Carmel Coach Leads Indy’s Newest Pro Sports Team
It probably would not have been a surprising inquiry if the coach in question had a first name such as Frank or Chuck. Or, a last name like Vogel or Pagano. Or, was employed by a professional team called the Pacers or the Colts. After all, this is central Indiana and the natives have had longtime admiration for their locals in the National Basketball Association and National Football League.
But in this particular situation the fascination of a waiter in a downtown Carmel coffee shop did not center on the possibility of gazing at a coach in the NBA or NFL. His intrigue involved the once unheralded world of professional soccer. “Was that the coach of the Indy Eleven,” admiringly questioned the waiter. When informed it was indeed new Indy Eleven coach Juergen Sommer, the smiling waiter responded quickly, “I wish I could get season tickets.”
That is exactly what Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir and team president Peter Wilt hoped to hear after they selected the personable Sommer as the franchise’s first coach for the journey into the North American Soccer League in 2014. Ozdemir and Wilt nabbed one of the state’s top soccer landmarks when they chose the former Indiana University goalkeeper and longtime coach in the Carmel United Soccer Club. “We made as a commitment to hire a local coach who would connect to the people of Indiana,” said Wilt, a tireless soccer pioneer who previously constructed the Chicago Fire into a major success story in Major League Soccer (MLS) and has adopted a similar blueprint for the Eleven in Indiana. “In Juergen, we have a coach who is locally connected and in no way compromises the values or goals to build a team soccer fans in Indiana will be proud to call their own.”
Already, the Eleven has scored big at the box office. The team has captured deposits for almost 5,000 season tickets to date and it has garnered an enthusiastic fan group called the Brickyard Battalion. The Battalion has over 1,000 members and regularly partners with Wilt’s front office to hold soccer viewing parties around the Indianapolis area. It is grassroots marketing at its best.
Sommer, 44, may be new to the Eleven mix, but he has been a torchbearer for soccer since his high school days at Culver Military Academy in northern Indiana. It was at Culver where Sommer, born in New York but with German and Danish background, polished the goalkeeping skills that he originally learned from his father Willi, once a goalkeeper in Germany. “My first year at Culver was difficult,” admitted Sommer, who left his parents and the family delicatessen business in Naples, Fl. “It wasn’t the Marines, but it is geared toward leadership and it took a while to get used to that life. But I enjoyed it.”
If soccer were to be his ticket for college, Sommer found a bumpy ride. Indiana high school soccer was not on speed dial for most college recruiters. After pursuing future collegiate homes, Sommer had it down to one viable possibility. It was Brown. “I was scrambling,” he conceded.
But then an idea came. Sommer remembered as a youth watching legendary Indiana coach Jerry Yeagley and his Hoosiers win an NCAA championship in Florida. He contacted Yeagley and received an invitation to walk-on at Indiana. “Once you get in the door, everyone starts over,” remembered Sommer.
And, quickly, good fortune and great skills elevated Sommer in Bloomington. After starting off as the fifth goalkeeper for the rebuilding Hoosiers, the 6-foot-5 freshman edged past his peers and became the Indiana starter in the third game of the season. Sommer never returned to backup status. Instead he etched his name into the Indiana soccer record books.
Sommer tallied 57 victories, the third most in the storied program’s history. He also helped steer the Hoosiers to their third NCAA championship in 1988 and another Final Four appearance before ending his collegiate career by being named Soccer America’s Goalkeeper on the Year as a senior in 1990. “Juergen has overachieved at every level and has wonderful tactical awareness of the game,” Yeagley said. “He is extremely good at building personal relationships. As the coach of a new professional team, you need someone who can pull everything together and create the chemistry needed to make your club a championship caliber program. Juergen is the ideal choice to do that.”
And leaving Indiana, Sommer was a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team, eventually being selected as an alternate for the 1990 FIFA World Cup squad. He also played professional soccer for eight years in the English Premier League, becoming the first American goalkeeper to play in the storied league that will have its game televised on NBC Sports this fall.
Sommer played five years in the WLS for the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution before a myriad of injuries ended his playing days in 2002. After a tour as an assistant at Indiana, Sommer was called upon by school athletic surgeon John McCarroll to coach the Cosmos in the Carmel United league. It turned into a perfect partnership for the Cosmos and Sommer, who doubled as a realtor in the Indianapolis area. “I learned a lot about coaching,” said Sommer, whose Cosmos squad produced 16 college players.
Meanwhile, Wilt learned a lot about Sommer when he visited Indianapolis last fall as he pursued putting a professional franchise in the Hoosier state. “I knew Juergen as a fan of the U.S. National Team and when he played against the Fire in Columbus and New England,” said Wilt, “but I didn’t meet him until I began meeting with members of Indiana’s soccer community to assess the viability of pro soccer here. It was clear from our first meeting that he had a good understanding of the sport at all levels locally, domestically and internationally.
“I formally rated finalists in dozens of categories. Juergen was strong in all of the critical areas, including player recruitment, player development, game coach, community connected and communication skills. He is the best person for the job.”
The admiration is a two-way street. Sommer speaks glowingly of Wilt and Ozdemir, whose firm Keystone Construction is firmly in the ground in Carmel’s growing downtown sector. “They want it done right and that has impressed both the fans and me,” Sommer said. “If they did not want to do it right, I would not have gotten involved. But if the ownership and management are committed, it trickles down through a team.”
Sommer realizes a key for any coach in any sport is winning and uncovering talented players to accomplish that objective. He is tapping into every source he can use to find players for the inaugural Eleven season. “The rubber is hitting the road now,” he noted. “With the West Coach factor and players coming from places in Europe, Mexico and Argentina, it is not a 9 to 5 job. You are talking to every coach and soccer executive that you can.”
Meanwhile, Sommer and his wife, Susie, are active parents in the Carmel youth sports community. Sons Tommy and Noah are budding athletes in soccer, baseball and swimming. And Sommer says he would like to be a father of sorts when it comes to professional soccer in Indiana. “All of us with the organization want to create an atmosphere that will make soccer a new sports experience for the fans,” Sommer said. “Our stadium (Michael A. Carroll Stadium at IUPUI) seats 13,500 and we want to fill every seat for every game.”
And the waiter in Carmel hopes to be there.