Indy Eleven midfielder Brad Ring stood on the field, hands on his hips, disappointment on his face. He watched on as the New York Cosmos were awarded the Soccer Bowl Trophy, given to the champions of the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The Eleven and Cosmos had just battled for 120 minutes, and then some, with the Cosmos prevailing 4-2 in penalty kicks to claim the 2016 NASL Championship. It was the team's third championship in four seasons and second in a row.
"Two or three inches the other way on Don Smart's shot and I think you're speaking to the NASL Champion tonight. That's football," Indy Eleven captain Colin Falvey said in a post-game press conference.
For the Eleven, it was a heartbreaking way to end a spectacular season.
Indianapolis' professional soccer team achieved numerous milestones in 2016 — a spring season championship, an undefeated home season, their first winning season and their first playoff victory — all of which I'll touch on in the following pages.
"We took a team from the bottom of the league in the first two years to the top of the league. It's been a tremendous year for us," Indy Eleven head coach Tim Hankinson said.
But anytime you fail to succeed at the task at hand, it hurts.
"A tough pill to swallow. I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy. I'm absolutely gutted right now," said Falvey.
The emotion was raw. Falvey had just lost his second championship match in as many years — having transferred from 2015 runner-up Ottawa in the offseason.
"It's only extra motivation for me. We'll bounce back," said Falvey. "I won't stop 'til I get my hands on that trophy."
That determination is what got the Eleven to the Championship Final in the first place.
It's what allowed them to have the successful season that they did.
"They came to work every day. They battled hard every day. They competed every day," said Hankinson. "Our team has the biggest heart in the league."
As Ring walked off the pitch, having just lost arguably the biggest match of his professional career, he spotted a young fan donning an Eleven jersey.
Ring stopped, took the jersey off his back and handed it to the fan.
Like Hankinson said, the biggest heart in the league.
Where they came from
After underwhelming back-to-back seasons, the Eleven brought in Hankinson to lead the squad for 2016. He's the definition of a seasoned veteran, having coached in the collegiate ranks, NASL, MLS, Jamaica, Iceland, Guatemala and several other countries. His experience — and the experienced players he brought in — would be key in turning the team around.
"We were a young team the first two years, and it's hard to compete on the professional level with such a young team," said Ring.
That was about to change. Hankinson and the front office quickly started retooling the roster, bringing in veterans at more than one position. Jon Busch replaced Kristian Nicht at goalkeeper, the soon-to-be captain Falvey and onetime Defender of the Year award winner Nemanja Vukovic were brought in to provide a stout backline and Libyan international Éamon Zayed was signed to provide a much-needed goal-scoring threat.
But the list doesn't stop there. Justin Braun, Siniša UbiparipoviĆ. Nicki Paterson and Jair Reinoso all joined the squad before the start of the spring season.
While expectations weren't through the roof, the team had one goal in mind: win a championship.
They got off to a slow start to their spring campaign, drawing the first two matches against the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC, respectively. The first true test of the season came in the next match, at home against the Cosmos.
The two clubs were closely matched through the first 89 minutes of play, a Niko Kranjcar penalty in the 59th minute being the only thing separating them. The outcome looked bleak, but the Eleven would get a penalty of their own in the 90th, Éamon Zayed slotting away for the equalizer.
That's when the unthinkable happened.
With mere seconds left in the match, and the referee looking for any reason to blow the final whistle, Zayed put the ball in the back of the net, giving the Eleven the first punch in what would turn out to be a four-round title fight.
It was a win that set the table for an unprecedented run for the club. They'd go 2-4-0 in the next six matches, putting themselves in position to not only finish the spring season undefeated but also win the Spring Season Championship and their first trophy in club history.
Going into the final match of the spring season against the Carolina RailHawks — shout-out to the Brickyard Battalion and their "what the hell is a RailHawk chant" — the Eleven needed a miracle. At least a 4-1 victory and some help, in order to finish atop the table.
Eamon Zayed got the scoring started early, notching the first goal of the match in the 16th minute. Justin Braun netted a goal late in the first half to give the Eleven a 2-1 lead and all the momentum headed into the break. The second half belonged to Zayed, who scored his second and third goals of the match to propel the Eleven to victory and the miracle result they needed.
What followed was a massive celebration, and rightfully so, as the club had just captured its first piece of hardware. (Fort Lauderdale would have had to defeat FC Edmonton 6-0 on the road, a match they lost 2-1.) The floodgates broke in the Brickyard Battalion and members stormed the field, celebratory chants ringing from end to end. Peter Wilt — Indy Eleven's first President — was seen shedding tears, and he wasn't the only one.
As champions, the Eleven were now guaranteed a spot in The Championship — NASL's postseason tournament.
So how does a team get motivated to play a grueling 20-game fall season knowing that they've already locked up a spot in the postseason?
"One of things that I challenged them with after winning the spring title was that the work [the players] do in the fall is really going to decide who makes the starting lineup," Hankinson said in a conversation prior to the Championship Semifinal. "That's high motivation for players because they want to be a part of that game."
That motivation kept the squad on their toes throughout the fall season. They faltered on the road a few times, but stayed strong at home, finishing the season without a loss at Michael Carroll Stadium. A combined season record of 15-10-7 earned them 55 points, a vast improvement from their point total of 33 in 2015.
Hankinson was rewarded for his team's spectacular campaign by being named the 2016 NASL Coach of the Year. Unsurprisingly, he gave credit to everyone from the front office to the medical staff.
Records aside, the match the team had been waiting for since they defeated Carolina in the spring was looming. On Nov. 5, the Eleven would host FC Edmonton in their first-ever playoff match. The hype for the game was real. The city was rallying around the Eleven and they were ready to show their fans they were ready to take a big step forward.
Almost 10,000 people packed into Michael Carroll Stadium to witness history, and the Eleven did not disappoint. Siniša UbiparipoviĆ's second-half wonder goal was all the Eleven needed to fend off a feisty FC Edmonton squad. They had earned a spot in the Championship Final ... and you just read how that went.
Despite the loss in the final, the team wasn't selling their season short.
"I think we took a massive step forward as a club. What we were able to accomplish on the field was amazing and something that will set a standard for years to come," said Ring.
But at the end of the day, Ring summed it up perfectly: "Championships are everything."
The search for a new venue
The Indy Eleven have called Michael A. Carroll Stadium – The Mike – home for their first three years, but it's no secret they're on the search for a bigger and better stadium to play their matches in. Carroll Stadium, a multipurpose stadium located on the campus of IUPUI, only has a capacity of 10,524.
Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir has gone on record since day one that to be a successful club, they need to play in a venue with a professional soccer design in mind. While Carroll Stadium is multipurpose, its focus is a track and field design.
"Without a proper venue it is going to be very difficult to be sustainable and provide the experience that we want for our fans as we continue to grow the organization," said Ozdemir.
Ozdemir went on to say that the renovations to the stadium have been fine, but that their focus will continue to be on getting legislation passed for a new stadium.
Carroll Stadium was renovated before the start of Eleven's inaugural season in 2014. During the 2014 season, the Eleven attracted more than 10,000 fans to each of their games. Despite struggling on the field, the hype of a new professional team in town helped them become the first club in the history of American soccer to sell every single ticket during its inaugural season.
The Eleven have averaged more than 8,000 fans in each of their three seasons, coming in at a league high 8,396 in 2016, well above the league average of 4,575.
Given the team's success in attracting large crowds, Rep. Todd Houston authored House Bill 1273 on Jan. 13, 2015. In short, the bill would have used tax money generated by a proposed $82 million stadium to pay for said stadium. Several different versions of the bill, including an amended version by the Senate that proposed using tax money to pay for $20 million in renovations to Carroll Stadium, passed both the Senate and the House but ultimately died when it failed to pass out of a Senate conference committee on the last day of the legislative session.
"We just couldn't get all the parties on the same page," Houston told The Indianapolis Star. "Everybody was acting in good faith, willing to get something done. But it wasn't going to work out this session."
Houston authored a similar bill — House Bill 1108 — during the 2016 legislative session but withdrew the bill on the same day.
While Ozdemir wouldn't give specifics on what the front office's plans are for the 2017 legislative session, he didn't shy away from reiterating the importance of a professional venue.
"Going forward [we] will continue to make sure that we have a venue that is respectable and that is going to help continue to grow the sport in Indiana," said Ozdemir.
The future of the NASL
This time last year, the NASL was making a case as a strong second-tier league behind the mighty MLS. Puerto Rico FC, owned by New York Knick Carmelo Anthony, and Miami FC were to join the league, giving it a robust 12 teams. One year later, its future is on the ropes.
Toward the end of the fall season, teams began leaving hints of departing the league. And those hints led to actions. Minnesota United FC has joined the MLS, Ottawa Fury FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies jumped ship to the third-tier United Soccer League (USL) and Rayo OKC and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers are in limbo on whether or not they will return next year.
At a press conference last week, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson said he was unsure of how many teams would be in the league at the beginning of the 2017 season.
The lone bright spot amidst the darkness is that the San Fransisco Deltas will join the league in the spring.
What does all this moving and shaking mean for the future of the Indy Eleven? That's hard to say. Ozdemir released a statement in late October that said, in part, "that the team was excited to participate in the 2017 NASL campaign, planning for which is well underway."
Shortly after, the team began offering season ticket packages on their website, reassuring faithful fans that the team would indeed be returning to the NASL for the 2017 season.
While the future of the NASL is far from certain, the Indy Eleven have no plans of folding anytime soon. All you have to do is look at one of their scarves to know that.
[Editor's note: The print edition of this story misspelled Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir's name, corrections have been made to reflect that.]