Saturday, November 19, 2016

As Close As It Gets - Indy Eleven 2016 REVIEW

Peter Wilt enjoys the fruits of all his labors after Indy Eleven become 2016 Spring Champions.

By: James Cormack

The season is over, the final minutes have passed, after a long weekend in New York it is time to reflect on what has been an incredible year as an Indy Eleven supporter. Immediate reactions would have been worthless and irrational, it's important after a long year to sleep on it a little and garner a true appreciation and gratitude for what has been a truly amazing season for this team.

With regards to the 2016 NASL Soccer Bowl itself, all I can think of is "shooting fish in a barrel," which is basically what it came down to. Nobody likes penalty shootouts, but it is a necessary means to an end, whoever shoots the most fish wins. I often liken the same situation to a sideshow or carnival attraction... "STEP RIGHT UP!" hit the targets and win a stuffed animal. Only in this situation you're physically drained, you're nerves are shot and all the pressures of the world are on your shoulders and several hundred opposition fans are screaming at you.

There is no blame to be apportioned to any player or coach, we had ample opportunities to knock our opponent out an we didn't. A final was played, decisions were made, those decisions did not lose us the game, we gave it everything but we did not succeed, the Cosmos scored more penalties than us and deservedly lifted the Championship trophy.

Am I disappointed? Well of course it would have been nice to win, but I cannot possibly be disappointed with this team, with these players and our coaching staff. The have pulled off miracles all year long and transformed Indy Eleven into a team that is now respected and possibly feared in the league in which they play.

Indy Eleven have completed their third season as a club. In 2014 we finished 9th from 10 teams in the combined standings with 27pts and only 6 wins in the year, in 2015 we finished 9th of 11 teams with 33pts and 8 wins for the entire year. This year in 2016 we finished 2nd in combined standings with 15 wins and 55pts. We won more games in one year than we did in our first two seasons and were only 5pts short of equaling the amount we gained in our first two years as a team. THAT is incredible!

2016 NASL Spring Champions
2016 NASL Championship Runners Up
2016 NASL Coach of the Year - Tim Hankinson
2016 Goal of the Year - Duke Lacroix
2016 Undefeated at Home in NASL and US Open Cup Matches

Defining moments.....

Tim Hankinson proved to be a worthy hire for Indy Eleven picking up NASL Coach of The Year award.

On December 2, 2015, Tim Hankinson was named as the new head coach of Indy Eleven. There had been rumors in the weeks leading up to this about who may be the new coach, such as former Fort Lauderdale Strikers coach Gunter Kronsteiner. When Hankinson's name appeared on the radar it sent everyone, including myself, scrambling through the internet trying to figure out who we had hired.

Little did we know then, and I am sure many including myself questioned the appointment, but it was a defining moment. My immediate reaction was that the only way I could support and approve of this hire would be if we retained the services of Tim Regan. For me at that moment in time, before even thinking about players, was that it would be our most pivotal signing announcement, and that is exactly what happened.

On the same evening we all had our first chance to meet Tim Hankinson at Indianapolis City Market. I attended with my usual skepticism and an ear willing to listen and was then pleasantly surprised. I was worried and apprehensive about the coming season but coach Hankinson was very approachable and took time to talk to all of us. By the end of the evening I left knowing we had hired a knowledgeable man, we had hired experience, ambition and someone with a specific plan to make the club a "more" successful one. Words are words though, and despite feeling much more comfortable after listening I was still skeptical but excited.

Assistant Coach Tim Regan's experience of the team made him critical part of the 2016 setup.

Preseason, as we know from watching any sport, is never going to be in any way defining of how a team will perform when the real games commence. I remember, however, in the very first scrimmage against IU in Bloomington when Don Smart picked out a perfect pass to the far post in that game and I saw the movement of Éamon Zayed to drift away from his defender and pick out the header and score, I knew that we had signed an intelligent and experienced forward. Zayed had scored the type of goal that was elusive to us in previous years.

When the season kicked off proper in Tampa, we definitely looked like a team short of preparation; we did not look ready and I feared a walloping in the first game. We somehow scraped through it and pulled out a point, probably very disappointing to the Rowdies who arguably had better preparation than ourselves and were heavily favored for big things in 2016.

Hankinson's 4-2-3-1 formation initially proved difficult to breakdown, but it also lacked punch. This trend continued into a 1-1 draw in our first home game against Ottawa Fury, in which we had to come back from behind, one week before facing our nemesis and ultimately our final opponent, the New York Cosmos. In that draw against Ottawa we saw the first glimpse of the warrior spirit, which Tim Hankinson had eluded to before the season, in Nemanja Vukovic who stepped up with a last minute equalizer to avoid defeat in our home opener.

April 16 was huge day for Indy Eleven. Neither Indy nor the Cosmos had ever beaten each other having played out six draws in previous matches. The Cosmos were going to be the team to beat this season and the luck of the draw put them in Indianapolis twice. Hankinson had thrown his initial plans out of the window and moved to a 4-4-2 formation. Indy Eleven went a goal down but came back to win 2-1 thanks to a 95th minute goal from Éamon Zayed. That was the point where we began to sense something special was going to happen this year.

The change of formation and the result of this match sparked a new direction and belief in the team that would see them remain undefeated for the remainder of spring, culminating in a final match scenario where they had the opportunity to steal the spring championship from the hands of the New York Cosmos.

Another sign that Hankinson had built a squad of players who had chemistry and togetherness came in the 2016 US Open Cup. Indy Eleven had never beaten Louisville City FC and being knocked out of the cup by them in the previous year was a huge blow to the supporters at the time. 

In preseason Indy Eleven again lost to Louisville just as they had done in 2015. This season's cup match may not have been seen as a highly important game, but it was, especially for the supporters. A victory also offered an opportunity to play MLS opposition in the following round.

Indy Eleven avoided another early Open Cup exit at the hands of Louisville City FC

Indy's first 2016 cup game and chance for revenge came on June 1 in Indianapolis. Indy were still undefeated since the beginning of the season but had several injury concerns; the team that would line up against LCFC was as close as you could get to a reserve side. It was a concern as Louisville were an improving side and in great form at the time. Those concerns were realized when Louisville took the lead in the 21st minute. 

Indy struggled in the game until Justin Braun came on shortly before the half and Éamon Zayed appeared after half time. The pair's quality and work rate shone through and Indy Eleven came back as they did against New York earlier in the spring and won the game 2-1, setting up a tie against Chicago Fire in the next round.

Prior to meeting MLS opposition in a competitive match for the first time since 2014, there was a small matter of wrapping up the spring season. Ten days after securing advancement in the Open Cup, Indy Eleven faced a home game against Carolina Railhawks that could decide the Spring Championship. Prior to kick off Indy had the unenviable task of firstly winning to draw level on points with the Cosmos and then also score four goals and win by a margin of three to stop New York from winning through tiebreakers.

The match against Carolina Railhawks on June 11 was arguably the greatest game of the year. After taking a lead in the 16th minute through Éamon Zayed the stadium was silenced with a half hour played when Nazmi Albadawi put home the equalizer for Carolina. Indy had to score three more goals and conceding another probably would have been disastrous. 

In first half added time Justin Braun scored a vital goal to put the team into the break a goal up. Zayed would score two further goals to claim his hat trick, the match ball and seal a 4-1 victory and the spring championship trophy for the Eleven. The memory of that game will live forever as it booked our passage to the post season and also sent a clear message to every other team that the Eleven will never roll over and lay down.

3-1 and smoke still drifting, Indy push for a fourth against Carolina to claim the Spring Championship.

With the spring season behind them Indy Eleven moved on to face Chicago Fire in the US Open Cup. Indy stood toe to toe with Chicago in the match and pushed them all the way to penalty kicks. The Fire won that shootout but again our team could not be faulted for their play and effort. In a conversation with Justin Braun this past week about favorite games, Braun said he felt that was one of their best performances all year.

Shortly before the game Indy Eleven caused a social media frenzy by announcing the signing of Mexican international and former Cruz Azul player Gerardo Torrado. Torrado was not eligible to play in the US Open Cup game but was available to appear in Indy Eleven's next game against Liga MX Champions CF Pachuca.

It was the second year Indy Eleven had faced Mexican opposition in a summer friendly, having played Monarcas Morelia in 2015. Pachuca brought and fielded a very strong team. Indy Eleven rose to the occasion and again Éamon Zayed scored the goal that made the difference in a very tight match. Within a short space of time Indy had won their first silverware, made post season, pushed MLS opposition to the wire and defeated a league champion. We were not even half way through the season and it was already the best season to date.

Having reached the playoffs by virtue of a spring championship win, Indy still had incentive to try and win the fall season, thereby ensuring a home game in the league final and of course at the beginning of Spring we had an undefeated league record to protect. That ended on the 16th of July when we lost to Minnesota United 2-0. Despite the loss on the road, Indy would continue to defend an undefeated at home record and push for a fall championship win.

Joe Cole and company were no match for Indy in 2016, Indy Eleven took 5 points from The Rowdies.

One match that was defining or pivotal to that chase was the match against Tampa Bay Rowdies on the 3rd of September at Carroll Stadium. It was an important game for both teams; Tampa Bay had put themselves in a position where they pretty much had to win in order to make the playoffs, while Indy Eleven returned home from a punishing road schedule, taking only one point from matches against Carolina, Ottawa and New York.

Anything less than a win for Indy probably meant winning the fall season was out of their reach. Anything less than a win for Tampa would shut the door on them for a playoff spot. With a weeks rest that they badly needed, the Eleven drew the match 1-1 thanks to a 64th minute goal from Brad Ring. We were not going to be champions of fall, but this result was critical to protecting our home undefeated record, and a loss at home in that game could have been devastating to the psyche of the team.

After that game the Eleven only conceded one more goal at home in five games. That lone goal came in the very next game against Miami FC, who at the time were the hottest team in the league and pushing hard for a playoff spot. We destroyed their playoff dreams as well, winning 2-1, before going on to keep four consecutive clean sheets, beating Carolina, New York and Puerto Rico all by 3-0 results, before dispatching Edmonton by a goal to nil in The Championship semifinal.

The rest is fresh in our minds. Outside of the team that hoisted the Soccer Bowl above their heads on the Sunday evening of November 13, the Indy Eleven had played more minutes in NASL competition than any of the other teams. Their place in the final was deserved and they proved it throughout the year. In regular play we were arguably the best team of the competition but the final accolade eluded us and we have no reason to be bitter or disappointed. We began life in 2014 but 2016 is the year everyone came to know our name, and it will also be the year we talk of in stories for years to come.

Belson Stadium during the 2016 NASL Soccer Bowl Final.

Let's be thankful and move on...

It goes without saying, and we have said it before, that there are not enough superlatives to describe Peter Wilt, nor are there enough to describe the depth of our gratitude to him. For anyone who has come in contact with Peter you already know that he is the ultimate supporter, the most passionate fan, the first to cry in victory or defeat and often the last person we see when leaving a game, because he is always there for those who care.

It was a fitting tribute to Peter Wilt that Indy Eleven won the spring championship and made the post season in only their third year of existence. Peter is driven by success and that is all he wanted for this city and this team; he achieved it and not easily, as Indy Eleven learned a lot in their first two seasons. We learned from out mistakes, we adapted and made changes and decisions were made that were no doubt very difficult. Even without this year to look back on, in my mind Peter Wilt was already successful, having established something this city badly needed and giving us something to fall madly in love with.

Despite not being champions the foundations of something pretty special have been set, our coaching staff and our roster have gained valuable exerience about what is required to win this league in 2016 and the opportunity is there to regroup, move forward and improve upon our efforts from this year in 2017.

As we saw last year it will be a nervous wait to see which players are retained and which ones are not. The more successful teams in the league such as the Cosmos and Minnesota have maintained consistency in their play by keeping as much of their squad together as they can each year. Hopefully Indy Eleven will do the same, there is a very special chemistry in this squad and keeping as much of that as possible will be critical to a successful league campaign in 2017.

Thank you to all of the players, the staff and all supporters of Indy Eleven for making 2016 a very special year, it's been pretty amazing. Stay excited, and get ready for next season, it's going to be another great ride!


We'll be keeping you up to date will all the news over the post season from Indy Eleven, NASL and NPSL as well as articles and interviews regarding Indiana Soccer and US Soccer in general. Our podcast the Bloody Shambles Soccer Show is returning very soon. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and at our website 

1 comment:

  1. Nice Information you have written here. Really Great Stuff. I keep it bookmark for our future purpose. Thanks for the information and links you shared this is so should be a useful and quite informative.
    talent identification in football