Saturday dawned warm and sunny in Fort Wayne. It would have been an outstanding spring day for Fort Wayne FC, the new National Premier Soccer League team in town, to play its inaugural game, as it had been scheduled to do.
Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the world and the NPSL season – and Fort Wayne FC's first season with it – was canceled in late March. So, the Summit City's soccer team will have to wait another year to take the field for the first time.
Although Fort Wayne FC didn't get to play Saturday, it decided to commemorate the moment anyway. The club held a gathering at Bishop Dwenger's Shields Field, where it will play home games next season.
The event featured remarks from president and co-owner Erik Magner, head coach Mike Avery and team captain Jose Rodriguez, as well as 15 of the team's other players, all dressed in full uniform. It was the first time they had gotten to wear the club's home white jerseys with “Ruoff Home Mortgage” splashed across the front.
“I was so excited when I woke up this morning because I had a game today,” said Avery, who was previously the head coach at Valparaiso. “It's been so long since I've had a game. But even coming (to the field) knowing this is not going to be a game, I'm still so excited to be here. ... Never have I been more excited in coaching than I am right now.
“We're going to do this thing (get the team started next season) and it's going to be so much fun.”
The event was held to recognize the hard work the players on the roster had put in to make the team, Magner said, as well as to emphasize the club's commitment to bringing soccer to Fort Wayne in 2021.
“It's almost like a perfect day to play soccer,” Magner said. “I can tell you we were ready. I can only imagine the crowd and the business today. There's a lot of work that went into getting to today. ... It's hard work to actually make it on this team. I can only imagine for the players, working so hard and being ready and thinking about playing. Here we are, we cannot play.”
Magner announced that all of the sponsors the team secured for the 2020 season have pledged to support Fort Wayne FC in 2021, as well. Similarly, he said all 37 players on current roster want to return next season, if their circumstances allow them to do so.
As a tribute to what would have been the club's inaugural season, as well as those affected by COVID-19, Magner also announced that the team's number 20 jersey will be retired.
Speaking for the players, Rodriguez reiterated their commitment to creating a winning product for fans to enjoy next season. Finding a silver lining in the delayed start, he noted that having an extra year to prepare will help the team develop chemistry and be even better when play begins in 2021.
“The players are equally excited to get this stuff going (as the staff),” said Rodriguez, who was a three-time All-State selection at Warsaw and played for IPFW from 2012 to 2015. “We'll be patient. It's pretty hard to be patient, but we'll do it and like Coach (Avery) had said, I was equally as excited today, regardless of whether there was a game today or not, just being out here and being alongside some of these (teammates) here.
“We're thankful for those who are going to be following us along the way.”
Rodriguez is one of a large group of players on the roster with Fort Wayne ties, including 15 players who went to high school in the area, six current or former PFW players, three who suited up for Indiana Tech and one from Saint Francis. Magner said officials from other NPSL teams had told him it appeared to be one of the best rosters in the league, a view with which general manager Greg Mauch agreed.
“I do share that,” said Mauch, who he said he stared disbelievingly at his phone when he received the email that the season had been canceled. “In looking at the roster and talking to people who have been involved in the league in past years, we felt we had a wildly competitive team. Our coaching staff, I'll stack up against any coaching staff. For a first year team, I think it was great.
“We won't know for sure for a while, though.”