The upcoming season will be a crucial one for Indy Eleven and their manager.
2018 will always be looked at by Indy Eleven fans as “thank goodness, we made it.” With a rushed roster, a rushed preseason, a seismic shift in systems and coaching, the team made it out alright despite a thumping by Louisville City in the playoffs. 2019 continued on that path with raised expectations from 2018, Manager Martin Rennie and Co. went out and bettered themselves from 2018, not only providing positive immediate results but also planting seeds for the future.
Now with 2019 in the rearview mirror, Martin Rennie enters 2020 with a fresh contract with a “couple of years” on it and something that not many lower league teams can say they have year to year and something that Indy Eleven fans haven’t seen in quite some time in an offseason: stability.
A number of returnees have been announced so far in the offseason:
Goalkeeper: Jordan Farr, Evan Newton
Defender: Ayoze, Paddy Barrett, Neveal Hackshaw, Karl Ouimette
Midfielder: Tyler Gibson, Kenney Walker, Matt Watson
Forward: Ilija Ilic
The players brought in so far are a deep core that easily is able to build around.
Let’s address the elephant in the room.
Obviously, with Farr and Newton returning, the question for the entire offseason will be who do you put in the goal for the first game? Farr exceeded expectations by stepping in for the injured Newton, held the team together defensively, was a quality leader in a key time for the team, and helped propel Indy Eleven a few moves away from a championship game. Newton, however, was brought in to be “the guy.” It’s understood that almost all the returners were brought back in the second year of a two year deal so likely that’s why both Farr and Newton were brought back.
Farr’s play after Newton would go out injured kept the team together and led to many fans asking for a switch in 2020 between the sticks. Farr, who had a wildly successful collegiate career, hadn’t played for Indy Eleven since joining the team in 2018. His call to arms inspired fans and his personality away from the field in promotion videos, shouting with a megaphone for fans to buy tickets, shooting pregame videos for the Brickyard Battalion’s pre-game tweets, made him extremely easy to like and respect.
While Farr deserves to get a look at a starting role with Indy Eleven in 2020, Evan Newton has been invested in since coming in from FC Cincinnati. Newton’s statistics stacked up with many of the league leaders and his leadership qualities, while not as tangible and noticeable as Farr’s, were still as crucial in the beginning of the season as Farr’s were late in the year.
Ideally, Farr’s time in 2019 earns him US Open Cup time and perhaps minor rotation at different points in the year. Newton has a lot of questions to answer, both physically and mentally as it seemed that at times the game was beating him more often than the opposing strikers scoring on him. Whatever ends up happening in 2020, Farr should get a look either by Indy Eleven or another team for a starting role as he’s more than earned it.
The core of the defensive back three has returned for Indy Eleven. We will see, likely, Neveal Hackshaw, Paddy Barrett, and Karl Ouimette return to the backline of Indiana’s team as well as the return of Ayoze and new signing Conner Antley (more on him shortly). Indy Eleven look to retain one of the league’s statistical best defenses from 2019 and put their worries in goal scoring.
Recently on an episode of 3 Honest Lads with Devon Kerr and Tyler Terens,who are both broadcasters for USL Championship, Mike Watts, who is also a broadcaster for the league, talked about Martin Rennie and how Rennie let out a little nugget on the fact that “he is still learning the proper way for the three at the back system.”
That statement would make people nervous that the team is playing a system that the head coach doesn’t know fully, the results of 2019 defensively proved that things can only go up as time progresses and the players involved become more technically savvy with things involved with the tactics.
Midfield and Attack
Many would probably say that while used as a holding midfield pair, Kenney Walker and Tyler Gibson had an average season. The ability for Gibson to not only start and play all but six minutes of the season, to create that chemistry both defensively and offensively, was the key to the growth of the midfield. With the addition of Drew Connor and the flashing forward of the wingbacks, Eleven were able to create a fluid system that was crucial in maintaining pockets and not losing the midfield. Returning back Walker, Gibson, and the leadership of Matt Watson will retain the power the midfield had in 2019 and allow for key players to be sprinkled in for 2020.
Attack wise, things are still needing to be flushed out. Indy Eleven found success with the pair of Dane Kelly and Tyler Pasher. Pasher had an above-average year while Kelly, who could have had 100 goals this season, was always behind on what fans expected of him.
Kelly is an interesting case study for the league and its quality over the years. Obviously, as the all-time leader in goals scored, his name sends chills down the spines of defenses. His ability to press and generally annoy central defenders provided opportunities for Pasher, who would swing wide and cut in from the side of the box, to stretch the defense out some.
Kelly was unfortunately put into a difficult situation with an even more difficult role. He often was left at the top of the formation and asked to win balls bombed forward and try to either play them and dish them out. He had some success, but a lack of height and just general strength on the ball left him struggling more often than he was succeeding.
However the case may be, Kelly is more valuable to Indy Eleven scoring 8-12 goals than he would be moving to another team in the East and playing in a system better fit for him. It’s just difficult to know if 2019 was a poor season for him or he was a victim of circumstance. A lot of the attacking woes with consistent goal scoring, which isn’t anything new for any team, stems from the lack of playmakers.
Ilija Ilic and Eugene Starikov, injury-free, likely would have been slotted under the forwards and provided a better hold up and passing threat and allow for at least Kelly to press forward and score goals and spend less time playing a role he isn’t cut out for. We may never know if something like that would have made a difference in 2019 but one thing is key for 2020, Rennie has to get goalscorers and tweak his system to help creators flourish otherwise they will continue to struggle to put the ball in the net.
Signs of the future: Conner Antley
One of the signs that the team isn’t just looking to fill gaps with the same methods many teams in USL Championship do is the signing of Connor Antley. Antley, who signed from USL League One side Tormenta FC, came with not only the acumen of being the Defender of the Year for the league, but he also came with something we haven’t seen from Indy Eleven, let alone another USL Championship team: a transfer fee
— Nicholas Murray (@NJEMurray) November 21, 2019
It’s no different from what we saw with the academy signings that Indy Eleven made in 2019. This team doesn’t want to do things “the normal way” and investment into the long-term future of the team will not only help on the field but answer questions off the field as the clouds over the pending stadium deal loom in the distance.
Antley comes in with a ton of positive sides from him. According to a few people that watched him play in 2019, he can play on either side of the field, has some solid pace, but above all else, he can lead counter-attacks and push the ball forward. Antley can come in and provide some relief defensively for a Tyler Pasher, who often plays not only up top but flips sides and provides support for Ayoze if he bombs forward.
With Antley likely on the right, Indy Eleven’s winged attack and pressure can attack defensive fullbacks and provide chances outside to cross the ball in and pull central defenders out of position and open up chances in the center of the pitch. Touches inside the penalty box were something this team struggled with and threatening things centrally as much as they do wide will help them increase the chances created and hopefully, with more signings coming, convert those chances.
You can hear more about Antley (pre-public knowledge of the move) via the fine folks at League One Fun
At the time of writing, there are still many more moves left to be made and it’s tough to put a finger on where Indy Eleven will end up by the start of the preseason. Many expect that Indy Eleven will still be in the conversation for the top dog in the USL Eastern Conference and with the right moves sprinkled in on the strong core they made, they should have a successful 2020. Whatever does happen, Martin Rennie has a lot more expectations in 2020 than in 2019.
Not only is he the first head coach in team history to last more than two years, but now that he’s proven with time that he can build a strong team, accepting below average results won’t be something the fanbase let’s slide. Everyone with every team will always say “we want to win the cup”, but in 2020, there’s really no reason that Indy Eleven shouldn’t be back in the USL Eastern Conference final and above all else, in the championship game. It’s how they get there that will matter.