With a vibrant, long-standing youth program, multiple powerhouse high school programs and the nation's preeminent college showcase, soccer in Fort Wayne's as healthy as it's ever been.
But where does the Summit City stack up when considering professional soccer?
If you ask Plex co-owner Bobby Poursanidis, any number of leagues would fit. That includes a pair set to kick off in the next 18 to 24 months, both in the third division of the US Soccer pyramid. USL D3 will look to launch with eight to 12 teams in 2019, while the National Independent Soccer Association has set a 2018 start date with eight to 10 teams.
Poursanidis didn't rule out fielding a team in either second-division league either, the USL or NASL.
“My head spins, there's so many possibilities,” Poursanidis said. “I will definitely look at the options and make some decisions, just what makes the most sense going forward financially.”
With money ultimately driving the decision, USL might be the most attractive fit. The D3 league would have a lower expansion fee than D2. But with Poursanidis' prior USL affiliation with the Fever, which played in the fourth-division amateur PDL from 2003 to 2009, either league's expansion fee would be “a lot less than what they've quoted,” he said.
Steven Short, USL's vice president of D3, spearheaded a group that visited Fort Wayne recently as part of a nationwide expansion tour. Short noted the city's current efforts to revitalize downtown – most notably Parkview Field – and the community's interest in soccer as highlights of his time in the Summit City.
“Everyone we met with was very receptive,” Short said. “(We're trying to find) the right owner and right facility to make sure we can provide a good soccer experience.”
While the ultimate goal is for all teams to play in soccer-specific facilities, Short explained that won't be a requirement right off the bat. Currently in the USL, Louisville City FC plays at Slugger Field, home of the Triple-A baseball team Louisville Bats, while FC Cincinnati shares Nippert Stadium with its primary tenant, the Cincinnati Bearcats football team.
USL D3 will also look to use affiliate agreements with USL and MLS. Many MLS teams field reserve teams in USL, such as New York Red Bulls II, while other MLS teams have affiliate agreements in place with USL squads, such as the partnership between Columbus Crew SC of MLS and USL's Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
“We'll see some relationships between MLS and USL D3 as well as the relationships between D2 within USL,” Short said. “It would give you a greater reach and those relationships with the entire country.”
The NISA looks to maintain an aggressive expansion, with a goal of a fully populated roster of 24 teams by 2021. At that point, the third-division league will open itself up to a system of promotion and relegation with the second-division NASL and fourth-division NPSL.
The top-performing teams in the lower levels would earn the right to compete at a higher level the next season, while the teams with the worst records in the higher leagues would be demoted for the following year.
With nondisclosure agreements in place, Wilt was unable to offer specifics about any particular city interested in fielding a team in NISA. However, he highlighted several keys – among them, a strong youth soccer program and a large number of homegrown residents – that seemed to indicate Fort Wayne would serve as a viable candidate.
“When you have a large number of homegrown residents, they have a passion and an interest and a dedication for their hometown, especially if it's marketed right as a representation of their community at large,” Wilt said.
“With the structure of independent soccer, (the players) are not owned by a major league club. They're not waiting to be called up. They're representing the town, the badge.”
Whichever route Poursanidis chooses, he'll have some familiar faces helping to manage the team. Fellow Plex co-owner Tom Lapsley shares Poursanidis' vision of bringing a professional soccer team to Fort Wayne, while Komets Vice President Scott Sproat has also shown interest, along with “a couple MLS groups interested in partnering with us,” Poursanidis said.
In addition, a pro team in Fort Wayne would provide a tangible goal for those playing youth soccer in the area to which they can aspire.
“You see the Beasley boys, and now Sarah Killion, these people have been exposed to good soccer,” Poursanidis said.
“Maybe some local talent gets a chance and gets a chance to play in the pro ranks. Maybe that's the first step to play in MLS or in Europe.
“As far as showcasing for the kids, and as far as entertainment to watch right in their backyard, it'll help continue to grow the sport in this area.”