Six-thirty in the morning is a bit early to meet up for a road trip. But we wanted to beat Beltway traffic and get to Greenfield - a small town outside of Indianapolis - before 5 that afternoon. So 6:30 it was. The plan was solid: meet up Friday morning in Alexandria and drive to the Hoosier State for our buddy's 30th birthday surprise party, where we'd spend the evening pretending there wasn't anything planned for the next day - certainly not a trip to the Indy Eleven game against Tampa Bay with half a dozen other secretly in-from-out-of-town friends of the birthday boy. And it all worked out beautifully.
Because I assume you don't care much about the late night marathon session of Cards Against Humanity or my introduction to the tabletop glory that is Betrayal at House on the Hill or the hour and a half our group spent pedaling around downtown Indianapolis on the HandleBar pedal pub, I'll focus on the soccer.
Carroll Stadium is about what you'd expect for an NASL team in Indianapolis. On the campus of IUPUI in downtown Indy, it fits a bit over 10,000. What you might not expect is the fact that the Eleven have sold out every one of their matches so far this inaugural season. The $10 general admission seating in the large Brickyard Battalion supporters' section behind the north goal has something to do with that, but the main stand on the west sideline was just as full well before kickoff. And just like RFK Stadium, the parking lots started filling up hours before game time with tailgaters setting up tents and grills and kicking soccer balls around the lots across the street from the stadium.
I was lucky enough to run into some high school friends at the tailgate and catch up on the last 12 years of breakups, jobs, weddings and kids. I also ran into a perfect stranger wearing the very sharp third jersey of Sporting KC just after news broke that the Sporks had re-signed US World Cup vets Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. He hadn't heard, and based on the look on his face (it had me bracing for a seemingly inevitable bro-hug), he must have thought one or both of them would be out the door sooner than later.
Come on you boys in blue! Come on you boys in blue!
Back inside the stadium, 4-time World Cup veteran and Ft. Wayne, Indiana native DaMarcus Beasley was on hand to make the ceremonial first kick. He wasn't the only former MLS player on the field, either. One time Philadelphia Union man Kleberson started for the host team, while ex-D.C. United striker Casey Townsend and former Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens got the start for the visiting Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The first half started somewhat slowly, both teams keeping things very narrow and struggling to break out of midfield. The play over the first half hour probably favored the visitors, but the Eleven would draw first blood after a rare spell of good one- and two-touch passing put Kleberson in position to score. The Rowdies answered quickly, though, as Casey Townsend smashed home a rebound into an empty net after what can only be called shambolic defending by the Eleven.
Indy is red and blue! Indy is red and blue!
In the second half, the Rowdies would eventually find a game-winner through Georgi Hristov, but I was focused more on the fans in the Brickyard Battalion than I was on the action on the field. Two capo stands in front of the section were trying to direct the songs, and the most regular fans in the center of the section obviously knew the words well enough to keep pace. Many fans closer to the corners, though, were experiencing their first Eleven match, or in some cases their first in-person professional soccer match at all. The spirit was great, even among the newcomers, but the lack of familiarity with the songs kept a lid on what passion wanted to come out. (Except for one guy in front of us who may have a personal beef with Matt Pickens, at whom he continued to direct his ire even after the Rowdies GK was on the far end of the field.) A few more junior capos spread through the stand to even out the song-leading might have helped, but that is truly a minor quibble. It was a great experience from the tifo after the national anthem through the final whistle.
And even after that final whistle, there was an extra surprise. As the Indy players lined up in front of the stands to sign autographs, I spotted a guy in his 20s wearing a D.C. United t-shirt in the center of the supporters' section, and I knew that I had to say hello. He turned out to be a childhood friend (and member of the wedding party) of United's own Indianapolis native, Perry Kitchen. We talked about Kitchen and United and exchanged high fives, and I made my way out to where my group of friends was waiting on the running track behind the grandstand.
It's easy to see what the Indy Eleven are doing right. Even if the team is something less than blindingly successful on the field - winning only one of their first ten NASL games along with a win and an extra time loss in the US Open Cup - they are drawing capacity crowds every single week and building a strong, passionate fan base in a city that many outsiders wouldn't have pegged as a likely soccer hotbed. They have an authentic brand centered on Victory (the statute at the center of the circle that gives the Circle City its name), as well as the city's flag and a nod to Indianapolis' racing history through prominent use of a checkered motif.
If team president Peter Wilt, part of the group that so successfully launched the Chicago Fire back in the late 1990s, and the rest of the Indy Eleven organization can keep their momentum going and find a way into their own stadium, Major League Soccer may have to find a way to get them into the league. Something special is brewing in Naptown, something worth the early wake-up time and the 9-hour drive.