Monday, January 8, 2024

The McAuley era has begun in Indy

I said most of what I wanted to say yesterday about the new coaching hire, even before I knew who the Indy Eleven were pegging to be the new person leading the team. Today, the club announced that Sean McAuley would be taking the reigns on the sideline for the men's first team for the 2024 season. While I hope that I'm wrong, my opinion yesterday wasn't swayed by today's announcement. McAuley has minimal experience as a first-team head coach/manager, with short stints as caretaker/interim manager at Sheffield Wednesday in 2006 and again in 2009, and at Minnesota United for a bit this past season. He was the head coach of Sheffield Wednesday's Academy coach for 6 years, so there's at least that. He was at Sheffield at the same time as inaugural season player Jermaine Johnson, who was with the Sheffield first-team from 2007-2014 before joining Indy midseason.

None of that is enough for me to know how he's going to coach since he's only ever been an assistant at first-team level teams. What's his style, on and off the pitch? 

He has been on staff with Caleb Porter at Portland from 2012 - 2017, then on James O'Connor's staff at Orlando City in 2018 - 2020, before moving to Adrian Heath's staff at Minnesota. So it's not like he hasn't been around a high-level atmosphere, but there are still a lot of unknowns for me. 

After the announcement, the club posted the following about McAuley's mentality.

"I don't buy into the "it's going to take two or three years to turn anything around." As soon as we start the first training session, we'll be working towards winning the championship. It's that simple." - Sean McAuley

I don't think there has been a coach that has come to this club that didn't think the exact same thing. For whatever you thought of them and their style of play, Martin Rennie and Mark Lowry weren't short on confidence on their own ability to coach. Yet, something seems to always happen with this club, and we fall right back to my concerns from yesterday. 

I want to be wrong. I also have concerns. Those don't have to be mutually exclusive thoughts. I'm going to support him as much as possible, but I'm curious to see what happens if things don't start out the way he hopes; from his perspective and from the club's perspective.

Now that he has his own team, let's see what kind of players he and the front office bring in to, hopefully, fill in around the existing 12 players on the roster, so that we can start to see what kind of tactics he is planning to start with this season.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Will it even matter?

Indy Eleven posted on Friday that "A new era starts soon." with an image that implies that an announcement of the new coach will happen in the coming day(s). Since Mark Lowry and the team "parted ways" on November 28th, the club has signed one new player (Aedan Stanley) and the schedule has been released (first game in Oakland on March 9th), as well as the club announcing a  partnership with Grand Park as the club & Ersal's company Keystone Group will take over the operation and management of the facility, a partnership with CareSource, and a partnership to produce a new Indy Eleven-themed beer with Metazoa Taproom. In a vacuum, that's a lot of things going on with the club/team.

However, while Indy fans have waited (more or less) patiently, all the teams around them have been announcing player signings because they already have a coach in place and are building towards the season in a non-rushing fashion. The season has the same feeling to me as the transition from Tim Hankinson in 2017 to Martin Rennie in 2018. Hankinson was announced as leaving on November 28th, 2017. When Rennie was announced on January 16th, 2018, there were just a few weeks to put together a team to his liking before spring training began. As I previously mentioned in my article about Lowry's departure (ironically also occurring on November 28th), Rennie completely cleaned house of the 2017 roster, returning just three players; Ring, Braun, & Speas. Of that Rennie 2018 thrown-together-late roster, only 8 players survived to continue with Rennie in the 2019 season; Speas, Ouimette, Farr, Ayoze, Starikov, Pasher, Watson, & Matern. Rennie also released several players that were in contract to be in Indy during the 2018 season, leaving them struggling to find teams at the last minute. Turnover was a major part of those early Rennie days, and I can only hope that the new 2024 season coach does not follow that same pattern with the 12 players that are currently signed to the roster.

More to the point of this article, though, will it even matter? Will it even matter who is announced as the new coach?

I don't know who the incoming coach is going to be, despite some rumors and some guesses. However, I don't know that it will even matter. I fully expect this club, for the men's first team, to be in this exact same position in a year or two. 

Hankinson was a good coach whose second season was derailed by injuries. Though to be fair, he might have also lost the locker room a bit.

Rennie was a good coach whose teams account for 1/2 of Indy's playoff appearances, and seemingly had reached a point where he had enough. Spectacularly.

Lowry was an excellent coach, with proven success in the USL. For a number of factors, his first season in 2022 didn't go as planned. Indy struggled in the early part of the 2023 season, predominantly due to injuries and suspensions, but as players became healthy, Indy finished the last 17 games of the season (i.e., the second half of the season) with a 8W-5D-4L record, with a +8 goal differential in that span. The four losses were to Louisville, Memphis, New Mexico, and RGV (3 or the 4 were playoff teams, without RGV just narrowly missing). In the second half of the season, Indy averaged 1.70 points per game, getting points nearly 60% of the time. The 3-nil win late in the season at home against Detroit looked like the best Indy had played all season, and looked exactly like how a Mark Lowry team typically wants to play. They followed up that performance a couple of games later with a dominating performance in the first half of the San Antonio game with some of the most fluid, beautiful soccer before the game went off the rails after Asante's second yellow card put the team down a man. 

The team, and the way they were playing at the end of the year, was exactly what I expected to see from a Mark Lowry coached team. The team made progress throughout the year and managed to make the playoffs despite the early season injuries and suspensions. The team looked like it was building towards something sustainable, with a historically winning coach who, every indication to me during the seasons, liked being in Indianapolis.

Yet, we find ourselves in the early weeks of January, still waiting for the official announcement of a new coach so that we can then hear about new players, and then begin thinking how the season is going to progress. New players that history has told us time after time are going to take time to gel together. So the 2024 season could likely be marginal, and bad at worst, and given the late roster build, will likely start off rough. Maybe Indy makes the playoffs. Maybe they don't. Either way, the coach almost always gets a pass for the first season because they "inherited" some of the roster, despite the fact that the players that this coach will be inheriting from the 2023 season are some of the best players in the league. So unless things go absolutely horribly with a missed playoffs and losing the locker room, the new coach will get a second season to bring in some other players, and success at that point will be unknown. 

Either way, will it even matter?

Martin Rennie is the longest tenured coach for Indy with 99 official games (+1 friendly), which was 3 seasons + 8 games of the fourth season, but really only amounted to 2.75 seasons of actual games due to the shortened 2020 season. Hankinson coached 70 games across all competitions (2 seasons), Lowry coached 72 games (2 seasons). The history of this club has shown that two seasons of failure (or less) and they're definitely headed somewhere else and two-ish seasons of success and they're probably still headed somewhere else, because that has been the club's method of operation. I can't envision the club hiring a coach that will suddenly have full control over roster selection capable of having immediate success, who will then also stick around for very long. I think Lowry might have been that guy in 2024 and beyond, but that ship has sailed, with reports out that he is headed to Salt Lake City to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, Real Salt Lake's MLS Next Pro team. 

Every single one of those three coaches had some level of success during their tenure and yet they, or the club, felt like it wasn't a good fit to continue any further. I have thoughts and theories about why (I described one of those imaginary scenarios in my article about Lowry's departure, but I can imagine more), and all of those thoughts and theories lead me to wonder if it will even matter who the next coach is when it's finally announced. I just don't see the coaching carrousel trend changing here in Indy in the foreseeable future. 

Whomever gets announced soon, I think the "new era" is going to continue to look significantly like the "past eras."