Though it’s taken mainstream media some time to really “get” the story, reporter (and lifelong soccer junkie) Rebecca Townsend has been on Peter Wilt and the Indy Eleven since the beginning. She and Wilt first met in November 2012 and taped their first interview on the steps of the Indiana War Memorial in December of 2012, discussing his intention to help start a pro soccer team in Indianapolis.
In December 2014 at the Elbow Room, a pub just steps away from the memorial, Townsend and Wilt reconnected to reflect on all that’s happened since their last 2013 December debriefing: Dozens of amazing soccer games in Downtown Indianapolis, the best fan attendance in the North American Soccer League — better, even, than many larger-market Major League Soccer Teams, the league’s longest-running shutout record (in terms of minutes played without a goal scored) and two huge wins to wind out the season. [Now comes the huge roster shakeup and less than 100 days till the opening of spring season.]
The following is edited for clarity and length [though it is still massive, especially by today’s standards]:
Rebecca: I love this time of year because it reminds me of when you first came to town.
Peter: Two years and two months.
Rebecca: What are some of the things you learned in 2014?
Peter: In a way it’s like opening a present and finding out what’s inside it. But it’s more than that because that would be a total unknown. We knew we were building something. We spent a year working with so many partners to create something, not quite knowing what it would be, having some expectations. This year has been an amazing unveiling of … I apologize for the triteness, but it’s the fruits of the labor. Not just of the front office, but of everyone we’ve partnered with.
The success results from the contributions of everyone involved. The easy part is looking at the numbers and selling out the game, and how many tickets sold and how many people went to the game. But really the success to me is the depth of emotional connection, of the passion that people in the community have for this team. …It wasn’t necessarily work, it was just working with people, talking to people, negotiating and then promoting.. getting people excited.
Seeing that people did get excited, that to me is the ultimate result of it.
It wasn’t just that 10,000 people bought tickets to every game. It’s that the people that did come to the games loved it and they cared about it.
If we lost it hurt them. It’s weird to say, but: That’s good. It’s good they were pained; that means they cared. The worst thing is apathy. I don’t I think there was much apathy for this team and this organization and that bodes well for the future.
Rebecca: Let’s talk about expectations going into the season and think about how that played out.
Peter: I expected we were gonna win.
Rebecca: Did you, really honestly expect that we were going to win in the beginning?
Peter: Yes! I thought New York was going to be the only team better than us. They were better than us. But there were a few others that were also better than us.
Rebecca: How can a man that knows so much about soccer be so wrong?
Peter: Two things: I underestimated the rest of the league and I overestimated our team, especially our defense. Our back line was awful. Every game we were giving up the first goal and it was often an early goal and we were chasing the game and our attacking options weren’t that great either. We weren’t as good as I thought we were.
Rebecca: Do you think Juergen was more realistic about the building process?
Peter: Yeah! Juergen throughout the whole process tried to set expectations — and set low expectations — and I wanted none of it.
Rebecca: It seems you guys may have found a happy medium in the end. We lost a lot but toward the end of the season, we pulled out some amazing …
Peter: We fixed the defense by signing Cory Miller.
Rebecca: It’s important to note, though, that we still have a lot of the key elements of that defensive line that was supposedly so problematic in the beginning: We still have Jaimi, Eric, Kyle…
Peter: Moving forward, the back line is the best it’s ever been for us. We’re in good shape with that. Our attacking options we fixed at the end of the year, but now they’re gone because we couldn’t afford them. They’re either too old or too hurt.
We hope we could get Charlie Rugg back, which would be huge.
And we have the money now to go sign a couple more forwards.
We couldn’t afford Jhulliam. His option is at a stupid high option number.
Couldn’t afford or want Jermaine [Johnson]: His option number higher, health bad. Other issues.
Mike Ambersley: His option number was high – his age is getting up. We have concerns about his productivity. You don’t want to pay a player for what he’s done in the past. Like stocks: past performance not necessarily indicator of future performance. Mike Ambersley served a really important role for us last year. But he’s not the answer to scoring goals directly himself and his age and is health are question going forward. The cost of his contract was higher, so we decided to go in a different direction. Now it’s a matter of finding the right players.
Rebecca: Was Mike the most difficult decision?
Peter: Mike and Jermaine were the two most difficult ones. By far.
Jhulliam, as good as he is, was not a difficult decision because of the option price was ridiculously high. We couldn’t sign four or five other players. Jhulliam might come back and say he couldn’t get a better deal — his age is good, his talent is good — we’d love to have him on the team — his attitude. All of that is good, but it’s just the money …
Rebecca: How much wiggle room do you get because it is Indy? Does the soccer enthusiasm trade in for players being willing to maybe take less but be involved with more?
Peter: That’s helping us. A number of players and agents are calling us saying their players love playing in Indy. Would love to play here all the time. That absolutely helps — it expand the pool of talent.
Also, last year I don’t think we has enough players with experience in this league. This is a unique league, as any league is … You need players that know what it’s about to be successful in this league: what the training is like, what the travel is like, what the opponents are like … We had two players with significant experience in this league: Mike Ambersley and Pedro Mendes (gone after spring season for “a number of reasons”) .. most teams have five times that number of players. I think that was problematic.
Now, in theory, everyone we’re bringing back has experience in this league. We’re recruiting players in this league who have been successful in this league who like what they see in Indy.
Rebecca: What’s so different about playing in this league?
Peter: It’s a physical league and the travel is hard.
Rebecca: More so than others?
Peter: Any league in the world except for Russia — and in major league soccer — has less travel. This is the third-hardest league in the world from a travel perspective. In England, half your games are in two hours. … Frankly the training conditions, the locker rooms – this is a hard league. And on the field very physical..
Rebecca: Because people are trying to make their names, right? This is where you either make it or you don’t?
Peter: Well they’re trying to do this throughout the world. But the nature of American players, they are not as technical as in Latin America or Europe or Africa — they’re making it on their physical muscle and it’s hard. It’s different. And players who may be successful in different systems, aren’t necessarily successful in this one.
Rebecca: In terms of thinking of soccer as a business, but also passion-driven: How do you have find that balance between business logic and breeding loyalty where everyone is all-in …
Peter: It’s all at the end of the day business. Winning games is good business. It’s about winning. What goes into winning isn’t purely physical skills. It’s also about character, work rate, selflessness — characteristics that help a team win.
You might be the greatest player in the world in terms of physical qualities, but there is also character, mental tactical aspects of your makeup as well. And I don’t think we had the best balance of those characteristics in the spring season. We improved it in the fall season, but we’re still not perfect. I don’t think we have as much quality on the leadership aspect as a winning team needs to have.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have good guys …
Take a player like Kléberson … Fantastic player, fantastic guy, good character, but he’s not a traditional leader, he’s not a vocal leader. Even throwing aside the language barrier, it’s not in his personality to be an outgoing leader. He leads by example, and that’s excellent, but this team needs more players with the personality to be outgoing leaders.
Rebecca: Kristian, who is very vocal, felt like he wasn’t filling that leadership role, as well. So, yet to be determined on who will be the heart of the team to drive it forward?
Maybe leadership is the answer. I want to be more specific on that question. If love and loyalty are important to making players hit the top of their potential for their team .. but yet everyone is a professional who knows this is business and may hinge on statistics at the end of a season that may not value selflessness … How do you get those important qualities, that love and loyalty in an environment that is, on its face, business?
Peter: Get to know players before you sign them that have those positive qualities.
When you’re assessing a player, it’s about all that. You recognize that not every player is going to have positive check marks in each of those areas, but you want to minimize the negative checkmarks and maximize the positive ones.
Rebecca: For players not from Indiana, how do we make them care about Indiana more than anywhere else they’ve been and want to perform?
Peter: I think the fans have done that. Any player that played for us last year loves the fans and loves the atmosphere they created. That part is are good as it can get. But not all the players were either good enough or strong-minded enough. So, obviously we’re making changes. You’re going to have some turnover for the very best of teams. The Galaxy’s season ended two days ago with a championship. A week from now, they’ll have at least six openings — on a championship team, including Landon Donovan. And that’s the best of teams. Those that finish near the bottom, like us, it’s going to be more than six and maybe a dozen.
We renewed eight contracts. We’ll end up re-signing two or three more than that — maybe 11. Then we’ll have another dozen or so new signings. … Two new backup goalkeepers ..
Hopefully they’ll challenge Kristian and make him perform better and maybe even perform well themselves.
Rebecca: Can you tell me what happened with the goalies? When I saw them in practice, they seemed to be working. They were stopping the ball when it came their way. They looked committed to their training.
Peter: The coaches’ assessment was they weren’t pushing Kristian enough.
Rebecca: I don’t know how you push Kristian more because when Kristian Nicht should sit his butt on the bench because he can’t stand up straight because he’s got heat stroke, nobody ever pulled him off to give anyone else a chance.
I don’t know… He’s German. He doesn’t sit down. He doesn’t stop until he’s dead.
Peter: The other goal keepers had chances in friendlies. They didn’t perform up to the standards the coaches held for them.
Rebecca: That’s too bad, but I guess that’s the way it is. I didn’t see those games, I guess. I just saw them sitting on the bench and working hard in practice. How did everybody take it?
Peter: Understanding it’s part of the business. There’s good communication throughout the year with the coaches and the players. They know where they stand. Frankly, it’s easier to let go of players after a bad year than after a good year. All you have to do is point to the standings and say: You were part of this, and it didn’t work out so well. Including myself.
Rebecca: Yeah, you and Juergen. My expectations were like yours … but maybe there are some realities Juergen can help us understand better about how to grow.
Peter: By making changes to the players, that doesn’t mean we’re absolving ourselves from responsibility. We’re part of it, including the players we kept. They are part of the responsibility of our failings.
Rebecca: How do you and Juergen communicate about the games?
Peter: First I have to watch the game, if it’s a home game i haven’t seen the whole game … I’ll either sit down with Juergen or talk to him on the phone. We’ll go through the pluses and the minuses. Usually after the game I go back to the locker room for a debriefing, we go through the individuals, what went well, what didn’t… I get out to practice at least once a week. Maybe twice. Watch and talk. We are bombarded everyday with player applications or agents that want to come in. We talk about those everyday. We’re always trying to improve the team.
Rebecca: How did you find Dragan Stojkov, our new player from Macedonia?
Peter: Dragan came from the L.A. Galaxy. He actually came in with Charlie Rugg. We couldn’t sign because him because he is international and we were at our limit, but he could train with us and that allowed him a chance to learn about us and vice versa… He’s a very good player. He’s hard-working and humble. He’s going to be a real asset to the team. He’s very good.
Rebecca: What was your favorite game this season?
Peter: The game in Edmonton that we won at the end.
Rebecca: What stands out about that game? Just the fact that you got it at the end?
Peter: It was very emotional. They outplayed us up and down the field. We had no business winning. They hit the left post, the right post, they hit the crossbar. They probably hit the woodwork probably five times in that game.
Then, maybe ten minutes, nine minutes left, we had a player taken down in the box … It was a clear penalty to me. But because it was toward the end of the game and possibly because we didn’t deserve to win, the referee didn’t call the penalty.
Rebecca: Oh, really? Does that factor in? You don’t deserve to win, so …
Peter: Of course not…[sarcasm]. It’s harder to call a penalty late in the game when it’s going to decide the outcome.
I was in the stands, standing behind the supporters from Edmonton. And when that wasn’t called, I went ballistic. (Away games for me are different from home games because I’m watching the game. Home games I don’t get as tied into the competition as in the away games. I’m much more of a fan at away games than at home games.)
[An emotional Wilt stomped down the bleachers past supports club and on to the field.]
I might have thrown out some four letter words and embarrassed myself and the organization in the process, but I was upset. I made my way around to the other side behind our bench. I was pumped up. At that point I said, “We deserve to win!”
Rebecca: Were you screaming at your players at this point?
Peter: I slammed our bench shields. It’s still 0-0. I can’t remember which, but one player turned around expecting to see an Edmonton fan, a crazy guy. He was half right. It was the latter. Soon after that was when a blocked shot in the box that rebounded to Kléberson and he put it away.
Peter: At minute 99.
Probably embarrassed the organization more with some more four letter words.
“F. yeah! F. yeah! We deserved it! Cheater’s proof! Going back to seven-year-old logic. Yelling at the fourth official a little, saying, “See!”
That was the first Indy Eleven NASL victory I attended. I wasn’t at the Carolina game. I had the Open Cup at home. This was the first NASL win I’d been at. Celebrated afterwords in a damn-straight way. Hell, yeah! That’s it. Yeah, that was my favorite game.
Rebecca: What was it like: our first home win here, for you?
Peter: It felt like a fait accompli. Not that we would win that game, but at some point, obviously, we knew we’d win a home game. … Whereas the Brickyard Battalion was pumped for a pitch invasion … I watched the end of the game in the Brickyard Battalion, but had no desire whatsoever to have a cathartic rush to the field. The Edmonton game to me was more cathartic and emotional than the Minnesota game. The Minnesota game was more of a sigh of relief.
Rebecca: Taking out No.1 is pretty special right?
Peter: Oh, I was thrilled. But it was more of a quiet, internal moment of Yeah, we did it. An accomplishment; I was really proud and excited.
I was in the last row in the Brickyard Battalion. Watching the pink smoke come up … Brickyard Battalion breast cancer awareness … I watched it all unfold from up there, it was a beautiful sight.
Rebecca: Did it bring tears to the eyes to see so many people so emotional?
Peter: Yeah! I was very proud. It was very rewarding. That was a manifestation of all the work our staff had put in, our players had put in, the coaches, the community. To see them being able to release the pent up energy was fantastic.
There were a couple celebrations around town … (but) I didn’t get out of the stadium until 1 a.m., so I ended up not going to either, but while driving home I saw some Minnesota supporter friends of mine lost, looking for their hotel, so I gave them a ride. Then I went home and the game was just finishing up on television and I watched the end of it and I saw the pitch invasion.
And I got to see more closely via television the celebration, and I saw Kristian Nicht celebrate with his daughters. And I got a little emotional then. [Peter actually breaks up at this point and gets emotional, tears up.] It was more meaningful than if we had won the first game, you know?
Rebecca: I was ready for that first win. And then it hurt more and more throughout the season. Then it got to a point where it was like: This is baloney. We are playing hard enough. We deserve to win. But to have worked through the pain and difficulty of loss, it makes it more valuable. It’s not easy. Looking forward to 2015: What are the chances of some international travel?
Peter: I haven’t heard anything from Africa in a while, from the Congo… Not looking good.
Rebecca: About the stadium, how do you get the necessary buy-in?
Peter: Education. Whether it’s the legislators or the public, the media. It’s just educating, so they don’t take things at the surface level of pre-existing concepts of what stadium asks are often about. If they take the time and we do a good enough of a job of educating and teaching them about what we’re proposing, we’ll be fine.
Rebecca: Let’s review the basic points: Is this a tax increase or not?
Peter: It will not be a tax increase. We’re already charging a 10 percent facility fee on our games on our tickets. So that money would just go to pay off to paying off the debt service. That would be true for all the events held at our stadium.
Rebecca: So the Marion County Capital Improvement Board would issue a bond on your behalf and you’d pay it with fees charged to ticket, refreshments and gear?
Peter: Yes, and there’s other revenues that go in including income taxes from our athletes and the employees that work at the stadium and that sort of thing.
Rebecca: Is there any way the taxpayer can get screwed on this deal?
Peter: I’m the president of a soccer team, so that’s a better question for financial experts.
Rebecca: What’s the cost again?
Peter: $87 million — about 12 percent of what Lucas Oil Stadium was 10 years ago.
Rebecca: How many fields do we get for that?
Peter: To be determined. Certainly, obviously, the stadium field. I think if there would be practice fields in additional to that, we’d pay for them privately.
Rebecca: Are we certain this will be a grass field?
Peter: No. I think it’s very likely it would be.
Rebecca: Well, President Wilt, that will do for now. [BTW — It better DAMN WELL be grass.]
Editor’s note: For continued news on the quest for an Indy Eleven stadium, stay tuned to Hoosier Shangrila.