Friday, June 18, 2021

Indy Eleven and its place in the American Lower Division Soccer Landscape

In the Spring of 2014, Indy Eleven officially began their tenure in the North American soccer landscape, having joined the North American Soccer League (NASL) the previous Spring. Indy kicked off their club history by playing their first game on April 12, 2014 at Michael Carroll Stadium against the Carolina Railhawks in front of 11,048 fans. The game would end as a 1-1 draw, with Michael Ambersley getting Indy's first goal in the 43rd minute, only to give up the game-tying goal in the 50th minute to Shilawski. Indy struggled in their inaugural season, finishing 10th (last) in the Spring Season and 7th in the Fall Season. Indy did not get a single win in the Spring Season, but managed a 2-1 win against Carolina in the first game of the Fall Season. Indy famously did not get their first home win until October 11, 2014 against Minnesota United FC, a 2-0 result that spurred a celebratory storming of the field by the fans and is still considered to be one of the best moments in club history.

Photo Credit: Don Thompson
Indy did not pick up their first piece of hardware until winning the Spring Championship in 2016; a 4-1 win against the Carolina Railhawks, continuing a trend of having important games against Carolina and causing a second celebratory storming of the field by the fans. I have been recently reflecting on Indy Eleven's history since we have just passed the 5 year anniversary of that game, dubbed the "Miracle at the Mike" due to the number of factors that Indy had to overcome to win the title, such as the number of wins and goal differential scenarios with the New York Cosmos. As I have been thinking about Indy's only piece of hardware to date, I began wondering how much the American soccer landscape has changed since Indy joined the NASL and what it means for Indy Eleven and its fans. 

So I decided to find out.

So much background information...

Strap in, there's a lot of background. When Indy officially started playing in the NASL in 2014, there were three distinct levels of professional soccer in the American pyramid at the time. MLS was (is) at the top, holding Div I status, the NASL held Div II status, and USL Pro held Div III status. For simplicity, I'm going to mostly ignore MLS since it has maintained its Div I status, but the other two leagues have dealt with some issues with their status, much of their legal issues with their status is also going to be outside the scope of this article.

Let's first look at the teams in NASL and then in USL Pro during Indy's inaugural 2014 season. In 2014, NASL consisted of 10 teams:

  1. Atlanta Silverbacks 
  2. Carolina Railhawks
  3. FC Edmonton
  4. Fort Lauderdale
  5. Indy Eleven (1st season in league; Carroll Stadium; 10,465 average attendance; Coach Sommer)
  6. Minnesota United
  7. New York Cosmos
  8. Ottawa Fury (1st season in league)
  9. San Antonio Scorpions
  10. Tampa Bay Rowdies
Minnesota United and the New York Cosmos finished 1st and 2nd in the Spring Season and San Antonio and Minnesota finished 1st and 2nd in the Fall Season. As a result, Minnesota and San Antonio had automatic bids into the playoffs and then New York and Fort Lauderdale entered based on their combined records between the two seasons. San Antonio and Fort Lauderdale played in the Soccer Bowl, with San Antonio winning 2-1.

Meanwhile, the 2014 USL Pro consisted of 14 teams:
  1. Arizona United SC
  2. Charleston Battery
  3. Charlotte Eagles
  4. Dayton Dutch Lions
  5. Harrisburg City Islanders
  6. LA Galaxy II (1st season in league)
  7. Oklahoma City Energy FC (1st season in league)
  8. Orange County Blues FC
  9. Orlando City
  10. Pittsburgh Riverhounds
  11. Richmond Kickers
  12. Rochester Rhinos
  13. Sacramento Republic FC (1st season in league)
  14. Wilmington Hammerheads
Harrisburg and Orlando City ultimately competed in the USL Pro Championship game, with Orlando City coming away with the victory. This was also Orlando City's final season in USL as they made the move to MLS the next season. 

When Indy Eleven joined the landscape, there were 24 teams between the Div II and Div III levels. The 2015 season is where things begin to be interesting. Internally, Indy Eleven dismissed Coach Sommer mid-Spring Season and continued with interim Coach Tim Regan for the rest of the year. Externally, NASL added one more team with the Jacksonville Armada. However, USL Pro added 12 more teams, bringing the league to 24 teams after Orlando City's departure to MLS and Dayton Dutch Lions departure to the PDL (additional note, the Charlotte Independence obtained the franchise rights from the Charlotte Eagles). Combined with NASL's 11 teams, the total lower division professional soccer total was dramatically increased to 35 teams. A large part of this expansion was a result of USL Pro adding "2" teams that were directly connected to MLS teams. USL Pro added the following teams that season:
  1. Austin Aztex
  2. Colorado Springs Switchbacks
  3. FC Montreal (MLS II Expansion)
  4. Louisville City FC (obtained the USL franchise rights from Orlando City)
  5. New York Red Bulls II (MLS II Expansion team)
  6. Portland Timbers 2 (MLS II Expansion)
  7. Real Monarchs (MLS II Expansion)
  8. Saint Louis FC
  9. Seattle Sounders 2 (MLS II Expansion)
  10. Toronto FC II (MLS II Expansion)
  11. Tulsa Roughnecks
  12. Vancouver Whitecaps 2 (MLS II Expansion)
The 2016 season continued growth for both leagues as USL Pro added Bethlehem Steel FC, FC Cincinnati, Orlando City B, Rio Grande Valley FC, Swope Park Rangers, and San Antonio FC, but Austin Aztex went on hiatus. NASL growth was much more modest as they added Miami FC, Rayo OKC, & Puerto Rico FC, but lost Atlanta and San Antonio. From an Indy Eleven perspective, they hired Tim Hankinson to be their new manager and drastically adjusted their roster, leading to the above mentioned Spring Season hardware.

The 2017 season is where things get even more interesting. NASL was able to maintain their Div II status, despite having only 8 teams after adding San Francisco Deltas, but losing Minnesota to MLS; Tampa and Ottawa leaving for USL, and Fort Lauderdale and Rayo OKC folding. At the same time, USL was given provisional Div II status, having added Reno FC, Tampa Bay and Ottawa from NASL, but losing FC Montreal. 

So the 2017 American soccer landscape had two separate leagues at the same level in the pyramid that looked to be going in opposite directions. By the time the 2018 season rolled around, NASL were no longer operating, finding themselves in a legal battle arguing against US Soccer's decision to place NASL as a Div III league. Conversely, USL obtained full Div II status, losing the provisional designation, but was not without some team adjustments of its own. Atlanta United 2, Fresno FC, Las Vegas Lights, and Nashville SC were added as expansion teams and Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC moved between the leagues. Orlando City B and Rochester went on hiatus and Vancouver 2 folded.

It's at this point in the Indy Eleven timeline where everything changed. Indy Eleven had joined a new league. They hired their third (non-interim) coach in its history, bringing in Martin Rennie. Home field advantage was shifted from Carroll Stadium to Lucas Oil Stadium. A new roster was created in a very short amount of time, with a large majority of the 2017 roster gone. Indy had some familiar foes as it transitioned into USL, including Louisville City FC, who they had faced regularly while in separate leagues. 

Where are they all now?

With all that extensive (and unnecessary?) background behind us, we can begin the main point of this article. When Indy Eleven began playing, there were 24 teams playing in lower divisions of American professional soccer. Of those 24 teams, there are 6 teams that have ceased operations; 2 are on hiatus; 2 have moved up a tier into MLS, 2 are in USL League One, 1 is in USL League Two, and the final 11 are in USL Championship (3 former NASL; 8 USL Pro). Here's a reminder of those teams and their status:
  1. Atlanta Silverbacks - defunct
  2. Carolina Railhawks - rebranded, moved leagues to USL, and now playing in Div III USL League One
  3. FC Edmonton - defunct
  4. Fort Lauderdale - defunct
  5. Indy Eleven - moved leagues to USL and playing in Div II USL Championship
  6. Minnesota United - moved to MLS
  7. New York Cosmos - NISA, but on hiatus
  8. Ottawa Fury - defunct
  9. San Antonio Scorpions - moved leagues and playing in USL Championship
  10. Tampa Bay Rowdies - moved leagues and playing in USL Championship
  11. Arizona United SC - rebranded to Phoenix Rising and playing in USL Championship
  12. Charleston Battery - playing in USL Championship
  13. Charlotte Eagles - rights transferred to Charlotte Independence, playing in USL Championship
  14. Dayton Dutch Lions - currently playing in USL League Two
  15. Harrisburg City Islanders - rebranded as Penn FC; now defunct
  16. LA Galaxy II - playing in USL Championship
  17. Oklahoma City Energy FC - playing in USL Championship
  18. Orange County Blues FC - playing in USL Championship
  19. Orlando City - moved to MLS
  20. Pittsburgh Riverhounds - playing in USL Championship
  21. Richmond Kickers - playing in USL League One
  22. Rochester Rhinos - indicated to be "on hiatus"
  23. Sacramento Republic FC - playing in USL Championship
  24. Wilmington Hammerheads - disbanded (continues as youth academy)

How do you judge success?

Keeping in mind that list of teams who were around in 2014, but has dramatically changed to date, how do you judge success of a club?

If you judge success as just surviving in lower division soccer in America, then Indy Eleven has navigated the many twists and forks-in-the-road as well as can be expected. They are one of only four NASL teams from that inaugural season that have found a way to stay in at least the second tier of American professional soccer, despite their original league failing. There's something to be said for just surviving and existing that can be commended.

However, if you judge success by winning and championships, then success has been much harder to achieve for Indy Eleven. To be fair, not many in the above list have been able to achieve that level of success either. Of Indy's seven completed seasons, Indy has only made its league's playoffs in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Beyond the 2016 Spring Championship hardware that Indy won with the 3rd tiebreaker with the Cosmos, Indy has made just one Final game (the Soccer Bowl in 2016 in NASL where they lost to New York) and one Conference Final (in 2019 in USL where they lost to Louisville City FC) with 2016 being the only time that Indy has finished in the top two in the table. Comparing that to Louisville City, Indy's now regional rival, during that time, Louisville City FC has been in 6 conference finals and 3 league finals, winning 2 of them. 

If you judge success by stadiums, Indy has continued to lag behind in that area too with Louisville. Indy began talking about the desire/need to have a dedicated soccer specific stadium in 2013 before they had ever kicked a ball. Since that time, they have played at Carroll Stadium from 2014-2017, at Lucas Oil Stadium from 2018-2020, and back to Carroll Stadium for 2021 and the foreseeable future. In 2019, Indy managed to get legislation passed that will facilitate the construction of a new stadium and a multi-purpose development with the expectation that the stadium would be in the range of 20,000 seats as required for entry into MLS, which has been a stated goal in the past from the team and owner Ersal Ozdemir. However, in 2020, CEO Greg Stremlaw indicated that the stadium could actually be built closer to 12,000 seats, with the ability to expand. In 2021, Indy was able to get further legislation passed that extended the deadline needed to build the stadium/development as the 2020 pandemic affected everybody's schedules. To date, no announcement has been made indicating where the stadium
Photo Credit: Louisville City FC
will be located, what it will ultimately look like, how many seats it will hold, nor when it might actually come to fruition. Louisville City's schedule for their soccer specific stadium was much more advanced. After coming into USL in 2015, they announced that they would be constructing a new stadium in April 2017. While they continued playing at Slugger Field, their dedicated soccer specific stadium had its groundbreaking in June 2018. A limited number of fans were able to attend games in the new Lynn Family Stadium in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The official "Grand Opening" of the stadium recently took place in June 2021. 

If you judge success by expansion of your brand, Indy has also lagged behind in this too. Indy had an NPSL team for a season in 2016 as a way to expand and to develop young players. It lasted a season. It has signed Academy players during Coach Rennie's tenure, but with the exception of Josh Penn, none of the others have ever seen any first-team minutes. The club has talked about a women's team since the beginning, but have continually stated that they will be more receptive to forming a women's team once they have their own stadium, claiming that the financial aspect of having a women's team will make more sense at that time. Indy Eleven do now have an academy connection as part of the USL Academy, where, "Indy Eleven will partner with the acclaimed Indiana Fire Academy (IFA) program in establishing squads that will represent Indiana’s Team in the regional USL Academy League (eligible for U-15 through U-19 players) and the national USL Academy Cup (U-13 and U-17 Teams)." On the flip side, Louisville City has a women's NWSL team that began play in 2021 after being announced in 2019 as an expansion team for the league, plus their own Academy teams. 

What does it all mean (A.K.A. What's my point)?

Is Indy Eleven a successful club? Yes. However, if you compare them to their geographical rival in Louisville City FC and what they have been able to achieve, then I would argue "no." Indy falls behind Louisville in all the above categories and in the record books, which I didn't even mention anywhere above. Maybe that is an unfair comparison since by looking at all the background data above, nearly every team that has existed in the lower divisions of soccer in the past decade has been unable to obtain the success that Louisville has managed to achieve. 

Photo Credit: EM Dash
Indy has always said that their goal is to be a top-level organization, regardless of division and that includes Div I. I suppose there are wide ranges of what constitutes "top-level," and there are a lot of things that Indy does right. I've never seen the inner workings of a "top-level" organization, so I don't have anything to compare Indy against. Make not mistake, Indy is my team. I'm XI til I die (or until they cease operations). However, this photo comes from the most recent game against Louisville City and it looks exactly like how you would expect a team that has not had a ton of recent success against another team would react during a run-of-the-mill regular season game. Though the late game fashion of the win probably played more into it than the history, since only a handful of these guys have seen the rivalry in action before the game. Yet, as I witness Indy's struggles this year, despite their first victory in the LIPAFC (Louisville Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest) in some time, I have been wondering what it will take to get them over the hump from "good" to "great." 

For awhile, I thought it was consistency in coaching since the first few years saw three different coaches, but Indy is now into year 4 with Coach Rennie. For full disclosure, I always thought that Coach Hank was unfairly shown the proverbial door after a rash of injuries to the 2017 roster (that was basically the same as the hardware winning 2016 roster) hampered the team's ability to get results . Yet, Coach Rennie's tenure of 4 seasons has produced a first-round exit from the playoffs in 2018 (again, to Louisville), a Conference Final in 2019 (bounced by a late goal in regulation and collapse in Extra Louisville), and a missed playoff in 2020 after a string of poor results late in the season. This year's result TBD, particularly now that Rennie and Indy Eleven "mutually parted ways" on the 16th. Will the departure of Rennie create a "lost" season as Indy searches for a new coach and as the players that Rennie selected adapt to a new coach with a likely different style of play? 

For awhile, I thought it was consistency in players, which Louisville has had during their tenure, but is something that Indy has never had for more than 2 seasons. Scorched Earth rebuilds have been a regular occurrence for Indy, with this year being no exception. 

For awhile, I thought it was talent in players. On paper, Indy have had some of the most talented rosters in their leagues (2014 & 2015 notwithstanding, due to a single player hamstringing the majority of the budget in those years). This year seems to be no exception.

Or maybe it's just really damn hard to win. Players, coaches, injuries, and even your opponents' players, coaches, and injuries factor into what a "successful" season is for any given team. Maybe Louisville has just been able to minimize the negative factors while maximizing the positive factors and have seen success on the field. As a result, it's easier to move forward with some of the other things like a second professional team and a stadium, etc. 

However, I can't eliminate the factor of "punching your weight." Maybe Louisville have decided to be the best they can be in their division, hoping that success can lead to a promotion to the next level at some point in the future. Whereas Indy's periodically stated goal of MLS has kept them from realizing that they likely need success in Div II before they will get the attention of MLS. I'm not convinced that Indy have figured this out yet. You don't have to initially build a 20k seat stadium that has to be maintained when you are averaging in the vicinity of 10k in attendance. Don't talk about what you want to do. Talk about what you are doing. Punch your weight until you can punch harder.

I honestly don't know the answer and I'm just a supporter with a modest platform to say what I think. As a Cubs fan, I know that eventually the factors can fall into your favor and a championship is possible. From what I have seen of Indy Eleven this year, I don't see the factors falling into place to get them to that level this year, but a lot can happen before the season ends.

Indianapolis has a team and not every fan base that was around when Indy Eleven starting playing can say the same thing. After the first couple of seasons, Indy have mostly had a good team and not every club can say that. Indy Eleven front office staff keep saying that a stadium is coming and not every club can say that. When (if) it does, a women's professional team might follow afterwards and not every club can say that is a possibility for them.

I have a local team to support and for that I'm grateful, particularly having gone through this exercise of seeing how much the American lower division professional soccer landscape has changed since Indy Eleven first took the field.

Maybe I'm just ready to see them punch harder.


Hammer said...

Thanks for the history! I’m a new fan and trying to get up to speed! Keep it ip!

Drew said...

No problem. Thanks for reading...particularly this one that is so long. I have been around and writing since the beginning so I would definitely scroll through and read all of the articles about an Eleven stadium. It's like its own little soap opera.