Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Indy Eleven Season 3 Preview - Cautionsly Optimistic Expectations Edition

The Indy Eleven off-season has been a busy one. Let's take a look at where they've been, where they are, and I'll give my thoughts on where I think they're going.

The Indy Eleven finished the 2015 season with a 8W-9D-13L overall record with a 5th place finish in the Spring Season, a 9th place finish in the Fall Season, for a 9th place overall finish. Before the Spring Season concluded, the team fired Coach Sommer and placed the Interim Coach title to previously title Assistant Coach Regan. With that limited amount of success in the record books and working with an Interim Head Coach, things were bound to change. 

I talked a little about the hiring of Coach Hankinson here, so I'm not going to go into much detail here. I also touched on the initial 8 players that were re-signed from last season in that article, so let's dive down into the rest of the roster moves for a bit. The Eleven created great election style banners for each of the player announcements so I'm going to use them here as I discuss the signings. I hope they don't mind.

These are the initial 8 players that the team re-signed: Janicki, Franco, Miller, Mares, Stojkov, Smart, Wojcik, and Lacroix. Three defenders, three midfielders, and two forwards. A total of 11,772 minutes of last year's team, or just under 40% of the total team minutes from last season.  As I indicated in my other post, these guys all seem to fit into the "warrior" mentality that Coach Hankinson wants for this year's team. While scoring was an issue at times for this team, I think keeping Woj and Lacroix had a lot to do with the fact they are young guys who are still learning the professional game, but their size and speed, respectively, are key to their return. I like this group and think it's a good core group to start a roster rebuild. Given Janicki's history with Coach Hankinson, he's the only player from this group that I expect to be one of the opening day starters, but I think they all are going to be able to compete for starter roles. Mares, Franco, Miller, and Smart have shown they have starter ability and if they have used the off-season to improve, they will push for those roles regardless of who was signed after them. Stojkov's warrior attitude will endear him to Coach Hankinson so he'll find some minutes. Wojcik and Lacroix are still young guys with lots to learn, but I see them as substitutes. If Lacroix can find a little more consistency, he may find himself in the "super sub" role that has been Smart's the past three seasons, as his speed late in the game against an opposing team's tired legs could be a nice weapon to have.

Brad Ring was the next player from last year's roster to make his way back, bringing the team to 44% of last year's minutes retained. Ring's signing marked the start of the direction for the 2016 team. Experience. At just 28, Ring is one of the oldest players being re-signed from last year's roster, but he was able to be a steady force in the defensive midfield spot and I think he'll again fight for time at that position this season. Like the rest of the returning players, Ring fits into that "warrior" description that Coach Hankinson wants this team to embody so I'm glad to see him back.

Sinisa Ubiparipovic - Signed 12/15/2015
Indy's first non-returning player was Sinisa Ubiparipovic, the first of what would become three players from last year's runner-up team Ottawa Fury. At this point in the roster signings, it's hard to say which players will be starters and which ones will be substitutes, but Ubiparipovic will be an opening day starter. He's the first of a trend of veteran signings for the Indy Eleven, but he was signed from Ottawa to take the playmaker role that was missing at times last season. Mares has shown glimpses of what he's able to do, but Ubiparipovic brings a more experienced view of the field than Mares can bring at this stage in his career. I'm not convinced that the presence of Ubiparipovic means that Mares will be relegated to the bench, but he's going to have to use the work ethic that took him from season one level to season two level and bring it up to compete for the starting spot against Ubiparipovic. The team had visions of Kleberson being that playmaker role last season and his injury meant that the team spent the entire season trying to find the right depth at that position. Ubiparipovic and Mares brings the team that depth again.

Daniel Keller & Keith Cardona
The Eleven went back to signing a couple of last year's players after signing Ubiparipovic by re-signing Daniel Keller and Keith Cardona. With these two players, which would turn out to be the last two players re-signed from last year's team, the minutes retained is brought up to just over 50%. I continue to harp on that statistic because of what I have noticed in the past couple seasons and these two players are good signings for how it looks like Coach Hankinson wants to go with this team. I don't see Keller getting starter minutes yet, but he was more than a serviceable holding midfielder this past season. He's a young local guy who I think is going to relish the opportunity to improve and play some valuable minutes throughout the season. I'm glad to see Cardona back, but based on the later signings I don't see him as the starting keeper. He has tons of ability and he's getting a great role model to learn from this season. More on both of these guys after I talk about the rest of the roster additions.

Neil Shaffer & Eamon Zayed - Signed 12/23/2015
The new signings began in earnest when the team announced the additions of Neil Shaffer and Eamon Zayed right before Christmas. Zayed's signing proved to me that I might as well stop guessing what players the Eleven were going to be signing because they went to the other side of the world for this signing. The guy is a prolific goal scorer and for a team that struggled to put the ball in the back of the net last season, I don't see any way this guy doesn't make it onto the opening day starting lineup. My hope is that he scores that game and just continues to show the NASL what he has shown in every other league he has played. Neil Shaffer is listed as a midfielder, but it is expected that he will see some time at left back as well. Though, I think he will be providing depth in that position based on subsequent signings.

Lovel Palmer - Signed 01/12/2016
Lovel Palmer comes from the Chicago Fire as a hard-working, fan-friendly defender. He's played for the Jamaican National team, has played for a Jamaican Premier League winning team in Harbour View, and was a frequent starter for the Chicago Fire last season. Palmer will likely be the starting right back for the Eleven, meaning Franco will be working to provide depth at the right back position. There's also the possibility that Palmer could play in that defensive midfielder position with Franco on the right back. I think he's going to make some fans for his play on the field, but off the field, I have yet to hear an interview with him where I didn't think to myself that this guy is going to make a ton more fans for his eagerness to interact with them.

Colin Falvey - Signed 01/15/2016
Colin Falvey continued the Indy Eleven trend this off-season of signing Ottawa Fury players. The team has said that nobody is a lock as a starter, but I don't see any way that Falvey doesn't make the starting lineup. He's an organizing defender whose unafraid of tackles and was part of the stout Ottawa defense that gave up a paltry 15 goals in the entirety of their games in the Fall Season, which included 4 goals in the Championship and only 23 goals overall. Since I believe Janicki is the other center as the front-runner for the center back position and that Coach Hankinson thinks Janicki works best with someone else organizing, I hope this pairing gels quickly.

Justin Braun & Nemanja Vukovic - Signed 01/19/2016
Justin Braun and Nemanja Vukovic both join the Eleven from Sacramento FC of the USL, further adding to the Eleven's plan of buying in bulk. When the team signed Eamon Zayed, that's when I knew that my limited knowledge of the available soccer players was going to be drastically challenged this year. While Braun and Vukovic are at least a part of the American soccer scene, I honestly don't know a lot about them, but coming from a winning team like Sacramento can only help the culture of the Indy Eleven, which is desperate to get over that hump of competing, but not getting good results. I think both of these guys are going to be providing the depth needed to keep the team healthy through the entirety of the season.

Jon Busch - Signed 01/22/2016
A 5'-10", 165 lb goalkeeper who will turn 40 before the end of the year may not seem like a very sexy choice to anchor the defense, but Jon Busch has carried a chip on his shoulder his entire career because of the opinions of his size and it has not let him down. A 40-year old goalkeeper doesn't bother me and the team summarized exactly why Busch is a great addition to this team when they wrote his bio. "The 39-year-old Busch racked up a 113W-92D-101L record in MLS regular season play and ranks fourth in league history in goalkeeper games played (309), shutouts (83) and saves (1,151) and fifth in wins. The native of Queens, N.Y., helped Columbus (2004) and San Jose (2012) to MLS regular season Supporters Shield titles, won the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with the Crew and earned the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award and earned a spot on the MLS Best XI Team with the Fire in 2008."

Nicki Paterson - Signed 01/26/2016
The Indy Eleven have a 1W-0D-5L record against the Ottawa Fury in the team's two years in the league and have been outscored by them by a 2 to 1 ratio. Nicki Paterson completed the Indy Eleven's off-season motto in regards to the Ottawa Fury of "if you can't beat 'em, sign 'em." So now the Indy Eleven have the backbone of last year's runner-up Ottawa Fury. Winners who have a hunger to get back to the Championship and experience it with better results is going to be what drives these guys this season. I hope all of them come into this season with a chip on their shoulder and that fire in the belly.

Gorka Larrea - Signed 02/10/2016
I'm going to be honest, when the team announced this signing, I immediately thought that Gorka Larrea looked like he could be related to Cory Miller. The team agreed with him and tweeted this image later. I expect Larrea to be providing depth in the midfield, but he's another player that is going to be able to provide a seasoned voice to the team.

Stephen Deroux - Signed 02/12/2016
The signing of a left back has been teased by the team for a long time and the Eleven's signing of former San Antonio left back Stephen Deroux filled an obvious gap in the team's roster. I feel like I could write this about all of the team's former players and new signings (and that's a testament to the team that Coach Hankinson, Coach Regan, and out-going President and GM Peter Wilt), but Deroux fits the bill of being a warrior and has been a staple to the San Antonio defense the past three years. Deroux is the last piece in what should be a very formidable backline this season.

Dino Williams - Signed 02/23/2016
Today, the Eleven made official what has been rumored for about a month and is expected to be the final signing unless something comes of any of the trialists that make the trip with them to Arizona next week. Dino Williams joins the Eleven from Montego Bay United where he was recently coached by the Eleven's newly hired Coach Hankinson. Williams was previously also a trialist with the Eleven in 2014 before getting injured so he's been on the Eleven's radar for awhile. He leaves the Jamaican Premier League having scored 14 goals in 16 games so he comes to the team in good form. Whether that form translates from the Jamaican Premier League to the NASL will be determined. Williams' signing brings the official number of forwards on the team to 5, but I anticipate that in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Coach Hankinson has previously indicated would be how the team starts (at least on paper), four of the forwards are chasing Eamon for that role. Coach Hankinson has indicated that Williams is "a dangerous performer on the wings" so Williams may find his way onto the field in that role.

While I made several jokes about the Indy Eleven signing multiple players from the same team, I think it's a wise move. For starters, it means that there are guys on the team that are already familiar with each other and so it reduces, even if ever so slightly, their need to learn the habits of one more guy. They have a base to start. With a 23-man roster where only 11 of them are returners from next year, there are still a lot of connections between the other 12 players that should help make this a smooth transition for them all. I think I'm correct in saying that only Shaffer, Zayed, and Larrea are the only players who don't have some kind of direct experience with one of the other players or coaches. 

This could be said about a lot of the positions, but the off-season signings have provided a lot of depth at all of the positions with guys who are capable of playing in multiple roles and locations. This will serve the team well during the 32 game season (plus whatever comes of the U.S. Cup and any international friendlies that might get added between the Spring and Fall Seasons). Before Larrea, Deroux, and Williams became official signings, the team posted the below graphic showing the possible combinations of the players as they might fit into Coach Hankinson's 4-2-3-1 formation.

Looking at all of the players that have now been signed, and without any knowledge of how the practices are going and who is clicking with each other, my best guess on the starting XI is as follows:






Though like I said above, I think Lacroix's speed is going to be help him get into games late to exploit opposing team's tired legs. Stojkov is going to get minutes because he personifies Coach Hankinson's warrior mentality, as will Miller for the exact same reason. In fact, I think if Miller can become a more effective header in the offensive third (and we all know his ability in the defensive third), I would like to see him late in games as an aerial option, particularly in dead ball situations.

On paper, I really like this roster. The average age of the returning players is 25.6 years old, while the average age of the new signings is 30.75 years old. Dino Williams at age 25, is still older than more than half of the returning players from last year. This team has some really good young talent that is now being led by older, experienced, winning players. I think the backline has the potential to be one of the best in the league, with the ability to bring in two of the more consistent players from last season in Miller and Franco. Combine that with a Goalkeeper of the Year winner in Busch behind them and the defense is going to be tough to beat. If Zayed and Williams can provide anywhere close to the production that they have had through their careers and recent season, respectively, then one of last season's problem areas will be highly upgraded.

I want to go into this season gung-ho optimistic, but I'm not there yet. Let me see how some of this pre-season games go before I remove the cautiously optimistic label.

1 comment:

Don said...

Thanks for the player break down. It has been difficult for me to keep it all straight. I am ready for the season to begin.