As of today (Dec. 4th), Indy Eleven have eight players and a new manager. This off-season is going to a serious rebuilding year for the two year old club. But new manager Tim Hankinson is the sort of coach who can bring in the necessary pieces to not just get Indy Eleven up to snuff but actually improve.
Indy looks like a good organization and the game day experience at Carroll Stadium is stellar (I’d argue it needs more pryo but when isn’t that true). But what hasn’t happened for the North American Soccer League team that just completed its sophomore year in existence has been wins. Even with its ongoing home sellouts, the team has yet to be able to translate enthusiasm and expectation into results; Indy has been stuck in the bottom third of the league.
Hankinson slides into the driver’s seat in Indianapolis at just the right time. The player speculation, options being taken up and declined and contracts expiring, defines the off-season. No doubt Hankinson has a plan and likely that plan involves “selecting veteran and international talent wisely in order to turn around teams or get them to strong starts from scratch.” As Major League Soccer clears its rosters, NASL teams do the same, and the minor league United Soccer League players find themselves without a contract, there will be plenty to choose from domestically.
As mentioned, Indy currently have eight layers under contract and are looking to finalize new contracts with two others (goalkeeper Keith Cordona and central midfielder Brad Ring). Given the departure of veteran starting goalkeeper Kristian Nicht, if Cordona resigns the starting job is most likely his to lose.
At first, I wasn’t sold on Ring. I didn’t think he had an identity as a midfielder–he didn’t seem strong or savvy enough to be a ball-winner, and he wasn’t fast or creative so that ruled out being a playmaker. But re-watching Ring I’ve come to realize that he is perhaps best suited as an anchoring defensive midfielder, someone who marshals his teammates while also being the first wall the opposition has to overcome.
This means that Indy currently have a team that could role out in your standard 4-4-2 diamond:
As we can see, there is a hole at leftback, and it should be first priority. Coupled with this defensive need is creating more depth at centerback. Erick Norales departure meant that Indy lost (arguably) its best player. Greg Janicki, when healthy, is a good defender, and Cory Miller proved this season that he could play centerback and fullback well enough. But neither of them are enough; I doubt that they will be or should be the starting duo come next season. Marco Franco seems to have the rightback position locked down, but there’s still a need for depth. Indy has to pick up a starting leftback, a bench fullback, and at least two more centerbacks if it wants to compete in 2016.
My first thought to address these concerns would be picking up two former New York Cosmos players: leftback John Neeskens and centerback Samuel Caceres. Although Neeskens never really broke into the first team, he was captain of the Cosmos B team and belonging to a winning organization engenders the right kind of attitude that Indy needs to cultivate. Caceres logged more minutes but not enough to warrant a contract so he’s returned to his parent club Nueva Chicago in Argentina. I would think he’d be an excellent addition to Indy Eleven being familiar with playing on turf and with the league.
Another option may be looking to former MLS players. Chicago Fire have released leftback Greg Cochrane who is exactly the type of wingback that could bring much needed quality to Indy’s left side while Franco holds down the defensive right. Similarly, leftback Andres Correa did well with the Seattle Sounders USL minor league team but was released at the end of the season. He could be the kind of fullback cover the team needs. If Hankinson and president Peter Wilt wanted to make a real splash they might also consider ponying up the cash to land former Houston Dynamo centerback and Jamacian international Jermaine Taylor. Acquiring Taylor would require a lot of work but it would be a serious move that would unsettle the other clubs in the league.
More than any other team in the NASL, Indy made use of loaned players. Jaime Frias (Chivas) at leftback showed promise until injury as did central midfielder Sergio Pena (Real Sociedad). In attack, were it not for loanees Dane Richards (New York Red Bulls) and Zach Steinberger (Houston Dynamo), Indy would have been virtual toothless. I would imagine the Eleven will again plumb the loan market to fill out its gameday eighteen.
But relying on loanees in the starting eleven is worrisome. Hopefully, Hankinson will clear up the confusion that exists in Indy about who is and isn’t a winger and a forward. Quite frankly, I don’t see either forward currently under contract as a starter, but that may be just because too often both were pushed out wide rendering them ineffective. Wojciech Wojcik and Duke LaCroix are both good, young prospects and could blossom–if they were partnered with an experienced, savvy strike partner.
Out wide, I find right midfielder Dragan Stojkov to be lacking in vision, urgency, and in providing service. Whereas, wide midfielder Don Smart has shown he has all these traits whenever he takes the pitch as either a sub or a starter and wherever he’s placed be it wide left or wide right. A proven NASL veteran, left winger and auxillary forward Simone Bracalello had a injury plagued 2015 with the Carolina Railhawks yet was still able to notch two goals and two assists in just 433 minutes. Bracalello knows the league well and has a been a winner and big match producer with Minnesota. With Bracalello on the left and Smart on the right, Indy would have two technically skilled players who would compliment each other providing service and when needed the ability to score on their own.
Finally, we’re left with wondering who Indy can bring in at forward. If the fantasy of Jermaine Taylor isn’t enough for you, then I’d like to offer up the notion of signing Uruguayan and ex-Colorado Rapids forward Vicente Sanchez. Pairing the veteran with Wojcik or LaCroix would bring the best out of them while also allowing the impressive attacking midfielder Dylan Mares not feel so much pressure to be his team’s soul producer yet still remain dangerous.
So with these names thrown about, the Indy Eleven would look something like this:
To my mind, this starting eleven is balanced enough to pull more than a few points away from defeat and dangerous enough to win more than a few matches outright. Is it a championship side? Probably not. But I do think a strong veteran centerback and experienced veteran striker could be all Indy Eleven needs to become a playoff team.
The moves that Hankinson makes this off-season will be interesting. There’s a lot of options out there. If the Atlanta Silverbacks end up folding due to not being able to find proper ownership, then there will more than a few players that could bolster Indianapolis. This is doubly true if the gigantic question mark about what is going on with the San Antonio Scorpions also leads to virtually a whole team being dumped on the open market.
No matter what, Indy Eleven is going to be a much different looking team in 2016. I’ll shout down the cynic in me and assert now that Hankinson will put together a squad that will push up the NASL table and be a legitimate, rather than ‘mathematical,’ part of the 2016 playoff conversation.