidence by the growing amount of memorabilia and trademark soccer scarfs that were circling their way around the community as winter finally turned to spring.
Saturday night-the first official game for the Eleven in the NASL-was supposed to feature a boisterous crowd and a raucous atmosphere that would be like one not seen at the Carroll Stadium since it hosted the Pan Am Games in 1987.
Somehow, it managed to top that.
“It really topped it,” said head coach Juergen Sommer of the 11,048 fans that enthusiastically took to the grandstand and the bleachers in the back of the goals on a warmer-than-usual April Saturday evening for the Eleven’s inaugural game against the Carolina Railhawks.”It really invigorated the players. It was like having a 12th man on the team.
In the end the atmosphere produced a decent showing from a home team still looking for its identity in their new league. The Eleven took a lead into the second half but had to settle with a 1-1 draw against their opponents from Carolina-yet the atmosphere was the talking point for most of those involved.
“It makes it so fun to play,” said midfielder A.J.Corrado-who played his collegiate soccer at Indiana and knew something about the state’s enthusiasm for the sport. “To us it means everything. The motivation you get stepping on the field with 11,000 people cheering for you and pulling for you is amazing.”
It even impressed Kleberson-the highest profile player on the team-who won a World Cup with Brazil in 2002 and spent time with Premier League powerhouse Manchester United from 2003-2005.
“He understands that this league is a level below the MLS but the showed that we can be the first and the highest level of soccer in Indiana and the United States,” said Kleberson through an interpreter provided by the team.
Helping to drive the atmosphere was the fans who completely filled the west goal bleachers at Carroll Stadium-populated mostly by members of the Brickyard Battalion and other fans groups that were starter or sprung up after the announcement of the franchise. It was the initial push by the Battalion and other fan groups that attracted management to put together a professional team in Indianapolis and the effort came full circle on Saturday.
“They were phenomenal tonight,” said Sommer of the Battalion. “It was fun to be in that environment. I could really see the players came out with a lot of character and fight.”
Perhaps it was fitting that the Eleven were coming right at those fans towards the west goal when the recorded their first goal in team history. The honor went to Michael Ambersley-another former Indiana player-who took a feed in the box from fellow Hoosier Corrado and slipped it past the keeper to put the Eleven up 1-0 shortly before halftime.
It didn’t last long. Five minutes into the second half the Railhawks got the equalizer when Zack Schilawski put a solid cross into the back of the net. The Eleven had a flurry of chances in the final minutes but could never get one to go in, settling for a bit of an imperfect finish on a near perfect night for soccer.
“It’s just amazing. I really don’t know how to describe it,” said Ambersley of the night, though he did admit the team played better in the first half than the second. “It’s fun that I played soccer at IU and now I get the chance to come back and play in front of some great fans.
“They brought it tonight, I wish we could have given them a ‘W’. But they’ll be out all year.”
And he’ll be fine if they decide to continue exceeding expectations.