Thursday, June 15, 2017

Indy Eleven continues to struggle both on and off the field

Following a captivating 2016, Tim Hankinson has struggled to get his team going in 2017

By Brian Cook

In sports, it's often difficult to find a sole person or persons responsible when something goes wrong. In business, if someone thing goes wrong, it's easy to find the culprit. If a report isn't ran it's one person who forgot it. If you hold an event and something wasn't ordered it's that department's fault. Sales numbers down? Someone call a meeting with the sales department. 

Sports, however, has the complication of not having a clear idea of who the blame sits on. Often, when results on the field are down, it's the players who are to blame. They aren't trying hard enough, they aren't doing enough, and generally failing both the coaches and fans. More often in sports coaches get the boot due to poor performance. While players actually execute the play the coaches have to get the players prepared. 

All of this considered, a group in the hierarchy of sports that goes relatively untouched is the president/owner of the team and for Indy Eleven that rests on the shoulders of Jeff Belskus and Ersal Ozdemir. 

It would be easy to place the blame on the player's shoulders for the results so far. The players are on the field. Justin Braun and Eamon Zayed score the goals. Colin Falvey and Jon Busch stop other teams from scoring. Gerardo Torrado and Brad Ring maintain the midfield. Those are what fans, coaches, and the front office expect with players that get signed. All of the players have failed to live up to those expectations so far in 2017

Circumstances haven't afforded Hankinson the same resources he had leading up to the runner up season in 2016. His assistant coach and former interim head coach Tim Regan has left the team (replaced with former Scouting Director for Chicago Fire, Trevor James). The budget for salaries has been reduced. All of this seems centered around the largest question mark so far this season and that's the future of the club under Ersal Ozdemir and Eleven club president Jeff Belskus. 

Indy Eleven and Major League Soccer:

The bid for an MLS team came as a shock to many
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The decision for the club to apply to join Major League Soccer very much came out of nowhere. The ironic eleventh hour bid was both exciting and interesting to see as the club had been pretty quiet on any expansion plans as well as stadium talks publicly. 

The news brought excitement and a lot of chatter from both local media, national media and the fans that were thrilled to see the club strive for more. 

The bid included a shift from the model the club holds internally at the moment with MLS Indy Eleven being held together by an ownership group including members like Andy Mohr, a successful local car dealer in the Indy area. 

The ownership group would put forward the MLS expansion fee as well as other fees the league requires but largely leave the stadium's building budget to the city/state through a "public-private" partnership that confusingly as well as remarkably left a lot of people quiet and the chatter of a soccer stadium empty on the statehouse floor.

The decision for the ownership group interested many people because up to this point Ersal largely kept finances for the club to himself. Coupling the MLS bid and the finances of this season begins to, in my eyes, put a puzzle together on what could be the issue for Indy Eleven's future but no decision on any ownership group being formed for NASL's Indy Eleven seems to be included with that. 

Addressing the Hankinson Out conversation: 

Tim Hankinson has done nothing but make seers believers for a fan base that limped through the early years. While the obvious early beginning struggles didn't hurt the core fanbase for the club Hankinson's success in 2016 brought in new popularity, positivity, excitement as well as higher expectations for league play. 

Hankinson largely took a team put together in an off season and brought Indy Eleven to a place it hadn't been before. When you look at what changes have occurred between then and now you begin to see that the focus has shifted from the current team to saving money for a potential Indy Eleven MLS club. 

The Stadium continues to be the largest hangup for #IndyMLS
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One aspect that many haven't caught is the amount of soccer minds this team has lost. With the departure of Peter Wilt and Jeff Belskus arriving we saw Indy Eleven focus in on the business side while never replacing a person who understood both the business side of the game on and off the field. It's no fault of Jeff Belskus, who had success as the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it's been very clear from soccer-related decisions that either Belskus isn't making them or that he is and he might be over his head with understanding.

Perhaps it's optimism or naivety but it feels like Ersal has chosen to save money on the front end (current season) to put money on the back end (MLS/Stadium). It could also be a measure to salvage the existence of the team but 2017 but that's purely speculative at this point. Nevertheless the bottom line is that choices made so far for this club financially has almost put Indy Eleven at a competitive disadvantage by not allowing Tim Hankinson to have a little more liberty with his roster building and weaknesses in depth while age related may also be due to the lack of depth in the wage budget. 

Since the beginning and as it is in most sports teams, the money put in in at the start often goes unpaid for years. Owners across all major sports in the United States of America, minus elite level teams in leagues like the NFL often lose a lot before they gain a little. Owning a non-MLS professional soccer team in the United States is arguably one of the least profitable prospects for potential owners. 

Financial stability:

Neil Morris, well known for his work covering NASL, had a great piece for WRAL on the financial missteps the NASL clubs have made:
Meanwhile, the rest of the NASL now realizes business (and budgets) as usual may not be enough to win titles. It will be interesting to see how the next few years play out, whether other teams will cede championships to the well-heeled New Yorkers or (over)spend in an effort to keep up with the Cosmos … Soccer Bowl 2013 weekend was a success for the NASL. What remains to be seen is whether on-the-field success for its members now comes with a price tag many cannot afford. - Source
This isn't something new for Indy Eleven who have pumped money both into the league, the team, the stadium they currently rent on the campus of IUPUI, as well as their fans. A struggle, which has been told to be addressed in 2017 is financial stability of the league as well as financial transparency. 

No one section of Indy Eleven's team has shined so far in 2017

If the club is attempting to save money on the front end to explode onto the scene in MLS what it translates to is Hankinson's hands being tied behind his back. Hankinson, while philosophically might clash with many players was clear about his intentions and his goals for Indy Eleven taking the job. The club was clear about their intentions and goals for the club. They want a championship. It just seems like they are expecting one to to fall out of the sky rather than earn it on the field. 

In an article by Richard Farley of Four Four Two, Rishi Sehgal talks about what struggles NASL teams have gone through:

“Our owners have recognized, we need to take some measures to not be so free market,” Sehgal says. “We needs some controls. We need to have a sustainable model. Being free market can work if the market forces are perfect in a developed market situation. But in the early stages, you need some controls to adjust for market forces that can skew too heavily in one way or the other.” - Source

Let's not call for Miami FC level spending. Indy Eleven doesn't need to overspend to compete but why ask the chef to make something with ingredients you haven't given him? 

Indy Eleven is going through what can only and perhaps best be described as growing pains. It's struggled to grow and maintain the level the first season in Indianapolis brought with a sold out home attendance. 

Largely the struggle was based around where the team would play and while Michael Carroll Stadium was a great launching point the longevity of Indy Eleven in any league playing at The Mike just doesn't make sense. 

One of the core issues with the finances of the club is the lack (publically) of another partner for Ersal's ownership of the team. A new partner would give increased money, possibly more visibility (depending on who it is) and for Ozedmir, a partner to share the burden and losses of the club. Ersal's sole weight of the finances seems both irresponsible and just really short sighted. It's unclear whether the lack of a visible partner in the club's finances is by choice or not whatever the case may be it remains to be seen what the future holds for Indy Eleven as a professional team.

The stadium deal clearly wasn't what the public nor politicians were after but something needs to come from it and fast in order for Indy Eleven to recapture the magic they once held. It just seems like the rust is starting to show on the new car and the cost of wax is to expensive because all of the money was spent on the car.

For fans though, who are struggling on where to place their disappointment don't look just at the box scores. This team from any year continues to fight despite the issues behind the scene. If you are angry don't focus on just one target because while results on the field rest on the shoulders of coaches and players the results off the field rest on the president and owner and shouldn't be overlooked. Hopefully we will see a day soon where we get back to what made the club great and aren't forced to watch the creeping falling of Indiana's team.

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