Hundreds of die-hard Indy Eleven fans stormed the field at Michael A. Carroll Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, painting a scene that was akin to that of a European promotion match.
The Eleven had a very specific task ahead of them as they went into the game Saturday night, needing the exact 4-1 win they got in order to finish above the New York Cosmos and win the NASL Spring Season title.
“Saturday was special, not just winning the championship but the way it was won,” Indy Eleven general manager Peter Wilt told SBI. “It was remarkable that against those odds, the team was able to attack and score, attack [and] score some more to beat a very good team scoring the goals necessary to win the tiebreaker.”
“What we have now is a very good team, that has proven they can fight for and indeed win a championship,” Wilt told SBI. “Undefeated through the Spring Season and still alive in the Open Cup is as good as it can be at this point of the season. But there’s still more to fight for.”
The three-year-old Indianapolis franchise officially won their first title after FC Edmonton defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on Sunday, but it was the hat trick on Saturday from Indy Eleven newcomer Eamon Zayed that made the title possible. The Libyan striker, among a number of new signings for the club, is a symbol of the new era that the outgoing Wilt helped to usher in for the club he founded in 2013.
“Eamon Zayed of course has been very important. He’s the leading scorer in the league, we knew he was a proven goalscorer, wherever he’s gone he’s done well,” Wilt told SBI.
“Among other players he provides great leadership. That was a key in the off-season, was getting more veteran players, more leaders, players with experience. The risk was increasing the age of the team, the average age of our roster went up to 28, the average age of our starters went up to 31. But if they could stay healthy and fit, we thought it would be a net positive with the experience they bring. We ended up signing five players that had been professional team captains. That’s an indication of the type of player, character and mentality we were looking for in the off-season.”
And just like that, a new class of player started being attracted to Indy Eleven. Wilt, Tim Hankinson and Tim Regan brought in key players, from former Chicago Fire standouts like Jon Busch and Lovel Palmer, to Spanish midfielder Gorka Larrea and NASL vet Sinisa Ubiparipovic. As a result, this team was revitalized after a disappointing 2015.
It was by no stroke of good luck that Indy stumbled upon these valuable players, but rather a result of multiple factors perfectly fitting together, from a stronger financial backing to a larger pool of leaders seeking out potential transfers.
“Certainly adding [Head Coach] Tim Hankinson to the mix was very important. He had his own network, his own contacts. He’s been following Eaman Zayed for years, and without Tim we wouldn’t have had Eamon within the Eleven,” Wilt told SBI. “And then its working our butt off. A lot of emails, phone calls, a lot of video work, a lot of scouting, and some good solid negotiations and conversations to bring in the best players possible.”
The club certainly isn’t in a position to rest on their laurels after this victory, though, a notion that Wilt reinforced.
“This league is very competitive, I mean just look how close the standings are,” Wilt told SBI. “Depending on the outcomes [last] weekend, we could’ve finished first or seventh. Its not like we’re dominating the league, we have that silverware by the hair of our teeth.”
The team brought in two more players in the last week, keeping with the year’s upward trajectory. The first was Mexican defensive midfielder Gerardo Torrado, who joins after spending over a decade with Cruz Azul. Torrado has amassed 146 appearances for the Mexican National Team, representing El Tri in three World Cups. Also joining the Eleven is veteran Guinean striker Souleymane Youla, who most recently plied his trade in Hungary with Budapest Honved.
“I was talking to Gerardo Torrado after the game on Saturday about [how] we cannot get comfortable,” Wilt told SBI. “Indy Eleven needs to continue to fight for two things; one is to maintain momentum so that we are prepared and ready to play at the highest level come Championship time. The second is to have the best record overall so we can host the championship in November.”
The glutton of talent that has joined may in large part be due to the team’s newfound financial strength, but Wilt also had an incredible fan culture to sell them on the experience the club is building.
“We had Kleberson’s money available, which was essentially wasted the first two years, and to our owner’s credit, he gave us the financial resources to compete for these players,” Wilt told SBI. “That allows you to recruit in a better pool.We brought in players that were motivated and would work hard to bring a championship to a community that would appreciate it.We had something to sell: the fan base, the relevance of Indy Eleven in the community, the quality of life in Indiana, the training facilities, and the game experience, and that’s all important.”
With the talent the team has brought on, the confidence that the team now has and the right leadership in place, Indy Eleven has a chance to join the ranks as a top NASL franchise.
“We’re going to be better in the Fall Season, when the team will have had more time to coalesce,” Wilt told SBI. “But you still have injuries, suspensions that come up, rotation of players, and you need to fight complacency knowing that we already have a play-off spot confirmed. Its not going to be an easy Fall Season, it will be a challenge. They will need to continue to fight hard all the way to the end.”
Indy Eleven’s next match, the last before the team begins the Fall Season without Wilt as GM, comes with an intriguing twist. Hankinson’s men will travel north for a U.S. Open Cup match on Wednesday night, against a Chicago Fire club that Wilt led for its first eight years in MLS.
“I started both teams,” Wilt said. “The [Fire] badge means a lot to me, and its my hometown team, so the sentimentality will be there on both sides. I’ll be there and I’ll cheer for the team that has the ball.”
In the end, Indy Eleven is more than just another one of Peter Wilt’s successful startup teams. The Indianapolis community embraced the team in an incredible way from the start, and Wilt will certainly leave a legacy in the newly pronounced soccer city.
“The fans were all into it, and they have been from the beginning,” Wilt told SBI. “Its been this unconditional love by the community for the team, and to be able to reward them as I go out in my time with Indy Eleven was very special. This was the last chance I could do something to reward them, and its been an amazing week.”