It has been a little more than a year since I first met Coach Hankinson in the Tomlinson Taproom on the second floor of the historic Indy City Market. At that time he was Indy Eleven´s newly appointed head coach and it seems like a lifetime ago. So much has changed for the team since his arrival that I wont list it all here, but I will note the immediate positive impact he has had on the community and the culture of soccer here in this town. For me it´s very difficult to identify the future without exploring the past. We can look back for clues to see how the next important months play out.
Hankinson proudly helped the Eleven hoist their first piece of hardware last Spring and he took the #1 seeded Cosmos to penalties in the Championship game. That Cosmos team was best in the league for goals scored and yet they had accumulated none on November 13th. Even with that record setting success, there were lulls and questions about the teams form. We can learn from that too.
¨As the season went on, there was a five game streak in the Fall where we didn´t lose every game, but we were not playing that well, we were not looking dangerous, we were not scoring...At that particular juncture we needed more ways than were finding to score goals. Different ways. In the first half of the year we were -get it wide-cross it in- and hope the ball falls our way. As the season went on, that wasn´t enough to count of for goals. So we felt we needed a player like Sinisa that brought different ideas-found different angles-could feed strikers from a central position.¨
Perhaps I should also point out some of my reservations after that first handshake and the first conversation I had with Coach. I heard his ideas about players and formations and I have to admit that something stuck out for me in a negative way. Greg Janicki was coming back and I couldn´t believe it. Greg´s 2015 wasn´t that strong. He certainly didn´t score four goals. I told coach about that last week. I told him I was critical of that decision to bring Greg back and that I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong. It was a difficult moment of honesty for me. I questioned Coach. Now I will never make the team. But Janicki did make the team last year and he earned his time in spite of my ignorance.
¨Because I had a couple years with Greg, I knew what he was capable of...When I first came in, I was handed a roster with three marks listed next to each name. One was ¨Definitely Keep¨. One was ¨Letś Discuss¨. This is a maybe and the other one was ¨Definitely Cut¨. Greg was on the definitely cut list. I saw that and I needed to look at some video and see where has his game had gone that he would be so far down the list that basically says, ¨You´re not coming back¨. What I recognized is that Greg is at his best when he is man marking...And I recognized what type of player Greg needed to have next to him in order to be successful...A central defender that can verbalize and organize and correct...And that was Colin [Falvey] and that allowed Greg to have a great year.¨
Enjoy retirement Greg and I am sorry for doubting you. Coach´s answer gave me some real confidence now I wanted to talk to him about some of Indy Eleven´s original roster. I wanted to know about his thoughts on the players that survived the great roster scrubbing of 2016 and had pushed themselves out onto the pitch. I phrased this very carefully and I asked about his ¨late approval" of Dylan Mares and Don Smart. They were clearly outside and looking in at the start of the last season. Coach answered like he has given this a lot of thought in recent days. Keep in mind that some of the players mentioned here are free agents that were discussed in Part 1. They are still some of my favorite players.
¨I´d also add Marco Franco¨
Of course Marco Franco. I can´t believe I forgot. Now pay attention here because there is a quote within a quote. Hank recounts a conversation he had with our young RB.
¨Because Marco was a starter before I got here...When Lovell had an injury I told Marco,
¨The fact is you never lost the position, it was taken from you-by me as the coach-to put a different player in that spot. So now is your opportunity to show that you never should have been replaced and that you are a top class right back.¨
And I think that Marco proved that. I think with Dylan and Don, they existed in this team as pretty much automatic starters or go-to players before, but remember if you look at the make-up of the squad, that it was a young team. They probably didnt feel challenged in fighting for their positions because of the way that roster was made up. We brought in basically-we signed 12 new starters to fill 11 spots believing that some of the guys who were playing before would give us better quality bench play. There were some players like Dylan and Don that took this on as a challenge. They had to raise their game which they did. As we saw what they were now bringing to the field, they started to establish themselves.¨
Coach acknowledged that while it is difficult to know the best way to deploy Don, either as a starter or a sub, the Jamaican had a breakout year.
Hard shift. Going forward. What areas of the pitch need addressing? Let´ś talk 2017! Read carefully for clues as to who might be in or out. I´ll tell you what I noticed right away.
¨Well...You know when we first started out-again going back to free agency-we had to see what players we were going to lose and what players were we going to cut away. We had to look at the lineup and say where do we need to focus our search? I think obviously Greg presents the #1 priority. We do have a solution for that in Lovell Palmer. If you remember that Lovell played a number of games centrally and I think surprised everyone at how well he did it so we do have an option there but we are going to continue to look for an additional starting center back that is of starting quality.¨
¨I think the left midfield. It´s hard to find a natural left-footer. We don´t know whether Duke [Lacroix] or Dylan will return which were our two options on that side of the park. We will focus on making sure that we have an option there.¨
¨Up top-you always like to-I mean obviously Justin [Braun] and Eamon [Zayed] formed a great partnership, but we want them to be challenged. We want to push them. Gaining a couple more assets at the forward position that we would hope could score goals.¨
Real talk. While Coach Hankinson is always quick to point out that the Cosmos salary was triple that of the Indy Eleven last year-there will be cost cutting in version 3.0 of the NASL. The rampant league spending was out of control and Indy Eleven took part alongside several others. Players we know and love will not be affordable in 2017 and making those tough choices is good for the longevity of a young team in a young league. More affordable players may stick around even though they are destined to fill a bench role.
¨When the NASL started to have concerns as to its stability, I know that all of the ownerships in the league started to take a closer look at the business plan and that means making cuts. Those are the realities of any business-to try to get to a point of breaking even and profitability. We are not there yet. Maybe some of the level of players that I would like to pursue I have to make some adjustments with.¨
Finding players eager to play is never a problem. Peter Wilt once described the talent pool, to me, as ¨virtually limitless.¨ I think it´s important to discover young or new players and develop them for the NASL. While assembling a journeyman squad can be fun, it is certainly not the most cost effective. I think this may have been a part of NASL 2.0ś downfall and something to really keep an eye on as we track the success of the league going forward. Can coaches, owners and teams discover young and blossoming talent at a cost that is measured and practical.
I doń´t know if this is the reason, but Hankinson has already been on a scouting trip to Mexico. Remember. I mentioned it in Part 1.
¨I´ve been down to Mexico. To Puebla. I actually spent 3 days with Torrado looking at 40 free agents. In Mexico they have a new roster rule that they are allowed 10 international players per roster so there are a lot of Mexican nationalized players that are now free because there is just not enough room.¨
This offseason has been tumultuous at times, but I think the hard part is over. The fun part is just beginning. Indy Eleven will be making a few roster announcements in the next few hours, but I think the surprise or interest from these immediate announcements will be due to the departures rather than any new arrivals. Be prepared to wish some people well.
Coach Gets into town in a couple weeks. He will be Skyping with Tim Regan and Jeff Belskus in the meantime. These next few days are going to go pretty fast considering how much business was held up and back logged.
¨We will continue to look and search and hope to kick off preseason on February 15th!¨
It is 2017! It is a new year and a new league. I am looking forward to what this season can and will be. I am still not sure if four teams make the playoffs though.