The Maybe-Too-Early Indy Eleven Report Card

 

As we approach the dog days of summer, the USL Championship season has started to heat up as well. For Indy Eleven, a team with astronomical expectations, it means the pressure is only going to increase. As we have crossed through the first third of the season, let’s take a look at how the Eleven have performed to those expectations.

Position in Standings: 4th

Whether you think this is good or bad depends on how dominant you expected this team to be this season. Many fans on social media bought into excessive amounts of hype surrounding the team. Off-season acquisitions of Evan Newton, Kenney Walker, Ilija Ilić, Dane Kelly, and Thomas Enevoldsen were touted as the strongest team Indy had ever put together. Martin Rennie, in his second season at the helm, finally had a full off-season to implement the players and system that he wanted. Despite the rosy outlook during the preseason, though, the writing was on the wall for a difficult start.

Evan Newton, despite winning the Gold Glove last season, spent a large amount of time on the bench, as FCC rotated goalkeepers heavily. Dane Kelly is the all-time leading goalscorer in USL history, but most of those goals came in a league of vastly different quality and opposition. He also picked up a significant amount of rust, as he only logged four minutes of playing time for DC United last year in MLS. Thomas Enevoldsen scored twenty goals last season, but it was far and away his most productive in front of the net, and in a much more forward position for Orange County SC than he plays for the Eleven.

These are all obstacles that the Eleven have had to overcome in the first chunk of matches in 2019, and Indy has done an admirable job of doing so. Extended injuries to Ilić and Eugene Starikov have hindered the rotation options, as well, putting even more pressure on the lineup. The team has the talent to be at the top of the standings, and are in a position to meet the realistic expectation of a top-four finish. With players coming back later in the year, and a good stable of young players to hold them over in the meantime, Indy should be satisfied with where they stand.

My Grade: A-

US Open Cup Performance: Lost in 3rd Round

Well, at least they didn’t lose to a League 1 team.

Indy had lost to teams in League Two in the previous two campaigns and elected not to host a match in either year. Coming up against League 1 founding members Lansing Ignite, Indy scraped together a tough victory. An Evan Newton red card, and facing a side that dominated possession as a result, the Eleven came across the finish line thanks to an Enevoldsen goal in the middle of the second half. They finally broke the curse of the past couple of seasons and appeared to be in a good matchup with a Riverhounds side facing struggles of their own.

But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Bob Lilley coached a magnificent game, as the ‘Hounds had an answer for every Indy maneuver. The match was played tight, as was expected, and the Eleven had a slight advantage for most of the first 60 minutes. But the Riverhounds made tactical adjustments and used their substitutes brilliantly to finally open the game up and strike an 85th-minute winning goal.

Indy played well but couldn’t manage to pick up their first victory at Highmark Stadium. While many Eleven fans would have preferred a stronger lineup against Pittsburgh, the team played well and ultimately fell victim to an unfortunately strong matchup in the 3rd round of the competition. Fans should be happy they played as well as they did in these two rounds but are also aching for a longer run and some matches against MLS sides. Until Indy can manage to deliver that, the Open Cup will continue to be a sore spot for the Eleven faithful.

My Grade: C-

Offseason Acquisitions

Indy made major waves in the offseason with their spending spree, and so far have reaped significant rewards for their efforts.

Evan Newton is an elite goalkeeper at the Championship level and has made losing Owain Fon Williams less of a turbulent ride than it should have been. His six clean sheets are tied for second in the entire league, and he has done an excellent job in organizing a defense that many were convinced would be the weakest part of the squad. His highlight reel has been incredible this season and has carried the legacy of great Eleven ‘keepers as well as anyone could have hoped.

Dane Kelly and Thomas Enevoldsen, though not scoring the thousands of goals some expected to see, have brought new life to what was an anemic attack from last season. Despite struggling with finishing as the rust wears away, Kelly is frequently the best player on the pitch. His movements, and the threat he poses on counter-attacks, through balls, and build-ups, have opened the door for other players to contribute offensively. Even if he isn’t touching the ball, he’s wearing down defenders and making things possible. Enevoldsen is a natural midfield maestro, as his passing is other-worldly. Seemingly always able to connect on the through-ball, he has been as effective as a chance creator this season, as he was as a finisher last season. The pair have developed a good chemistry, and that should only grow stronger as the season wears on.

One player that has really come into his own is Neveal Hackshaw, who will represent Trinidad and Tobago at this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. When playing alongside other newcomers Paddy Barrett and Kenney Walker, he has anchored one of the strongest defensive units in the Eastern Conference, thus far. Their ability to smother opposing attacks, respond quickly to lost possession, and pose strong aerial threats on set pieces has been invaluable to the Eleven, and they should only grow stronger together as the year goes on.

The loss of Ilić to a serious injury is disappointing but doesn’t spoil what has been an incredible display of USL Championship recruiting. If you’re going to replace most of your team in a single off-season, this is the way to go about it.

My Grade: A

Players Lost in the Off-Season

While the team has done a great job integrating new players, one can’t help but notice the success that former players have had in new locations.

Zach Steinberger is a fan-favorite midfielder who briefly played for Indy during their NASL days. The attacking threat showed flashes of brilliance during his time with the Eleven but never seemed to get regular opportunities to shine. After a fairly successful loan move to North Carolina FC, Zach signed with Tampa, where he’s appeared in most matches and has shown his class in a strong Rowdies team. His vision, passing, and the havoc he causes against defenders have proven to be extremely valuable, even if it’s not manifesting in goals and assists. He’s one player that has appeared to have found his footing and is, unfortunately, better off without the Eleven.

Soony Saad was another player who came on board with MLS experience. His influence on the team, however, was far better than his American counterpart, as the Lebanese became famous for his incredible free kicks. In a season where set pieces and wonder goals were the primary offensive weapons, Saad was the perfect player. Now with Lebanese club Ansar, Soony has continued to wow fans with long-distance goals, racking up six goals in ten appearances. Eleven fans will surely miss his efforts, especially considering their current injury problems in the attack.

Overall, Indy can’t be held too responsible for players moving on after a single season. Most USL rosters suffer from consistent turnover, and fans of teams at this level have become used to seeing mostly new faces. And the Eleven did a good job of getting rid of players with bad attitudes (Jack McInerney), and others that simply didn’t perform (Nathan Lewis). But one can’t help but wonder if Indy should have tried harder to retain the services of a Steinberger or Saad and if those players wouldn’t be of use for them now. Big clubs should be able to not only recruit the best, but keep the best as well, and the Eleven need to get better at that.

My Grade: B-

Off-the-Field Progress

Indy Eleven have been known as a gilded club ever since their inception in 2013. The team had one of the biggest names in US Soccer attached, in Peter Wilt, and has always been close to the top in leading their league in attendance. Big name players like Gerardo Torrado and John Busch called Indy home, and from the outside, the Eleven looked like the model all other lower division teams should follow.

But when you dig a little deeper, it doesn’t take long to see that the foundations for long-term success have been missing. The team has been lacking a permanent home since their first season, as they have rented Carrol Stadium and Lucas Oil Stadium for their matches. While this situation is not as bad as others (see Rayo OKC), renting an overpriced track stadium and a cavernous NFL field have proven to not be ideal situations for the team. With the passage of SB7 and work towards Eleven Park heating up, a permanent stadium appears closer than ever. But, Indy is still far behind other USL teams in this area and will be playing catch-up until it becomes a reality.

The Indianapolis area has a large soccer community, with national powerhouse Indiana University nearby, and a booming youth soccer scene in the surrounding area. Despite this talent available to them, though, Indy still doesn’t have a strong youth setup. With League 2 increasing in visibility and League 1 becoming home to a team owned by a Championship side, I can’t help but notice that the club is missing out on a great opportunity to sign and develop some of the heaps of talent that would be available to them. The Championship is becoming an incredibly competitive division to play in, and teams that invest in young players will soon have a great advantage over those that ignore it. The Eleven could increase visibility in other parts of the state, have the best young players wearing their colors, and have a pipeline to fill in the ranks for seasons to come. It’s something that is going to become necessary to compete, and shouldn’t be put off any longer.

The stadium progress is solid and is welcome news to fans. Though the lack of progress on an academy or affiliate team is disappointing, Indy is taking their time to, hopefully, do everything the right way and their efforts shouldn’t be overlooked.

My Grade: A-

Overall Grade So-Far

Indy came into this season with incredibly high expectations and haven’t really disappointed thus far. While the club should be let down by their US Open Cup performance, they appear to be in a great position to take charge of the Eastern Conference. In fact, if the Eleven win the two games in hand they have on Tampa Bay, Indy would lead the race for the USL Shield.

This team is strong and continues to weather the storm of injuries and, at times, inconsistent play. But if you told an Indy fan that they would be in this position in June, I can’t think of one who would’ve been disappointed.

My Grade: A

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