Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Could Indy Eleven's inaugural season been different?

If it's not obvious, I didn't go to school to be a journalist. Yet, in my now 10th season of writing about soccer and Indy Eleven on this site, I've learned a few things about "on record," "on background," and definitely a lot about "off record" conversations. Maybe more importantly than that, I've learned that if you act professionally, people will treat you professionally. I might just be a bozo blogger, but the relationships I've created over the years means that some people value the things that I say and, periodically, tell this bozo blogger things that are "on record," and that are pretty damn cool.

About two years ago, I received an email from Peter Wilt that said that Gonzalo Pineda's hiring by Atlanta United reminded him of how close Indy was to signing him for Indy Eleven's inaugural 2014 roster. The subsequent conversations were deemed to be "off record" at that time, but Peter has decided that being into the tenth season of Indy Eleven means that we've reached the statute of limitations on the discussions, and I can now share with you what he shared with me. 

Pineda's Wikipedia page indicates that "In 2013, after his loan deal expired, he went into free agency after not finding a new club. Following his release, Pineda joined Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer on a preseason trial. He signed with the club on March 5, 2014." Obviously, that timeline is right in line with when Indy was looking to fill out their inaugural roster. 

Peter shared with me that in addition to Pineda, there were 10 other high profile players that the club was in advanced negotiations with leading up to, and during, the 2014 season that ultimately didn't sign for various reasons. Peter also readily admitted that some of the players on this list were probably using Indy as leverage, and that Indy couldn't have afforded nor signed all of them due to salary and international spot availability issues, but the fact that the players were at least in conversation with Indy sets off all kinds of "what if?" scenarios for me.

The 11-person list includes 10 international players, and the NASL rules only allowed 7 on the roster, so at most six of them could have been signed since Nicht was already signed. As Peter conveyed to me, signing the players on this list would have most assuredly meant that Kleberson wasn't on the roster, as well as no Norales, or Pena, or Jhulliam, or Jermaine Johnson. Those last three were late season additions to try and shore up the roster as the season continued to progress through its home winless streak. Would any of the other players been enough to turn the tide differently than the signed players? The Magic 8 Ball would certainly respond with a "Reply hazy, try again," and we would also have been deprived of this banger from Pena.

So who were all these players? Here's the list and how Peter described each of them (circa 2014):

I know! That list is crazy. If the list didn't come to me from Peter Wilt, I would have said that it was a wish list from a supporter. Now we can see what Peter meant about how the team could have never been able to afford all of them. 

Peter shared that the budget for that 2014 team was $1.2M, with Kleberson eating around $180k of that budget (and probably up to $200k with benefits). It was always fairly well known that Kleberson was a significant portion of that year's (and 2015's) budget, but just over 15% of the team's budget was a hefty amount. If you assume $1M remaining between the other 29 players on the 2014 roster meant that the rest of the roster was making $34.5k, on average, per person. That's quite a difference.

Peter also told me that the team was mostly working with 8 months contracts, and the guys on the list would have been making roughly the same kind of salary as Kleberson. For numbers, if you assume six of them would have been signed due to the international players rule, that would have added another $1.1M to the original $1.2M budget, which would have been a healthy ask of a fledgling club in its first year of existence. 

Peter expects that, at best, the team could have signed seven of the players:

  1. Simao or Alesandro Del Piero instead of Kleberson
  2. Joan Capdevila or Carlos Marchena
  3. Jorge Claros
  4. Rony Martinez, Victor Nunez, or Javier Chevanton instead of Jhulliam
  5. Gonzalo Pineda
  6. Lionel Ainsworth - instead of JJ
  7. Eriq Zavaleta

However, Peter described Simao and Del Piero as "marquee player" candidates who would have been signed instead of Kleberson, but the salary would have been approximately the same. He also indicated that Martinez, Nunez and Chevanton were fall season forward candidates before the team signed Jhulliam. Ainsworth was close to signing before the deal fell through, and Jermaine Johnson was the player that the team signed instead. "Pineda and Claros were preseason negotiations that were VERY close to being finalized. We had Claros in our conference room in March." 

I asked Peter what happened with those guys and why they weren't signed. Peter indicated that: 

"All of those names ultimately declined our offers for what they deemed better opportunities. Some of the decisions were simply financial, while others were family or personal decisions. Convincing international stars to relocate to a lower division team in the American Midwest is not always easy. Ersal and Juergen were very, very supportive of the efforts to sign these players as were Tom Dunmore and Tian Liang in creating the pitch piece we used. We succeeded with Kleberson, which did not work out on the playing side. I wish at least a couple of the others would have worked out. We also made a good run at DaMarcus (Beasley) for the 2014 fall season with a creative eight year offer (four years playing and four years TBD playing/other roles). But that's another story for another day!"

It's interesting to think about the guys that did get signed in place of the guys on the list. Jermaine Johnson didn't play the last few games of the season, but scored twice in his time in Indy. As a reminder, Kleberson also didn't play the last few games because he ruptured his Achilles tendon, and then played in just one more game in an Indy uniform. In 2015, Kleberson played a total of 7 minutes at the end of the game of the final game of the season, and spent the season as an assistant coach (and as head coach for a game when interim head coach Tim Reagan was suspended due to a red card). So he occupied $400k of the team's player salary budget for the two seasons he was here, but played less than a season's worth of games. He scored 8 goals that first season, but 5 of those were from the penalty spot. Could Simao and Del Piero have stayed healthier than Kleberson? Could Ainsworth have provided more than two goals and would he have signed for more than the half season that Johnson was here? 

Peter shared with me one of the pitch packets he mentioned above that was given to Del Piero to describe the BYB, the team, the plans for an 18,500-seat multi-purpose venue, and the club's vision for him that indicated he would be signed for "a 5.5-year contract ... to be the club's franchise player and begin a new era in NASL as its brightest Star." Indy was looking long-term with some of these players. Based upon what we've seen with players' frequent departures from Indy Eleven in far less time than 5 years, it makes the idea of a 5+ year contract seem like a false promise, but I'm sure Indy wanted to give him that kind of contract. I seriously doubt that any of Indy's actual signings were offered more than a 2-year contract. 

That first season's roster has created some of the club's legends in Dylan Mares, Don Smart, and Brad Ring (to name just a few), and created some of the historic moments in the club (raise your hand if you remember the field storming in the fall of 2014 after the Minnesota game and the first home win?), but could a few more of those players been enough to push Indy to a better start than they had the first year? Could that talent have prevented the need for the field storming altogether? Could the world-class talent of that list been enough to overcome Coach Sommer's coaching inexperience or would that list's experience only exacerbated his inexperience at the professional level? 

For a long time, I have said that people like Peter have helped me learn about the business side of the soccer business that I never knew when I was just a player. In fact, Peter might be the single most helpful in helping me with that side of things. He's forgotten more than I will ever know, but I'm glad he values my contributions to the club's history enough to share these kinds of things with me over the years.

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