Growing up, 28-year-old North High School and Indiana University graduate Josh Tudela played a lot of soccer — enough to earn his 2007 debut in Major League Soccer. Yet outside of the school year, Evansville didn’t offer him competitive opportunities. For those, Tudela, along with any other serious soccer player in the Evansville area, had to accept the inevitability of travel.
“When I was growing up, there weren’t too many good tournaments that Evansville hosted,” he says. “You had to go out of town, to Tennessee or Michigan, to play in the big tournaments.”
That changed with the arrival of the Evansville Soccer Club’s annual Veterans Invitational Tournament the year before Tudela went to play soccer at IU.
“It was pretty special to have a good in-town tournament that had good competition and good teams,” he says of his experience in the tournament’s first year. “It’s an Evansville tournament, so that’s what makes it fun. You always want to win your home tournament.”
That tournament, now in its 12th year, has a complicated history, according to an account by David Nicholson, the former president of the Evansville Elite Soccer Club.
He and other members of the Evansville Elite were lobbying for a soccer complex as early as 1999. At the same time, they were working to finalize the initial phases of an annual regional tournament that came to be called the Veterans Invitational Tournament.
The tentative plan was to build the complex on 65 acres of property directly north of Oak Hill Cemetery. What came to be called the Goebel Soccer Complex was to serve as the location for the inaugural tournament, to be held the first weekend in November 2001.
The Evansville City Council, however, hotly debated the issue. In the end, they decided to build the complex just off Green River Road, northeast of the original tentative location.
That meant that the first three Veterans Invitational Tournaments took place without a permanent home. In fact, the tournament games in those early years were spread across nine different locations in Evansville.
“It was kind of the opposite of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Nicholson says. “We had them come, and then we built it.”
Soccer players, it turns out, were happy just to be able to play.
While only around 30 teams initially signed up for the first invitational before the registration deadline, many more teams actually took part in the tournament on Nov. 3-4, 2001. A total of 106 teams came to Evansville to compete that weekend from various locations in Indiana and the Midwest, Nicholson says.
When the Goebel complex was completed in 2004, the tournament was able to reduce its locations from nine to four. These include the complex, James Price Park, the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. Double Cola Fields, and Harrison High School fields. These four locations still serve as the tournament’s only venues, though the popularity of the invitational has since compelled the directors to split the event into two weekends: one for girls and one for boys. Players at the tournament compete in age categories ranging from 9 to 19, each with a separate bracket.
The tournament continues to draw more participants. Last year, the invitational hosted 278 teams from around Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin, among other states. In the past, the tournament has drawn teams from as far away as Colorado. Nicholson says the event now attracts around 10,000 visitors to Evansville over the two weekends in November.
Laura Libs, director of marketing and communications for the Evansville Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the number of visitors have an economic impact.
Between hotels, restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, and other facilities, the 2012 tournament brought an estimated $3 million to the greater Evansville community — plenty more than what Nicholson and others suggested in 2001 when they lobbied for the $3.4 million soccer complex.
The Veterans Invitational Tournament also helps to improve Evansville’s image, Libs and Nicholson agree.
“Every time we open our doors for groups like this, they come in for this event, but they leave with an opinion about Evansville,” Libs says. “That’s what they take back and talk to other people about. Evansville plays a great host — that’s why teams keep coming back every year.”
As for the tournament itself, a crucial piece of its success is the ceremony honoring veterans. Roughly 200 to 300 attendees gather to take part in the ceremony each year, Nicholson says, including players in the tournament, veterans and their families, and other members of the Evansville community.
Some of the players and teams in attendance have collected items such as canned goods, toothbrushes, and deodorant to be sent overseas. Others have written letters to soldiers. The ceremony, Nicholson says, has become an intergenerational event that unites children and heroes of American history.
“We want to teach good soccer, and we have developed a lot of players who have gone on to college scholarships, but we felt part of our responsibility as a youth organization is to teach life lessons,” Nicholson says. “So we decided that rather than just calling it the Veterans Invitational, we wanted to teach life lessons to the kids — that they’re able to play soccer because of sacrifices in the military.”