KRAVITZ: Have the Indy Eleven bitten off more than they can chew?

Juergen Sommer
Bob Kravitz

The Indy Eleven have several goals: They want to fill Carroll Stadium, which they've done through brilliant marketing; and they want to win soccer games, which they haven't done their first two years in the NASL. But more than that, they want to build a multi-million-dollar stadium downtown, and someday, they'd like to earn their way into the MLS.

They have big ideas, big dreams, and all of that is great.

But look at the team's locker room. Or rather, locker rooms. They're construction trailers. Or portable classrooms, where you send the schoolkids when enrollment gets too high to accommodate the population. They're minor league…well, worse than minor league. They're an embarrassment, even for a second-year NASL team.

That, in the end, is why Juergen Sommer, who was relieved of his duties as the Indy Eleven's head coach Tuesday, is wondering if Eleven ownership and management haven't put the cart before the horse. They've got these big ideas, sure, and big ideas are necessary. But he wonders whether they've put in the foundational work – like a practice facility, like a full staff, like those ridiculous locker rooms – on their way to fame and fortune.

That, more than anything, is the frustration he feels after being let go Tuesday and replaced by former assistant and new interim head coach Tim Regan. His feeling is that the Eleven have put more emphasis on marketing its new team and not enough emphasis on doing the small things necessary to build a franchise from the ground up.

"It's frustrating - disappointing, really - that the vision was so short-sighted and more of a popularity contest than an active building, foundational process," Sommer said Tuesday night. "When you start with nothing, it's going to take time. We don't have housing for our players. We didn't really have a medical training facility. It was one construction trailer for 24 players, six staff people, no showers, no bathrooms. It takes time to build those things and those things matter in sports. Those are things that have to be addressed.

"Obviously, I didn't want to see it come to an end like this. You at least want the opportunity to take something you started from the low ground and get it up and running. It's as if we were trying to run before we walked. You've got to be honest with yourself: You get into a professional sports league, it's a lot more competitive than ownership and leadership give it credit for. It requires a lot of work to get there. We were trying to be competitive with what we had, but it wasn't going to come overnight, and I think that's what folks were looking for. It doesn't work that way. Sports are hard, hard work. We don't have the resources or the personnel to do that, so you do your best day-by-day. But some people are more inclined to treat it like a popularity contest."

I'm going to be honest here. I haven't seen enough Eleven games to have a strong opinion on whether this was a sage or foolish move. The record these first two years hasn't been good, hasn't been good enough for ownership or management, but what can you expect from a second-year expansion franchise?

According to team president and general manager Peter Wilt, the answer was more, a lot more.

The media spoke to Wilt before I had a chance to reach out to Sommer Tuesday night, but his feeling was that Sommer had enough talent to compete, and to win, in the NASL. He made sure to mention the new interim coach's communication skills and attention to detail, making it clear he believed Sommer, a former Indiana University player, lacked in those areas.

"Certainly, when you see the team's performance, especially at home games, having trouble scoring, having trouble winning, having trouble showing that the effort to perform is at 100 percent, those are all indicators that what you're doing isn't working," Wilt said. "...This is a very difficult day in Indy Eleven history but a very necessary day. Juergen gave so much of himself to the Eleven through its launch. He is Indiana soccer, worked 24 hours, seven days a week to see this team be successful. And beyond the hard work and his accomplishments, he's just a good guy and that's what makes this decision very difficult. We came [to the decision] that if the Eleven was to move forward and get the best out of the players, we needed to go in another direction."

Wilt understands that the team the Eleven fielded in the spring season of the expansion year wasn't good enough to win with anybody at the helm, including the famed Bob Bradley. But he believes the talent is better now, and the team should be doing more than it's doing on the field.

"[The talent wasn't] good enough last year, especially at the beginning, in the spring season," Wilt said. "Then we made some good changes at the break that made the team better, made the chemistry of the team better. Then in the off-season we added quite a bit of talent up and down the roster, from the back to the front. I think you've seen in the back, our defense has been much improved with fewer goals allowed. But I do think this is a better team collectively than what we've seen so far."

Sommer hoped the Eleven would be better this year – they're 8-17-13 all time – but he doesn't believe he had the talent, or the staff or the resources, to win in the NASL. And he brings up a question that ownership and management have to ask themselves: Have they taken the proper foundational steps necessary to become a professional, albeit a minor league, franchise? One look at those locker rooms suggest they have not.

Sommer did it all for the fledgling Eleven last year, kissed babies, talked to Kiwanis Clubs, showed his face whenever and wherever he was asked to spread the gospel of local soccer. He also survived that first year with a team that lacked the talent necessary to compete in the NASL. He was the face of soccer in this region, going back to his time at Indiana University and then with the Eleven.

Again... good, bad or indifferent, I don't know enough about it to hail the decision or slam it. I only know Sommer threw body and soul into the Eleven, and it's sad to see him go after less than a year-and-a-half as the Eleven head coach. That wouldn't seem like enough time to build an expansion team, but again, management believes it has the talent to do more.

The question is, are they moving too fast? Have they bitten off more than they can chew? They are champions when it comes to marketing and spreading the gospel. On the field, not so much.

"I think we're a little top-heavy in the marketing and promotions and the publicity side, and they did a great job bringing the team out of the ground," Sommer said. "But when it comes to dealing with professional athletes, you have to put resources into training, strength and conditioning, rehab people, trainers, massage therapists, chiropractors, all the things you need to bring your guys along. You have to do it the right way. You can't sprinkle pixie dust on it and think you're going to get it done overnight. You have to do it the right way; there are no shortcuts. If you do, you get a bad name in the industry."

Maybe Regan is the answer. Maybe Kleberson, the former Brazilian star who has been named an assistant coach, can help – although his English isn't terribly good, which makes you wonder about his ability to communicate with players.


If nothing else, the Eleven should at least listen to this, Sommer's exit interview, and take heed. You've got to walk before you break out in a dead sprint. It takes time -- time that Sommer never had.