The early days
It became official at the beginning of 2013. Indiana would once again have a professional soccer team in the upper tier of American soccer. The time was right. Soccer had grown in popularity all over the country, including the Midwest. The reasons were multifactorial – increased immigrant populations, growth in popularity of European soccer due to more TV coverage, and the coming-of-age of a generation that had played youth soccer a decade earlier.
Therefore, the adage of “The World’s game, Indiana’s team” seemed rather apt. Lead by owner Ersal Ozdemir, GM Peter Wilt and a talented albeit inexperienced coach in Juergen Sommer, Indy XI looked well-placed to consolidate a stable future in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Talk to any fan of soccer, and they’ll tell you the recipe for success, in terms of playing personnel, is “a little bit of youth, a little bit of experience”. The club, rightfully, attempted this approach. During the first two seasons, the club invested in a mix of experience (Kristian Nicht, Mike Ambersley Kleberson) and youth (Dylan Mares, Marco Franco, and Jaime Frias, for example). Yet, while Indy XI lead the league in attendance, on the pitch we were flirting with bottom-place
Oh no, we suck again
The problems seemed to be psychological, as much as tactical. Conceding late goals, an inability to innovate tactically, defensive lapses, a propensity for long-ball football were landmarks of the Juergen Sommer era, and he was unsurprisingly let go before the fall season of 2015. His assistant, Tim Regan took over as interim coach, and many of the same issues continued to manifest.
In August 2015, Regan realized what he was up against. An absolute demolition by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers demonstrated some of the defensive problems in the team – poor set piece marking, full-backs being played out of position and goalkeeping errors. The most egregious issue, however, was the desire to play the offside trap, while having a disjointed defensive line suffering from a blatant lack of pace. Regan’s team improved after that early embarrassment, buoyed by an excellent personnel decision that Regan alone deserves massive credit for.
Don Smart, a player who had been largely bit-part under Sommer, suddenly was being played from the start. In spite of his lack of experience as head coach, Regan recognized that he had a game-changer in the #7 shirt. Smart would have a terrific fall season, and was arguably the best-attacking player at the club under Regan. Yet, the club finished 9th overall once more.
Who will steady the ship?
Going into their third season, the club were at a crossroads. Players were out of contract, the club did not have a permanent manager and reports were emerging that Chicago was setting up an NASL team – which unofficially meant saying goodbye to our beloved Peter Wilt. To make matters worse, Ottawa Fury, a team that started at the same time Indy XI had, experienced an excellent 2nd season. This disparity underlined the fact that Indy XI was not producing on the pitch, and that the “new club” excuse was running out. Many (including this author) wanted Indy to move for a high-profile coach in Gunter Kronsteiner or Thomas Rongen, and reports are that at least one of them was approached. Instead, the club went a different direction. Tim Hankinson, a well-traveled coach was appointed in December 2015.
In his first meeting with members of the press and the Brickyard Battalion, coach Hankinson seduced everyone around him with his succinct, articulate yet brutally honest thoughts on the team; echoing what a lot of supporters had been thinking, but were very fearful to say. Aaron Gunyon, one of many excellent grassroots writers covering Indy XI, sat down with him and learned Hankinson’s ideas for the team. Here’s the gist of that conversation – the players were not up to snuff, and the team needed a new playing identity.
Is history about to repeat itself?
What came next was unexpected. Hankinson stripped the team in its entirety. The departures of Kleberson and Kristian Nicht were expected. Letting go of Indy’s best defender and Honduran national team stalwart, Erick Norales, was not. The ruthlessness of the era under Hankinson was here, and this author, for one, was not happy about it.
Concerns about Hankinson came from conversations I had with people involved with Salgaocar FC in India. When Hankinson took over from Peter Vales at Salgaocar, much was expected of Hankinson – the first American coach in Indian football – to help build the club. Salgaocar were relative newcomers in the league and were one of 4 professional clubs in the southwestern party-heavy-town of Goa. Foreshadowing what he would do at Indy XI, Hankinson felt that many first team players were not good enough. He immediately signed about half of a team, including an Indian-American forward named Avneet Shergill and Mandjou Keita – a Guinean international who was deployed in a creative attacking midfielder role. Shergill injured himself soon after, and the team struggled in spite of Keita’s limited success. There were some highlights – like a win against Mohun Bagan (ostensibly the Real Madrid of Indian football), but Hankinson was fired within 7 months of taking over. Behind the scenes, it was suggested that the players were unhappy with his draconian demands – in particular in regards to cardiovascular training.
In retrospect, those reports should have been as much an indictment of the poor training levels of Indian footballers as Hankinson’s intransigence. It’s an interesting anecdote that Salgaocar went on to have a very successful season after Hankinson left. Was it because he was gone, or because of a framework that he laid down which was inherited by his successor, Karim Bencherifa? We will never know. But, based on the fact that Hankinson was stripping Indy XI of all my favorite players, I assumed XI were in serious trouble.
I could not have been more wrong.
What Timmy Did
Hankinson essentially laughed at the aforementioned adage of “bit of youth, bit of experience” and with the help of the mad genius, Peter Wilt, assembled a very ‘experienced’ team; a euphemism for ‘oldest team in the league’. From the very first pre-season game, against Butler University, it was clear what Hankinson’s vision was for this team – a 4-2-3-1 with two true holding midfielders. While Brad Ring had been a stalwart of the previous season, Hankinson signed Nicki Patterson – a combative, Scottish midfielder from Ottawa Fury.
The Patterson-Ring fulcrum is emblematic of the new Indy XI – strong, systematic and sedulous. Colin Falvey – also signed from Ottawa Fury – took over as captain and began a strong partnership with Greg Janicki and veteran goalkeeper Jon Busch. Janicki’s first season had been one to forget, but, under the tutelage of Hankinson, the Michigan-born defender has become arguably the best defender in the league. Indy XI now plays a deep-lying defense which gets the best out of Janicki and Falvey, but allows the involvement of full-backs on the counter attack. The power of Lovel Palmer on the right, and the guile of Nemanja Vukovic on the left are assets both offensively as well as defensively.
In forward positions, Don Smart has continued his good form when he is fit. But, the revelation of this season has been the link-up play between Eamon Zayed and Justin Braun. While Zayed is a clinical finisher, the movement of Justin Braun unlocks defenses. A pretty typical offensive play involves a ball out of defense or midfield being played to Justin Braun occupying a position on the left or the right wing; his movement often dragging a central defender out of position. This often leaves Zayed one against two with a fullback and a central defender. Given his exceptional reading of the game and anticipation, it’s a battle that Zayed tends to win.
Spring is over, are we about to fall?
My next unfounded worry was that Indy XI would stagnate after a very successful spring season. I was wrong again.
Even though Indy Eleven were unbeaten through the spring season, Hankinson continued to build his team. Incorporating the well-traveled Guinean forward, Souleymane Youla into a refigured forward line, as well as bringing in a Rolls Royce midfielder in the once el tri leader, Gerado Torrado.
During a game in July, Minnesota United lay down the framework for beating Indy Eleven. Instead of man-marking Zayed – something most other teams had tried – Minnesota United cut off the supply to Braun and it rendered the offense rather impotent. Hankinson showed his tactical nous as he soon incorporated a ‘new’ tactical ploy – incessant crossing. Using the width provided by the overlapping fullbacks, the present iteration is able to create from wide areas with Torrado pulling the strings from the apex of a wide diamond formation – with the every reliable Brad Ring in the defensive midfield role.
This ability to play different tactical styles is an incredible upgrade to Indy XI of the last two seasons – which was heavily reliant on absorbing pressure and playing long balls to the forward three. Hankinson’s innovation and implementation have turned Indy XI into a formidable force in the NASL.
Beyond the tactical innovation and the playing personnel, the biggest way Hankinson has improved the squad is instilling self-belief into this team. Gone are the days when Indy XI gave up late goals and looked heavily reliant on Kristian Nicht or Erick Norales for leadership. This squad has leaders all over the pitch, and it seems that the squad is only fearful of one thing – Hankinson’s lack of patience for poor performances on the pitch.
What does the future hold? Perhaps a successful playoff tournament in November. But, beyond that? Keeping Eamon Zayed will be difficult, as will hoping for another full season from an aging squad. Having lost the beautiful mind of Peter Wilt to the unnamed Chicago NASL team, the club needs to replace him with a technical director to match his immense knowledge within the game. The club also has to address infrastructural issues – the stadium being the biggest one.
So, yeah, everything off the pitch isn’t perfect. And, even on the pitch itself, the team will need to improve their rather average away form. But, Tim Hankinson deserves all the credit in the world for giving the Brickyard Battalion what their loyal support deserves – a team they can be proud of. His mannerisms may make him seem like the crazy uncle you were terrified of as a kid. But, just like that crazy uncle, you eventually realize that behind the white hair, the intense eyes and the turbulent visage, there is a wisdom drawn from vivid and varied experiences. And, as time goes on, and you see him over and over again, you realize that you’re the one who was crazy – for having doubted him.
Yes, I was wrong about Tim Hankinson the whole time. And, I couldn’t be happier to admit that.