A little more than 20 years ago, a little-known high school senior asked then-IU coach Jerry Yeagley for a spot on the IU men’s soccer team.
After an NCAA title, 10 caps for the U.S. National Team and eight years playing in England, Yeagley’s gamble on former goalkeeper Juergen Sommer turned out to be a safe bet.
Coming out of Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind., in 1987, Sommer never appeared on Yeagley’s radar.
Growing up in Florida, Sommer watched IU capture back-to-back titles. As an incoming freshman, he appealed for his own spot on the team.
“We already had all the goalies we needed,” Yeagley said. “We didn’t know that much about him, but he was persistent.”
Sommer only expected a jersey and a pair of boots. Instead, he earned a scholarship and the starting position when he delivered a month into his freshman year.
“You’re a little star-struck, but at the same time you want to perform and put your best performance out there for the sake of the team,” Sommer said.
In his four-year term as a Hoosier, Sommer recorded 271 saves and 19 shutouts. Yeagley credited him to part of their 1988 championship – the only one won at Bill Armstrong Stadium.
“We wouldn’t have been national champs on this field (without him),” Yeagley said.
The NCAA Goalkeeper of the Year of 1990 left school that year. While playing for a club team in Olmsted, Ohio, Sommer competed in a tournament in Holland. Named goalkeeper of the tournament, he seized an opportunity to try out to play abroad after finishing school.
“It was not very lucrative, but it was just the next step,” Sommer said.
His first stop came in 1991 with Luton Town, then in the English First Division.
Sommer struggled in his first two years. Cultural differences and a lack of playing time almost persuaded him to return, but Yeagley advised him to stay.
“Even from across a great big ocean, he gave me another big push,” Sommer said.
While he assumed the language differences would be minimal, Sommer found his new English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish roommates difficult to understand.
“I felt like I was in a foreign country,” he said.
It took some time to garner his teammates’ respect, especially when they convinced Sommer to eat “the most god-awful” food.
“There’s a little walk of fire. ... You have to walk before they really embrace you,” Sommer said.
Three years after signing in 1994, Sommer and his team reached the F.A. Cup semifinal match, playing Chelsea at Wembley Stadium. He was named English Goalkeeper of the Year.
Two years later, he made the jump to the English Premier League, signing with Queen’s Park Rangers, becoming the first American goalkeeper and one of the first three Americans to compete in Britain’s most prestigious league.
Another unfathomable dream turned real when he donned the USA uniform in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. In 1998, Sommer returned to the United States, playing for the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution in the MLS.
After his playing days ended in 2002, Sommer coached both the men’s national team’s keepers and Carmel United Soccer Club. His return to IU three years ago brought him from Ohio to England, through two World Cups and back home again.
“You never quite really leave the nest,” Sommer said.
Former Columbus Crew teammate and current IU assistant Todd Yeagley is grateful for Sommer’s help.
“When he comes in, he might see something that maybe we’re not looking at,” Yeagley said. “He gives us a real fresh perspective.”
Goalkeepers Chay Cain and Michael Munroe said they also appreciate Sommer’s help. Both said the father of two enjoys being around a group of young players.
“He always wants to know ‘Hey guys, what’s been going on off the field,’” Cain said. “He wants to joke around and be the college guy he was 20 years ago.”
Standing tall at 6-foot-5, Sommer’s stature made him a fierce and powerful presence in goal, but Todd Yeagley said he was also dependable off the pitch.
“He gave you a calmness in front of you, that he can take care of his job,” he said. “Juergen’s a ... gentle giant. He’s very soft-spoken.”
As the elder Yeagley reflected on Sommer’s career, he said the walk-on-turned-star exemplified the IU uniform.
“It didn’t come overnight, and it wasn’t easy,” he said. “He showed it takes hard work and persistence, but that it can be done. That’s the way it’s been for Juergen all along.”
He now works as a land broker in Carmel, Ind., and is a father to sons Tommy, 10, and Noah, 7, with his wife Susie, whom he met at IU. His life-long passion for the “beautiful game” turned his life into an unexpected journey.
“I didn’t anticipate being a collegiate or professional or World Cup player,” Sommer said. “It just kind of happened. I knew I was along for a good ride, and I really tried to make the most of it.”
As the current Hoosiers compete for their eighth national championship, Sommer is still on board, proving that one chance, one gamble, one risk, can come full circle.