Fort Wayne FC, the Summit City's yet-to-take-the-field semi-pro soccer team, will have to wait for next season to make its National Premier Soccer League debut.
The club, which was set to open play in the Great Lakes Conference of the NPSL on May 23, received word Wednesday night that the league had canceled the remainder of the season for all of its conferences. On Thursday afternoon, the league made it official, announcing that the season had been ended in response to concerns over COVID-19.
The decision was pragmatically based: the league's teams are composed of a large number of college players. Those players return to college in August, shortly after the NPSL's national championship is usually played. Pushing the season back was therefore not an option.
In addition, many teams use high school or college fields for home games – Fort Wayne FC planned to play at Bishop Dwenger's Shields Field – and many of those have been closed at the discretion of the schools.
Although the league announced the summer season had been canceled, it left open the possibility of playing games in 2020.
“We are hopeful that the environment enables us to do that,” the league wrote in a statement on its website. “We hope that the COVID-19 pandemic subsides quickly, which would allow medical professionals to permit larger gatherings in 2020. If this happens, our goal is to provide our teams with a platform to play games in 2020.”
Though games might be played at some indeterminate point in the future, the cancellation of the summer season is a blow for the organizers of Fort Wayne FC, who have spent the past few months building a roster and preparing to open the club's inaugural season.
“We were always hopeful that you might find a window of time later this summer to get going, but at the end of the day, I think it's the right decision and it's made for the right reasons, even if I don't like it,” Fort Wayne FC head coach Mike Avery said. “We have to be safe and we have to be healthy.
“It's unfortunate, but what I said is that we're delayed, not denied.”
Team President Erik Magner spent much of Wednesday night on the phone, calling as many players and club personnel as he could with the news so they wouldn't have to hear about it on social media.
The club has been conducting tryouts since early January and was scheduled to begin officially training with its finalized roster on May 1. It's unclear how many of the players who had made the roster will be able to return next season and the club will likely have to go through the tryout process all over again and build a new team for the 2021 season when it arrives.
“I talked to several players already and it is clear the disappointment is deep, it's very deep,” Magner said. “It's (about) the journey. It's the journey, how to make this happen.”
The silver lining for Magner, Avery and general manager Greg Mauch is that the cancellation of this season gives them more time to shore up the details of the soccer experience in Fort Wayne. Avery noted that he felt the administrators were “building the airplane while it was already in the air” this season and this news will give the club an opportunity to evaluate every aspect of the organization.
“I hope (the fans) stick around,” Avery said. “When it does happen, it's going to be awesome, so I hope that we're all here to see it.”
For his part, Avery, who has been the head men's soccer coach at Valparaiso since 2007, said he absolutely plans to return next season, but nothing is certain.
“I was very excited about this opportunity,” the coach said. “But at the same time, I can't look that far ahead into the future, I don't think any of us can right now. ... I'm working as if I'm going to be back.”