All in for Eleven: Indy Ask ‘Why Not Us?’ in Landmark Open Cup Run

Division II Indy Eleven are on their best-ever run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – in a challenging year for both the club and the tournament.
By: Angelo Maduro
Indy Eleven players celebrates with fans
Indy Eleven players celebrates with fans

It’s been an odd year for Indy Eleven.

Flying high in the USL Championship standings, and through to the rare air of this year’s Open Cup Semifinal, most headlines have been about a looming bid to bring an MLS expansion team to Indianapolis. It’s a move that could spell the end of the road for the 11-year-old Division II club, much like it did for San Diego Loyal last year when San Diego FC of MLS turned them from an is to a was.

For fans, from casuals in the city who’ve come to identify with the club over the last decade-plus to the hardline core supporters of the Brickyard Battalion, it’s cause for worry.

“We hear certain things and we don't know how true they are or how not true they are, but it just brought us closer together as players because we're all going through the same process,” said Cameron Lindley, the Indiana-born midfielder who feels the threat to his hometown club sharply.

‘Stronger and Bigger’ Indy Eleven

“[Indy Eleven] just means a lot to me and my family,” Lindley went on. “I want to stay here. I don't want to go anywhere else. This is where I want to continue to grow and to push the envelope and to make Indy Eleven stronger and bigger than ever.”

Lindley insists that “winning games” is the best thing the players can do – thus making it “harder to push the club aside.” And that’s just what he and his Indy Eleven teammates are doing.

An Indy Eleven player slides for the ball during a match against Detroit City
An Indy Eleven player slides for the ball during a match against Detroit City
Cam Lindley – Indiana born and raised – gives it all for Indy Eleven in the Round of 16

It’s a banner year for the club in the Open Cup – a tournament, coincidentally, tending to its own albatrosses this year. The decision to trim MLS’ participating field of teams to eight (down from 26 in 2023 and up from the Division I league’s initial proposal of zero) on the eve of our 109th edition has changed the face of the competition dramatically.

Indy Eleven are in the midst of their deepest Cup run in club history. The 2-1 win over Atlanta United, 2018 MLS Champs and 2019 Open Cup Champs, on the road in Kennesaw, GA in the July 9th Quarterfinal was the club’s first win over a team from the top-flight.

It's three steps farther than Indy’s ever climbed in the 111-year-old knockout tournament. And it now sees them, in this year of trial and tribulation, into a marquis Semifinal. They’ll play out on the road against four-time Champions Sporting Kansas City on August 27th with a place in the Final on the line.

Close up shot of manager Sean McAuley
Close up shot of manager Sean McAuley
Indy Eleven’s first-year coach Sean McAuley brought effective tactics and passion to the party

“I never understood when I was in MLS why some coaches wouldn’t go all in for the Cup from the start,” said Sean McAuley, Indy Eleven’s head coach, who’s brought his passion for the Open Cup to bear in this year’s historic run. “Of course you’ve got schedules to manage, and other considerations, but there’s a trophy there and you don’t have to win too many games to lift it.”

The English-born boss, with experience coaching in Major League Soccer, is two wins away from seeing his side become the first non-MLS team to lift the Cup since the Rochester Ragin’ Rhinos did it in 1999.

READ: Go Deep on the 1999 Rochester Rhinos | Feature

The 52-year-old is a former Manchester United defender, who also played for the Portland Timbers before becoming that club’s assistant coach – a title he also held at Orlando City and 2019 Open Cup Runners-up Minnesota United. In 2023, when MNUFC boss Adrian Heath was sacked, McAuley was named caretaker head coach for the MLS Loons before leaving to take over Indy Eleven at the start of the current season.

Between his playing days in the UK, and his wide array of positions in the U.S., it’s safe to say McAuley knows the Open Cup’s potentials and its pitfalls better than many.

Douglas Martinez for Indy Eleven holding his head
Douglas Martinez for Indy Eleven holding his head
Douglas Martinez of Indy Eleven – here in the 2022 Open Cup Final with Sacramento Republic

“The Open Cup is a really, really big tournament to show ourselves to the whole country,” said Douglas Martinez, one of the all-rounders, the big-game players, that McAuley has leaned on during league and Cup play. “I remember in 2022, how the fans in Sacramento were amazing and got behind us in the Open Cup. It was something special.”

Martinez, a 27-year-old forward from Olanchito, Honduras, is talking here about his former club, Sacramento Republic FC, and their magical run to the Open Cup Final of 2022. It was the first time a team from the country’s second division, the USL Championship, had reached a tournament Decider since 2008 when the Charleston Battery lost to D.C. United at RFK Stadium.

The right-sided attacker was crucial in Sacramento’s trio of wins over teams from MLS that year. They were huge underdog statements only possible in our Open Cup – a tournament, knockout in format, and involving every level of men’s soccer in America from Sunday League amateurs to MLS’ tippy-top.

Indy Eleven players celebrate together
Indy Eleven players celebrate together
Men on a Mission: Indy Eleven’s run to the 2024 Open Cup Semifinal has been historic

“I have that same kind of feeling this year, that we can go up and up,” added Martinez about Indy’s chances to soar even higher in the Cup this year. “These fans here deserve it, to see that together we can do big things as a club.”

The challenges for McAuley’s team, the lone surviving Division II club in the Semifinal Round, are greater than those of their MLS opponents. The squads are smaller – made up of a majority of players on short-term (often one-year) contracts. Effective rotation is less realistic. And a slog through to the Final is a heavy lift.

When Indy Eleven meet four-time Open Cup Champions Sporting Kansas City on August 27th at Children’s Mercy Park (LIVE on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV) the differences between the two teams will be great.

“There’s always a little extra motivation when you face an MLS team because you want to show, as a player and as a club, that you measure up,” said Martinez, who, coincidentally, helped his Sacramento Republic beat this very SKC in the Semifinal two years ago. “No one was thinking we could do that, no one was believing in us – and that’s a big motivation in itself.”

One for All & All for Eleven

McAuley has his finger on the pulse of what’s possible.

The energy in the Indy Eleven locker room is thrumming and the belief is real. “Everybody gets involved,” said the coach. “Everybody has a voice and if we're going to be successful, it'll be down to all of us. And if we're going to have some rough times, it'll be down to all of us that way too.

“I’ll always put guys out on that field who I think can win the game,” the coach went on, looking ahead to a huge test with much on the line. “And we'll also have people on the bench who are ready to come on.”

Whether it’s Martinez or Augi Williams or Benjamin Ofeimu or the all-heart Cam Lindley – doesn’t seem to matter. To hear the players tell it, they’re all in this thing together. Indy Eleven and their Brickyard Battalion, who’ll make the 500-mile trip to Kansas to roar on the boys in this dangerous – and exhilarating – year, fancy their chances.

As Indy Eleven’s first president and long-standing club icon Peter Wilt will never tire of telling you: “Anything can happen in the Open Cup.”

Martinez gets it: “Every game we play, we’ll fight to the end. You can count on this.” Lindley is right there with him when he says, “I will never stop fighting for this club.” But it’s McAuley, the USL Championship Coach of the Month for May in his still-thick Sheffield accent, who has the last word on the matter.

“Why not us?”

Maduro is a senior reporter at large for