by Laurie Bell
Former UWM soccer player and Green Bay native Andrew Stone has signed his first professional contract with the Indy Eleven.
The central defender controversially transferred to Milwaukee from in-state rivals UW-Green Bay in 2012.
Now he is competing for a starting role in Indianapolis for the newly-founded North American Soccer League club, which recently announced plans to build an $87 million stadium. He credits his current opportunity to the switch he made two years ago.
“Honestly, I don’t think I would be here today if I didn’t make that change,” said Stone.
“I had an idea with what I wanted to do with that one year in Milwaukee. I told my family and my friends that it was a business trip and that I wanted to be able to make a career out of soccer.”
After sitting out in his first year at UWM because of transfer rules enforced by the Phoenix, Stone ensured his single playing season for the Panthers was a memorable one.
The team won the Horizon League Championship for the first time in eight years, and Stone earned all-region and all-conference honors as well as the tournament MVP award.
“Every time I think about this past fall I get goose bumps,” said Stone, adding that his headed game-winner in the championship game and dancing on the field with the team afterwards were the highlights.
“After everything I went through personally and how much it meant to the program at Milwaukee, it was unbelievable. It’s something that I will be proud of for the rest of my life.”
Stone is relishing his first tastes of professional sporting life. A frustrating Wisconsin winter currently traps UWM’s soccer team indoors, and a solitary snowman holds Stone’s former position on a white-blanketed Engelmann field. But the Indy Eleven players have been chasing the sun has on two glamorous preseason tours.
The club returned from a tournament in Orlando Monday, where it competed against MLS teams featuring players likely to be on the plane to Brazil for this summer’s World Cup. Stone said to share a field with such talent was an awesome experience, and that his athleticism ensured he was not outclassed by more experienced opponents.
Before Florida, the Eleven invited Stone to a training camp in Arizona. It was in the Grand Canyon state that he would hear the words he had listened for since childhood.
“We were in Arizona for two weeks,” said Stone. “At that time I was on trial. A week into it they told me that the answer was yes, that they wanted to sign me.”
He said the news came as a huge relief, but he didn’t agree to the deal immediately. At the time he was also in talks with LA Galaxy II, an affiliate team to the California MLS franchise of the same name.
The ‘Jay DeMerit story’ is legend in the Wisconsin soccer community. Also a Horizon League (UIC) defender from Green Bay, DeMerit overcame much rejection on his post-college journey to the English Premier League and the World Cup. Stone said his family is a big supporter of the former US national team player. Responding to an email listing Stone’s recent achievements, DeMerit had this to say:
“It’s great to see another Green Bay kid come through and get a chance. Hopefully he can continue to fly the Wisconsin Soccer Flag proudly. The path is never easy, so I suppose my main advice would be to learn how to make the most out of your opportunities when they come, and really enjoy the process. Understand that you’ve already come a long way, and just to get an opportunity at the next level is something you should be proud of. The next step is to almost start over like it was back at your first day at UWM. Do what made you go from a skinny freshman to a conference-winning senior center back. Do your best to put your personality on the team, listen to your coaches, ask the right questions, and know your strengths and weaknesses. During games, make sure your strengths shine through; during training make sure you work more on your weaknesses.”
Though Andrew has a long way to go, his mother apparently gets goose bumps at the thought of her son writing his own version of the ‘Jay DeMerit story’.
The Wisconsinite said the west coast’s allure was strong, but ultimately joining the Indy Eleven was an easy decision.
“The people here are what I am used to,” said Stone, adding that the direction of the club and relative proximity to home were major factors. “They are Midwestern people and the community is real supportive of our team. That means a lot to us.”
Stone is preparing to move into a club-funded downtown Indianapolis apartment, and eagerly awaits his first paycheck. He acknowledges that such perks of professional sport may not be forthcoming had his parents not parted with some of their own cash when his playing days were in their infancy.
“My parents actually didn’t want to let me play Select soccer,” which was a level best- fitting for a promising youth in Wisconsin, but came at a price.
“I was playing SAY soccer, which is as low as it gets, and they realized I was the best player on the team. They were contemplating whether they wanted to do the driving throughout the state, and pay the money for this kid to play soccer.”
It’s a decision faced by many parents of soccer-hungry kids. Thankfully they chose to support him. And they continued to appear on the sidelines when Stone represented Green Bay Lightning, FC Green Bay, the city’s university, and during his time in Milwaukee.
He told the story of his father, who has long suffered with back injuries, consistently hobbling up the Engelmann bleachers, not letting distance, pain, or thunderstorms prevent him from taking a seat and watching his son thwart opposition attacks.
The Stones now face a longer drive from Green Bay to Indiana. Informing his parents that he was finally getting a return on their investment was a “surreal” moment for Andrew.
“Obviously [they were] extremely proud and excited for me. They know how difficult a long career in this business can be to have, but they’re not worried about it right now.”
He understands the hardships that devoting your life to professional sport can bring. Injuries and circumstances out of an athlete’s control can damage confidence and limit opportunites. Stone had to deal with both during his inactive year at UWM.
After learning he would be ineligible to compete, a decision he unsuccessfully appealed, Stone underwent shoulder surgery, and found it difficult to fit into his new environment. Former teammates at Green Bay looked bitterly on his decision to leave.
“I got a lot of cold shoulders from a lot of people who meant a lot to me. People would go out of their way to tell me what they thought about me,” to remind him of his betrayal.
Stone said it was the hardest year of his life, and it made him realize the importance of soccer to his well-being.
“It affected a lot of things. It affected my school performance. It affected how happy I was on a daily basis. It was tough, especially coming into a new team that was a rival to the school I had transferred from. I felt that some guys maybe held up a wall to me.
But he had made the decision to follow Kris Kelderman and Kyle Zenoni to Milwaukee for a purpose, coaches to whom he expressed his gratitude and admiration. It was their connections, coupled with his impressive college performances, that provided initial opportunities for Stone in both Indianapolis and LA.
Current UWM captain Luke Goodnetter and Stone’s former central defensive partner Aaron Cranfill took the journey south from Green Bay along Lake Michigan’s shoreline as well.
They too had to wait a year for competitive soccer. Stone said that time strengthened his determination to prove the switch a profitable one in his pursuit of Horizon League glory and a career in the sport.
“[It had] a big influence on the fire burning within me to be successful.”
That fire helped UWM outshine the UIC Flames to claim the championship last November. It remains lit as he battles for a red Indy Eleven starting jersey when the club plays its first ever NASL game on April 12.