After all the turmoil we have seen unfold in recent days, I cannot help but think of a line from a classic Richard Pryor movie
"Everybody go back to work...Because this is a business, and we're in the business of being in business and we're doing business and nobody's business...Do it! Business. Good! I want business done...Just the way it should be!" - Monty Brewster - Brewster's Millions
Although, the safety of the Indy Eleven may never have truly been in doubt, there were many puzzle pieces out of place that were in desperate need of sorting. Roster news seems irrelevant without a team or a league to play in, but we have that now. And so we get down to the proper business of silly season. Roster spots, player evaluation, and on-field changes can now be freely discussed.
I don't mean to infer that the team hasn't been hard at work. The truth is that many people have been hard at work behind the scenes, but now is the time that things will start to make more sense and we are going to see more movement with the tricky bit out of the way. Without going completely into the madness that was USSF sanctioning, it is important to understand that the very nature of player contract business was hindered greatly by the lengthy ordeal.
Based on conversations that I have had with team personnel and reports (read: "sourced" rumors) from around the league, I surmise that there was legitimate uncertainty about what league Indy would play in. Contracts written for one league would become null and void for another. I point to this as the greatest clue that Indy Eleven gave serious thought about an existence outside of the NASL.
Consider how difficult it might be to sign players if you are unable to definitively state which league they might play in. Consider what operating budget would be required as business models for the two current division 2's are quite different. The players would have to be getting anxious at this point. I am sure there are "handshake" deals in place for many teams across many leagues, but I only really care about the one.
So I spoke with Indy Eleven Head Coach Tim Hankinson recently and he let me in on what he had been working on so far in the offseason. I am not sure he even took much of a break from the game after Indy's heartbreaker in New York. I led rather informally with a "what have you been up to?" and he almost instantly was into his day-to-day and week-to-week with Assistant Coach Tim Regan. They Skype apparently, and they evaluate players, but I was taken aback because I really wanted Tim to tell me he had gone skiing in the Alps with former Indy Eleven goalkeeper Kristian Nicht.
But he had been spending time with his family in San Antonio. He had also already made a trip to Mexico although that may have been more business than pleasure but I am getting ahead. Hank started dropping bombs on me pretty early. This next quote was 40 seconds into our conversation.
"Immediately, we had to address free agency. There are a number of players that were at the end of a contract. Dylan Mares, Duke, Brad Ring, Marco Franco, Daniel Keller. Those right there were the focus from the start. I think we will retain some of them. I think we will loose two or three of them. Not by our choice. It's just based on-other teams may have offered a bigger contract/longer-term than we were in a position to do..."
Coach Hankinson has been around the business for a while and he knows that a successful roster like the one he just had will attract attention from around the league. I hadn't said anything, but I think Hankinson knew I took this news pretty hard. Losing two or three of this bunch? These are some of my favorite players, and Coach continued unprompted.
"...There are going to be teams circling like vultures looking to pick you apart-so to speak-so we have been fighting hard to make sure we keep as much of our core as possible."
You get 'em, Hank! You bring back our boys. Keep in mind I din't say any of that. I am pretty mousy around Coach. I made a joke once after the USOC match in Chicago. The look I got in the tunnel just outside the locker room put knots in my stomach and I am much more professional now. I drink less before interviews.
When I started my phone call with Indy Eleven's winningest coach, I had only a handful of questions written down and in this case it was not due to a lack of preparation. It was by design. Coach is very easy to interview. He has a lot to say and he is confident while saying it. Our conversation drifted from the joy of the "Mircacle at the Mike" to coming up short after 120 minutes of championship play. What I find the most impressive about our white-haired wonder boy is his passion for the game. What sets him apart and what sets him up for success may be his standards and a desire to continually improve. Coach Hankinson is very upfront about his expectations for the future of this team.
"It was a season of achievements and that sets the standard for season ahead. Where the fans had no expectations last year, this year, anything less than winning the Spring or Fall or making the playoffs-You know we will feel that hunger from the fans to repeat the things we did last year and in a second year it's that much harder. You know you enter the Spring last year and probably our first five or six opponents had very little concern probably when looking at our name on their schedule. This year we intend to set very high standards and teams will be aware of that...Every coach in the league will talk about 'Let's be the first team in over a year to knock Indy off their winning streak at the Mike."
I tried to start a follow up question and then Hankinson blasted me and jarred me to attention with a common expression that I have no doubt is his motto for this offseason.
"No resting on our laurels. We've gotta have a great preseason. We've gotta be ready for it."
Again with the passion, I got a little rattled and reverted to what I felt was my worst pre-written question. I couldn't help it. Coach was talking about the future and for some reason I wanted to go back in time. I asked him what he had learned from last year and he went through some of the daily thought processes that impacted the lineups we saw all season. It's the stuff that I find the most fascinating. Coach had bailed me out and the interview was back on track.
"I think flexibility is important because the group is always changing...There are injuries. There are card accumulations. There are times that individual players are on their game and finding a great zone where we can count on what they can produce and then there are times that same player goes through a bit of a drop in performance. It's important that the ingredients-the components of the game that have to be spot on in order to win-have to do with finding that group of players-weekly- that are on their game and work well together. You know when we started the Spring Season a player like Sinisa had not had a good preseason and he had injuries. And so we had to look and say what group or player seem like they are on their game and how can we play and give them the best chance to win?"