The Soccer Gods Have Brought Me Peter Wilt and Indianapolis
Contributing writer and borderland man Scott Rutkowski is back with a mediation on supporter roots and a soon-to-be regional rivalry.
I’ve spent twenty-two years of my life in Munster, Indiana. My father hails from Hammond, Indiana’s Hessville neighborhood, located just north of Munster. My mother grew up in the historic Pullman neighborhood on Chicago’s south side before moving to Calumet City, IL at the age of seventeen. My father’s parents lived in East Chicago, IN, before moving to Hammond. My mother’s father grew up Pullman, and his wife (my grandmother) grew up just west of Pullman in Chicago’s Roseland area.
Even my girlfriend of five years has history in this area southeast of Chicago, with her father growing up in Hammond and her mother growing up just east in Griffith, IN. She also spent over twenty years of her life in Munster, as did all of our close friends. From the stories I hear, their families have history in this area as well. Anybody who is close to me has lived (for an extended period) within fifteen miles of where I grew up. Thus it’s fair to say I have a good knowledge of “The Region.”
The Region is an undefined area in Northwest Indiana, its imagined borders maneuvered and re-shaped with each discussion about its geography. As such, many have their own opinions on what The Region actually is. In my experience, the boundaries of the area seem to grow in people’s minds the farther they get away from it. The Region also happens to be an area that no one outside of its peculiar habitat particularly cares for.
For many “Region Rats,” it’s as if they live in Scotland and don’t want to be a part of the United Kingdom. But instead of forming their own nation, they want to be part of Ireland because they share history and culture, an ancient language, hate for the English, and every television channel they receive is Irish. But Ireland doesn’t really want to deal with their neighbors, these red-headed stepchildren. Among other reasons, they’re not Irish enough. Now, substitute Ireland with Chicago, The Region with Scotland, and the UK with Indiana, and perhaps the analogy makes sense.
Despite the fact that every Illinoisan in Chicagoland believes I live on a fucking farm (far from it), I’ve been their fellow Chicago sports fan as long as I can remember. That said, I’m also a Region Rat, so Indianapolis’s soon-to-be NASL soccer club intrigues me – especially considering that the club’s genesis is being led by the same guy (Peter Wilt) who is the best General Manger and most beloved executive in Chicago Fire’s brief history.
I’ve always hated Indianapolis teams, and I’m as big a basketball fan as I am a soccer fan. I respect Reggie Miller, but I was so damn happy each time Michael Jordan and the Bulls beat the shit out of the Pacers in the playoffs. But before Dirk Nowitzki came along, all the older guys called me Rik “The Flying Dutchman” Smits on the playground courts, so perhaps some Illinois/Indiana conflict does exist in my basketball heart.
But then again, lately, the Big Ten Men’s College Basketball tournament has been played as frequently in Indianapolis as it has in Chicago. Why? There’s simply no good reason for this. No kid wants to play at Bankers Life Fieldhouse if the alternative is hitting the floor at the United Center.
With football especially (a sport I like about as much as golf – not at all), I find a way to despise Indianapolis. I never root for the Bears, but my father is a huge fan. So if the Monsters of the Midway make the playoffs, I join in on the ride. When 2006-07 came along, I was a freshman at Purdue University, and the Bears wound up facing the Colts in the Super Bowl. Until then, I had no idea how much I could hate Indianapolis until I was stuck in the middle of the cornfields of East Lafayette. Peyton Manning and company won it all and the whole campus was blue-and-white for a solid month. Ugh. And a few years later, when I graduated college, fate brought me even closer to what I thought I loathed at the time.
After Purdue, I received a job offer to work in Indianapolis. My girlfriend was there for graduate school, her sister and husband were already there, and we made new friends. However, I was in enemy territory. The only chance of catching a Chicago team on local TV was if WGN America (similar, but not the same as WGN Chicago) decided to broadcast a Cubs or White Sox game. But despite my past misgivings of all things Indy, spending two years there allowed me insight into the city and how its soccer club might develop. My verdict? Soccerwise, things are certainly on the up and up.
If you take a trip down the yellow brick road to Indianapolis you’ll find it’s basically a big suburb-like city. There’s no public transportation and you have to drive everywhere. Regardless, it’s a soccer hotbed. The city has a large ethnic minority (larger than any out-of-towner would suspect) that is mostly congregated on the northwest side of the city. These folks are keen to watch some live soccer. Plus, Indy is only forty-five minutes away from Bloomington, IN, and its rich collegiate soccer history and culture at Indiana University. It’s likely a good number of folks will drive up from IU to watch professional soccer – especially if the Indianapolis club’s goal is to work its way into MLS.
Indianapolis also has a history of producing good players; for example, D.C. United’s Perry Kitchen. They have a U.S. Development Academy in the city and BPL side West Ham United once had an academy there. I’ve also read that Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew each considered establishing a youth team in the city. For supporters, Indy has three soccer pubs in three different parts of the city, which provides a nice selection of places to meet and quaff a pint or two over a match.
So despite my deep Chicagoland roots, time spent in my state’s capital has me feeling (slightly) as if I’m of that city as well. And even though I’m a diehard Chicago Fire fan, I can’t help but think I’d be elated if the Indianapolis club joins MLS one day. And imagine the excitement if Chicago meets NASL side Indy in the U.S. Open Cup? Now that would be something to see.
Indianapolis is tied for number three on my list of “Chicago rivalries with other regional cities” (Yes, I have a well-thought out list, but that’s for another time). But geographic proximity aside, a top soccer club run by a man who used to be one of Chicago’s own would certainly fuel a true rivalry. Speaking of other Chicago Fire rivalries (some real, others not-so-real), Dallas and Kansas City are so far away they might as well be in South America, and Chicago has little sports history with either town anyway. Columbus is a fine rival, but I want something closer to home. I want a match that defines two regions. How about something along the lines of Paris St. Germain vs Olympique Marseille?! Gotta dream big my friends.
So now that we know Mr. Peter Wilt is working hard to bring top-level professional soccer to Indianapolis, I eagerly anticipate the day when Indiana’s club steps onto the pitch with Chicago Fire. What a thrill it will be for me to lead the charge for the city I was born into against the state I was born in. That day can’t come soon enough. But if they’re not playing the Fire, will I root for Indy? Will my Indiana roots pull some of my soccer loyalty south? Only time will tell…
Contributing Writer Scott Rutkowski is a lover of Chicago, sports, booze, food, history, and video games (all in that order). Follow him @scottathon_