Sunday, November 24, 2019

Indy Eleven 2019 Recap & 2020 Off-Season Outlook

In the past, my recap and outlook posts have come before the team have made any announcements about the next season, but the Eleven are a bit ahead of schedule this year. Therefore, I'm behind and will have to adjust some of my comments accordingly.

The 2019 season took 2018 another step further. As the team is quick to point out, "the Boys in Blue concluded the 2019 USL Championship season with the most regular season wins (19), most points (63), most regular season away wins (6) and most goals scored (50) in franchise history. [editor's note - from the USL stats, the team scored 48 regular season + 3 playoff for 51 league goals. By my stats, the 2016 team scored 51 + 1 league goals for 52.] ... the club’s longest home undefeated streak at 27 matches across all competitions, including Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and postseason play. The ... side has not lost in regular season play in its last 25 matches, a streak dating back to July 2018 and among one of the best records in league history." With more time to build a roster than he had in 2018, Rennie returned just a handful of guys from 2018 and signed 22 new players throughout 2019. Guys that fit into the tactics he wanted to employ and that he thought would buy into the culture he wanted to create. With a top 4 finish in the Eastern Conference, the ability to host a home playoff game, and two playoff wins, Indy improved upon last year's 7th place regular season finish and its early departure from the playoffs.

With the exception of, once again, losing to Louisville City FC in the playoffs, the 2019 season can be considered a success. They may not have achieved every team's goal of winning the regular season and the playoffs, but they took important steps forward.

However, there were still some things that the team will want to improve upon moving forward in the 2020 season. Most notably, Indy's away form was less than ideal. While Indy finished the regular season undefeated at home (13W - 4D - 0L), obtaining positive results on the road was more difficult (6W - 2D - 9L). Digging deeper into those results indicates that against the top 6 finishing teams in the Eastern Conference, Indy's away form was even worse, not able to get a single win on the road (0W - 2D - 3L) against those teams (Pittsburgh, Nashville, Louisville, Tampa Bay, and New York Red Bulls II).

That will be an important piece for the team to improve next season. Indy's four-game road losing streak at the end of the season likely prevented them from having home field advantage throughout the playoffs. While Indy managed to get a win in their away playoff game in Nashville, having to not travel at all would have been preferable.

So there was progress, but still some things to do in the off-season.

Looking to 2020


Stadium

For the first time in the team's history, there was actual tangible progress made on the stadium side of things. 2019 was the longer legislative budgetary session that happens every two years and Indy was able to tie their hopes in with another sports related bill that was going through with the Capital Improvement Board and the Pacers. This proved to be an effective strategy and Senate Enrolled Act 7 gives the team the ability to finally move forward with a stadium development with some financial assistance from the State. I provided a detailed analysis of my thoughts about this in April and then provided some additional thoughts on locations in August so I'm not going to rehash all of that here. I'll summarize just a few key points:

  • The ownership group finally agreed to provide a more significant amount of the cost of the stadium in their proposal, which was a piece that I've said since the beginning was going to be necessary for this to become a reality.
  • Incorporating the stadium into a larger development (also something I recommended for some time) also helped during this go around.
  • There is a key component in Senate Enrolled Act 7 that allows the stadium and the development to be "discontiguous," but within a 1 mile radius of each other. I have a feeling that this might come up later and could be another sticking point with the State, City, and the CIB if the team does attempt to have the stadium and the development in different locations. 
There was a recent report that the City had been in discussions with the team about being in the GM Stamping Plant location after the most recent developer, Ambrose, has decided to back out of building there. Many foresee a lawsuit and I doubt the ownership group will want to get involved in it and potentially wait until it is all resolved. The team had previously indicated that they would like to make an announcement on a location by the end of the year. I have reached out to the team for an update, but have not yet received any information. I do know that the team intends to use Lucas Oil Stadium "for the foreseeable future," which is at least 2 years, maybe 3.

I see this as a major issue with the team moving forward due to the likely possibility that the playoff issues that the team saw this year will occur year-after-year until they have their own facility. Lucas Oil Stadium has another primary tenant who supersedes any desire from the Indy Eleven, as well as being booked by other yearly events like the Indiana State School Music Association marching band finals and the Bands of America events. This means that any home field advantage that Indy develops during the regular season goes out of the window when they have to move to Carroll Stadium for playoff games. If I were the team, I would try to schedule a few more training sessions during the year at Carroll, just to get a better feel for the place instead of waiting a week before the first playoff game. I have also reached out to the team about their thoughts on the use of The Mike for the playoffs and am still waiting on a response from those questions as well.

Coach


Much like last year's announcement about Coach Rennie returning being met with a "ho-hum" response from most fans, unless he decided to move to another team, there was little doubt that he would be coming back. Indy have cycled through coaches every couple years in its history, but back-to-back playoff qualifying teams makes it difficult to rationalize firing a coach unless he's completely lost the locker room. I've heard of some questioning of the coach, but nothing close to a locker room mutiny.

So while the announcement is an important one from a continuity standpoint and will make Coach Rennie the longest tenured coach in the club's history, it was not unexpected. I am curious to see if there are any changes in the assistant coaching staff as we move forward. I'm interested to see if Juan Guerra stays on for another season or if he moves on.

I would like to see Coach Rennie take a step back from the Technical Director role that he is also filling and see the team hire a dedicated person for that role. Though I don't expect to see that happen.

Players

As I stated in my introduction, the team has already been busy announcing players with additional players expected to be announced this week and next. So we already know 11 guys that are returning or joining the team.

Announced as returning:

  1. Barrett, Gibson, Hackshaw, Ilic, Newton, Ouimette, Walker - As I indicated on Twitter after the announcement, with the exception of Ouimette, the other six guys were the first six signed for the 2019 roster. This seems more like a "these are the guys who signed 2-year contracts that will return next year" type of announcement to me. Ouimette joined the team at the same time as Rennie and was a stable on the right side of Rennie's three-back lineup. I can see Rennie wanting all of these guys back from a consistency standpoint as they accounted for 46% of the team's regular season minutes.
  2. Watson, Farr, Ayoze - These were the next three to be announced and only the re-signing of Farr slightly surprises me. Watson has been with Rennie in a number of locations. He and Ayoze's ages make them less likely to want to make drastic changes to other locations as long as they are reasonably happy, healthy, and playing well. Both are playing well and seem to be healthy. With the announcement of these three players, the percentage of the 2019 minutes jumps to 59%. If you're looking for consistency, there's only one glaring piece missing from the announcements and everybody is waiting on pins and needles for that one. My only question with Farr was whether he was willing to sit behind Newton again for another season. I still fully expect Rennie to consider Newton the #1 goalkeeper going into next season, meaning Farr's abilities will be sitting on the sideline as the team's most enthusiastic cheerleader. Moving forward with Newton and Farr on the roster, I (and others) would like to see Coach Rennie rotate them more throughout the season. There was no reason for Newton to be playing in the first Open Cup game (a game where Newton picked up a red card) nor try to play every game in some of those multiple games in a week stretches when Farr was available. With Newton's injuries the past two seasons, giving him some additional rest days would be helpful. Though that is something that Rennie could/should do with more of the players, but I don't see that in his mode of operation. 

Announced as joining:

  1. Conner Antley - This season's Defender of the Year in the USL League One was announced at the end of the week. Indy paid a transfer fee to get him on the roster as he was under contract with Tormenta FC for this next year. This is a big deal for the team and the league and shows that the team may have concerns about its depth in the back. I recall a time this year where Hackshaw had just returned from international duty and wasn't planning on being played. However, Osmond picked up a early first half yellow and a number of referee discussions and Coach Rennie felt that they had to get him out of the game and not risk picking up a second yellow and playing a man down. He had to play Hackshaw because he didn't think he had any other good options (I would have shifted Ayoze back and adjusted from there, but that's for another time...).

Others I expect to return:

  1. King - Coach Rennie often spoke highly of King and thinks he is poised for a breakout season. 
  2. Farias - He'll be competing for time with King, but the team could use the two of them the way they did this year when they were both healthy. Assuming Pasher returns (see below), Indy needs a more consistent attacking presence on the right side of the field to counteract the Ayoze/Pasher left side and both Farias and King showed glimpses this year.
  3. Conner - Conner was a spectacular mid-season find and he seemed to fit in nicely with Rennie's system. He's a little more box-to-box, which is something that the team needs; a defender who also likes to push forward.
  4. Novoa - His pace was a good compliment to Pasher's, but his size is going to prevent him from being any kind of target forward for this team. Despite that, I think Rennie keeps him around.
  5. Osmond - The fourth "starter" in the three back system, Rennie isn't going to want to sign Antley for depth just to get rid of his current depth.

Unknown:
I'm not sure the last time I had so many guys on the unknown list, but it's because I think it's anybody's guess on whether they stay or leave for a number of reasons.

  1. Pasher - Pasher's stock rose exponentially this year and I'm sure he was on the 2nd year of a 2 year contract so he and his agent would be foolish to not shop him around. Even if it was just to be able to negotiate more money here. Rennie needs him back. Fans want him back. Still might not be enough to keep him around.
  2. Starikov - Similar to Pasher, I think he was probably on the 2nd year of a 2 year contract and is now a free agent. His injury and its duration hampered him through most of the year, but even after his return, he struggled to get minutes. I often thought he looked frustrated at not getting time and am curious if that causes him to look for another team.
  3. Kelly - I can go either way with Kelly. There were glimpses all season of his goal scoring abilities. There were example after example of his inability to score this year. He might not be the right forward in Rennie's system. Enevoldsen struggled in Indy, but scored 10 goals in 15 games in Sacramento. Being in the right system and being happy can make all the difference in the world. Whether the team and Kelly all want to try for another season is yet to be seen.
  4. Diakhate - He was a feel-good story at the beginning of the season. He was an after-thought towards the end. He is likely inexpensive depth though.
  5. Nieto - Remain on an Academy contract? Maybe.
  6. Brown - Remain on an Academy contract? Maybe. 
  7. Rodrigues - To say he struggled would be an understatement. Despite his size, he was frequently bullied out of position and was not the target forward many fans expected he would provide. My guess is that he doesn't return, but could depend on what happens with Pasher/Kelly and a desire for depth.
  8. Perea - My gut says he is gone too, but I think it may depend on the size of the contract. 

More player news will be coming this week. Whether those include signings or announcements of departures or both is yet to be seen.

Final Thoughts:

I've decided to not dive into some other topics I would like to discuss as it relates to players and coaches. It's a long off-season so maybe they will get discussed later. For now, 2020 is looking like Indy is going to be a strong team again, vying for a playoff position and conference title. Whether they can take that next step (or two to a league final) is yet to be seen.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Indy Eleven vs Louisville City FC - 06.37 - USL Playoffs (Conference Final)

- Opponent: Louisville City FC
- Location: Indianapolis
- Attendance: 7,171
- Final Score: 1-3 L
- Starting XI: Farr, Hackshaw, Barrett (C), Ouimette, Gibson, Walker, Conner, Ayoze, King, Pasher, Kelly
- Substitutions: Watson 68' (Conner), Novoa 83' (Kelly); Starikov 98' (Walker); Ilic 98' (King)
- Unused: Brown, Osmond, Perea
- Goals: Pasher 67' (assist Kelly)
- Bookings: Barrett 45'+1' (Yellow); Ouimette 90'+2' (Yellow); Hackshaw 102' (Yellow); Watson 119' (Yellow)
- Referee: Guido Gonzales Jr.
- Adage goals: Two

I said it in my review of the semi-final game against Nashville. If you want to be the King, you have to beat the King. Until somebody proves otherwise, Louisville City is the King of the Eastern Conference. Five straight Eastern Conference finals and now three straight league finals. They are now in a stretch of not having lost a playoff game in 3 years. Yet...

Indy was close to taking down the King. The bubble popped 3 minutes and 4 seconds into a questionably allotted 4-minute stoppage time when LCFC's Hoppenot took a first-time rip at the ball off of a corner kick that took some nice turf bounces over the head of a falling Barrett and under the right arm of Farr who had been going to his left. It's the kind of cruel goal that changes momentum.

It's the kind of goal that keeps the King on his throne and the rest of the conference wondering what it's going to take to remove him from it.

With momentum fully shifted to LCFC after an early goal in extra time by Rasumussen, Indy was forced to throw attackers into the game as Starikov and Ilic were brought into the game in place of Kelly and King. When Spencer scored an insurance goal from the spot in the 113th minute, all that was really left was for the clock to wind down. The King doesn't give up a two-goal lead that late in the game, even playing on the road.

The moderate upside for Indy is that for long stretches of the game, they looked like the better team. Possession may be 9/10th of the law, but neither team seemed to be able to have it for any extended duration. Louisville was shown to have the final possession edge at a nearly 60/40 ratio, but Indy seemed to do more with their possession than did LCFC. They had more shots and shots on target. Jordan Farr wasn't credited with a single save for the game as LCFC had 3 shots on target and had 3 goals.

Indy had chances that they missed, including one from Watson in the 89th minute that just crept over the bar and landed in the top netting. Twelve inches lower and Indy would have been celebrating at the end of the game instead of LCFC.

My only objections to Indy's game was, possibly, the substitutions and when those occurred and for whom. Yet even those fell in line with the way that Coach Rennie has been utilizing substitutes at the end of the season. However, within a minute of Pasher scoring the opening goal of the game in the 67th minute, Coach Rennie pulled Conner for Watson, which had the feeling of an offense for defense substitution. It seemed a bit premature to me to begin the Rennie Bunker (TM) at that point in the game. Twenty-two minutes is a long time to defend against a team like LCFC in a win-or-go-home scenario, even for this team.

I also question the Novoa for Kelly sub in the 83rd minute. Though, again, the time and substitution was in line with recent patterns. I just felt that the things that Kelly was doing well for the team at the time could not be achieved by Novoa and it also pushed Pasher further back into the Bunker. Novoa does not have Kelly's size to be able to stay up top and bring a ball down with defenders on his back. He can run around like a madman trying to disrupt LCFC's defenders, but I didn't think that was what would have helped ride out the remaining minutes of the game.

When it comes to playoff soccer, it's not always the better team that wins. Sometimes, it's not even the better team on the day that wins. It's the team that makes good on their chances and for this game, that was Louisville City.

It does disappoint me that the Eleven spent all season creating a home field advantage in Lucas Oil Stadium only to see that advantage go out the roof because the stadium had already been reserved for other users. Notably one that I believe wasn't even using the facility for the NYRBII game, but has a clause that limits users to a certain duration ahead of their use. Carroll creates a great atmosphere particularly with so many traveling fans, but the weather and the turf affected the game and took away some of that home field advantage. Whether anybody in the team will publicly admit it, playing at Carroll Stadium was not an advantage. There's my little plug for an increased desire for Eleven Park because Indy could find themselves in this exact same situation every year until they have their own stadium.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

Ouimette gets the Game Beckons Game Ball in the loss. It's like losing twice for him...

Photos:
















Sunday, November 3, 2019

Indy Eleven vs Nashville SC - 06.36 - USL Playoffs (Conference Semifinals)

- Opponent: Nashville SC
- Location: Nashville
- Attendance: 4,145
- Final Score: 1-0 W
- Starting XI: Farr, Hackshaw, Barrett (C), Ouimette, Gibson, Walker, Conner, Ayoze, King, Pasher, Kelly
- Substitutions: Novoa 70' (Kelly), Watson 86' (Pasher)
- Unused: Brown, Osmond, Perea, Starikov, Ilic,
- Goals: Pasher 59' (assist Gibson)
- Bookings: Ayoze 22' (Yellow); Ouimette 24' (Yellow)
- Referee: Elton GarcĂ­a
- Adage goals: None

Through the first week of the USL Championship Playoffs, the Western Conference was a veritable roller coaster ride full of lower seeds upending the higher seeds, including 8th seed Austin Bold taking Phoenix Rising to penalty kicks just days after having to play in the Play-In Round. The Eastern Conference, on the other hand, proceeded mostly according to script with all 4 of the top seeds advancing past their conference quarterfinal matches.

Week 2 of the Playoffs began the same way as Week 1 with Real Monarchs finishing the job that Austin Bold was nearly able to do the week before and send Phoenix Rising, the odds-on favorite to win it all before the playoffs, exiting the tournament without even making it to the conference final. With the other Western Conference results, by the time the #3 Indianapolis - #2 Nashville and #1 Pittsburgh - #4 Louisville games started, everybody knew that the final was going to go through one of the Eastern Conference cities yet again.

 As Austin Bold can attest, keeping a clean sheet in the playoffs doesn't guarantee success when it can be undone by penalty kicks. However, playoffs are often the time when defensive efforts are rewarded and the Indianapolis vs Nashville game matched the top two defenses in the league. It was the kind of game where the expectation was that a single goal could be enough to be the winner.

In the early part of the game, all signs pointed to Indy being the winner who held the early advantage in shots, possession, and corners. Action evened out a bit just past the 20th minute when a kerfuffle arose after a hard Ayoze challenge and Nashville increased their intensity. Ayoze's challenge and the resulting pushing and shoving provided the game with 3 of its 5 total yellow cards, as Ayoze and Ouimette received cards, as well as Nashville's Washington. After that, both teams settled in and finished the half with 50/50 possession, but Indy had more shots on target than Nashville.

Jordan Farr, continuing his excellent play in replacement of Evan Newton, was forced to make one of this 3 saves early in the second half. As the game progressed and the defensive strengths continued for both teams, a moment of brilliance looked like it might be the deciding factor. Then in the 59th minute, Tyler happened.

"'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'
My man John Keat's said that."
Tyler X 2 to be more exact.

Tyler Gibson, the team's iron man in starts and minutes this year, picked up the ball near midfield, picked his head up, and spotted Tyler Pasher about to make a Tyler Pasher run. Gibson put an absolutely perfect ball over the top that would land just inside the 18-yard box where Nashville's Pickens couldn't come out to get it, but where Pasher could run onto it. Pasher one-touched the ball with the outside of his left foot past a stranded Pickens and just inside the left goal post. It's the kind of shot that Indy fans have seen numerous times this year just dribble agonizingly on the wrong side of the post, but it squeaked in for Pasher's 5th game winner this season.

Indy continued to play within their game tactics, but the 70th minute substitution of Novoa for Kelly indicated that things were getting adjusted for the visitors. Novoa was left up top to chase down real estate clearances and Pasher (and then his 86th minute substitute Watson) dropped further and further back to help defend and solidify the Rennie Bunker (TM). By the time the game ended, Indy fans knew that the other side of the Eastern Conference bracket was already filled by Louisville City FC. It took until the conference semi-final games, but the lower seeds both prevailed, providing Indy and Louisville fans with a #LIPAC with some conference hardware on the line.

Indy return to #TheMike on Saturday November 9th with a 3:00 in the afternoon start time to continue this I-65 rivalry. LCFC are the back-to-back reigning champions and haven't lost a playoff match in 3 years. To be the King, you have to defeat the King. Until somebody does that to LCFC in the playoffs, they are still the team to beat in the east. Indy will look to use the good run of form and their home crowd to do just that; be the new King.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

I'm not sure that I've given him enough credit this year for all that he does, but I can remedy that by giving Tyler Gibson this game's Game Beckons Game Ball. He:

  • Leads the team in minutes played (3,234; more than 500 minutes more than any other player)
  • Leads the team in Starts (36) and Games Played (36), which is the only field player in Indy's history to do so.
  • Leads the team in Passing Accuracy (87.8%), 
  • Leads the team in Long Pass Accuracy (63.1% - not counting Starikov who has only attempted 5), 
  • Is 2nd in Passes per 90 mins (59.1), 
  • Is tied for first in Passing Accuracy in the Opponent's Half (83.7%), 
  • 2nd in Passing Accuracy in Own Half (91.4%), 
  • Leads the team in Interceptions (42), and 
  • Is even 2nd in fouls won.
He's been the right guy to do what Coach Rennie needed him to do and he's doing it consistently and at a high level. Indy have utilized the ball over the top effectively all year, but Gibson's play versus Nashville highlights his ability and Tyler Pasher rewarded him for that ability.