The league and fans of the Boys in Blue where unsure how to react and expect when executives at Indy Eleven hired veteran coach Tim Hankinson after the 2015 season was completed. Hankinson brought in players that were deemed quality veterans that had experience in major leadership roles. What happened next was a 2016 NASL Spring Championship that was spearheaded after the Eleven defeated the most recognizable name in U.S. soccer, the New York Cosmos, 2-1 at Carroll Stadium. The Eleven went on to finish 2nd overall in the league and fell just short to the Cosmos in a penalty shootout in the NASL Soccer Bowl. What has transpired since that remarkable season is a 0-6-3 (W,D,L) record 9 games into the 2017 season. Others have discussed and revealed the Eleven’s struggles straightforward: injuries, budget cuts, style of play, and possibly lack of tactics. Therefore, I try to look outside the box as to why the Eleven have struggled after having a fairy tale season just a year ago?
2012 Indianapolis Colts
If a Colts fan in 2012 said they would have a winning record after firing Bill and Chris Polian, Jim Caldwell, and letting Peyton Manning they were either lying or on something illegal. What transpired was General Manager Ryan Grigson, first year head coach Chuck Pagano, interim Bruce Arians, and rookie Andrew Luck leading the Colts to a birth in the playoffs. This was supposed to be a two to three year recharging plan. But after having so much success after one season, catching teams and fans by surprise, the Colts decided to speed up the process in turning a rebuilding project into a team that would contend for the AFC title. Although the Colts had two more successful seasons they overlooked a lot of key pieces to help build a strong foundation, were willing to take more risks on players, and negate some weak areas on the roster and coaching staff.
Similar to the Colts, Indy Eleven’s plan in 2016 was one of low expectations because the first two seasons were less than competitive in terms of on the field accomplishments. The hiring of Tim Hankinson lead to an overhaul of the roster that saw drastic changes to the starting lineup. But the mentality and approach was Hankinson and the team would need time. However, soccer fans in Indianapolis and within Indy Eleven quickly became accustomed to winning after sealing the NASL Spring Championship and making a Soccer Bowl appearance, that things were overlooked in terms of tactics, personnel, and front office and coaching moves. Indy Eleven was winning, so why would anyone notice the Eleven taking risks on young players and ignore areas that needed improvement? Now that Indy is going through a rocky road Tim Hankinson has been drawn into the Frank Vogel and Chuck Pagano realm of “Do we like him? Is he a good enough coach? Do we keep him?”
It’s hard to repeat the magic two years in a row
One thing teams try to do is generate that same magic that worked during the previous season. Unfortunately, this is impossible to do and here’s why. First, the league and coaches adapt or make changes. Second, rosters change and players work to get better or rehab from injury. Third and most important, the motivation is different. Teams and players cannot be motivated the same way, going from the hunter one season to the prey the next. In addition, a player’s mentality can change in terms of motivation, work ethic, and their role on the field and socially within the squad.
I’m not trying to give this team an excuse but those who fall short in a league title game, characteristically do not do well the next year. This has nothing to do with the physical aspect of an athlete but what is going on physiologically within that player and in the team. Look at the other major sports in the United States and you will see the majority of the teams that fall short in a final, series, or championship match struggle the following seasons.
Outside the New England Revolution (2005-2008) and Houston Dynamo (2011-2012) it’s rare to see an MLS Cup runner-up make it to the finals the following year. The Atlanta Braves (1991-1992), Texas Rangers (2010-2011) and the Kansas City Royals (2014-2015) are the three teams in recent memory to go to a second World Series after losing the first. In the NFL, no team since the Bufflo Bills and their Boy I Love Losing Super Bowls campaign from 1991-1994 have made back-to-back trips after losing the first. Only the Edmonton Oilers in 1983 and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 in the modern game of hockey have come back after losing the Stanley Cup to win it the following season. The only exception is the NBA because it has a history of being dominated by only one to two teams per year. In terms of the NASL modern era, no runner-up has made it to the Soccer Bowl the following year. The good news for the Eleven is there is still plenty of soccer left and a playoff spot is not far out of reach.
“Keep your eye on the spirit, not on the scoreboard”- Phil Jackson
The ball bounced Indy Eleven’s way last year. A loss turned into a draw, a draw transformed into a win. The calls went Indy’s way and the crossbar was gentle enough to let the ball go in for the Eleven. This year has been different as it seems Lady Luck has been beating up Lady Victory at every possible moment. “Most coaches get tied up in knots worrying about tactics, but I preferred to focus my attention on whether the players were moving together in a spirited way” (Phil Jackson, The Jackson Eleven, p. 21, 2013). The same applies to the Eleven; focus on what you’re good at and not what you want to do. Defenders shouldn’t worry about scoring the goals, but keeping the clean sheet. Forwards must be focused on how they need to open up to create space, receive the ball, and score. The midfield must know their strengths and focus on those aspects. The spirit of the Eleven has not disappeared and that process and effort was evident against FC Edmonton. Here is another opportunity against San Francisco for the Eleven to show their spirit and focus on their task individually and as a team. When this happens, then we can look at the scoreboard.