BY JORDAN KALT
That’s right. We won.
Indy Eleven’s first trophy. An undefeated spring season. There were plenty of ups and downs and plenty of naysayers, both during and after the final whistle. But the Eleven’s record doesn’t lie and showcasing that silverware will not disappoint.
Years from now, when Colin Falvey puts his feet up and leans back in his armchair as the children of the world crowd around his feet in his expansive dual-fireplace living room, they will want to hear the story of how Indy Eleven’s third season came to be.
But Falvey is not yet grayed or shuffling about in a bathrobe, so you will have to wait to hear his telling of the story.
Meanwhile, you can listen to mine.
A Man for All Seasons
Head coach Tim Hankinson has become the biggest acquisition of Indy Eleven’s brief history. He has brought vast experience and connections in multiple leagues around the world and an incredible intuition for managing the game, all in addition to a gorgeous shock of white hair.
Hankinson is the prime reason Indy Eleven have won the Spring season.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to see how the Eleven would have managed without a lot of key guys, but coach Hankinson is the reason why each of those gents play for Indy. It was his hand in guiding player acquisition that granted us a championship caliber team. It was his sideline ability that enabled him to game plan for unique match-ups and give the boys a strategy that could succeed. Without Hankinson; no championship, no matter the players we had.
There are not many men who could come to town with a 4-2-3-1 game plan, sell it passionately to supporters and players alike, and then–this is the kicker–be big enough to recognize a few weeks into the season that it wasn’t working for his team and change it. Hankinson doesn’t let his ego, or his players’ ego get in the way of winning. He came to do work.
The New, Very Real Deal
Because, sure, there were a lot of things that needed fixing. We were coming off two seasons of sub-par showings by the Indy Eleven. Confused and, at times, outright selfish football by players who may have been individually talented but either could not or would not fit into the system. The Eleven had long suffered from apathy, uncertainty, and frustration.
Hankinson gave Indianapolis something new.
Intensity, confidence, and encouragement. Captained by Irishman Colin Falvey, a fresh sea of faces was brought in while the staff imparted new habits and new beliefs to the team. Falvey and other veterans such as Jon Busch and Eamon Zayed led the way off the blocks. Setting the tone for the team through their workrate and hopefulness, they immediately began to exude belief and passion.
After taking time to put things together in a short preseason, players who were present for the old iterations of Indy Eleven suddenly started to shine. Greg Janicki quickly turned into a show-stopper at center back and a regular starter. Brad Ring, an established fan favorite, finally had the team around him to get fully into form and show what he could really do. Young players like Lacroix and Keller continued their development splendidly.
Behind it all strode Tim Hankinson, quietly assessing and masterminding how to make this team gel. Things were looking up. But now, could we win?
The Eleven’s first two games were intriguing albeit ultimately disappointing. Getting a draw during our first trip to Florida against the Rowdies felt mildly like success but being unable to score was a concern. Then came the draw against Ottawa at home, which felt much less like success and more like failure to win what should have been our first. Once again the attack had struggled and shown very little promise. Something was gummed up between midfield and forward. We were quickly learning, however, that a rebuilt backline of Palmer, Janicki, Falvey, and Vukovich was going to become the backbone of our team.
Those four would prove to be a strong foundation indeed, holding the Cosmos to one goal in their next game and enabling a come-from-behind win off the boot of Eamon Zayed, getting a double in his first time on the scoring sheet. The game against the Cosmos proved something else, as well.
We’ve Got Some Intangibles, Here!
Gutting and refilling a team with higher-level talent is one thing. Will they play together? That’s another. We found out pretty quickly that this team could play and stick together through anything. Between scoring droughts and injuries, the highs and lows of a professional season, they seemed to have a knack for working it out.
Chemistry? Check. Veteran leadership? check. An insanely hungry, never-say-die attitude that would eventually keep the team undefeated all the way through the Spring season?
Hankinson assembled a cast of characters with an infectious affinity for taking a punch and jumping back up swinging.
The Boys in Blue would carry on from the stunning comeback over New York to win another, this time on the road, scoring two goals against Rayo OKC. It seemed as if the goal drought was behind the team but there was still more work to be done.
Developing play from the midfield forward continued to be an issue and contributed to back-to-back draws against Edmonton and Ft. Lauderdale, respectively. The latter was felt as a loss because, though unbeaten, Indy Eleven desperately needed points from the game to keep pace with league leaders down the stretch. It didn’t happen and afterward it had some wondering if our dreams had become prematurely grand.
The match at home against Minnesota United solidified the Eleven’s place in the championship conversation.
Justin Braun had displayed his phenomenal work rate both on and off the field. But as a striker, he had been missing the most critical piece of his game: goals. Eamon Zayed, after saying in the preseason that he was going for the Golden Boot, was also struggling to score since his double against the Cosmos. Both players made the net feel loved in this one. Coach Hankinson once again turned in an incredible strategic performance and we were finally able to watch the Eleven dominate at home.
The Sudden Yet Inevitable Point of Narrative Conflict
After trouncing Minnesota, the Eleven found themselves in total control of their destiny for the first time ever. With the next two games against league bottom-feeders, what could go wrong? Injuries, setbacks, imperfections, to name a few.
Tying up a 2-1 win over Louisville City FC in the U.S. Open Cup was critical in keeping the team from falling into a complete slump during this stretch. It was perhaps one of Tim Hankinson’s shiniest of hours as he pulled the wool over Louisville’s eyes and subbed in his main guns in the second half to wreak havoc on a then-slowing Louisville side. But the game also highlighted the fact that the Eleven had become pretty banged up heading down the stretch.
They never lost, but the disappointing draws on either side of the Cup game forced them to face inner demons and decide if they were truly going to overcome their obstacles and run for the championship or not. Jacksonville had surprised them and Miami shocked them. Once again it looked as if perhaps our sights had been set too high. Had the fight gone out of them?
Tired, but not broken. Down, but not out.
The Will To Win
There would be no opportunity to regain momentum before the last match against Carolina. The odds were never in their favor, and they would have to overcome multiple tiebreakers–assuming they could even win this final game–to reach the tiebreaker that mattered: the defeat they handed New York earlier in the season.
A laundry list of needs that will be forever etched in supporters’ minds, they had to beat Carolina, score four goals, and win by at least three.
Heading into the match camaraderie had never been higher. It seemed as if this kind of impossible situation was exactly what the team had been built for. All were hungry, players and supporters alike.
Indy Eleven came out and set a blistering pace, scoring first before conceding a terrific goal to Carolina. Braun’s goal before the half was arguably the most critical moment of the game. With it the team was able to go into the half needing only two more goals and a clean second sheet from then on.
The love between players was never more evident than in this game. During halftime, Hankinson must have delivered a glorious speech, whether it was full of prose or simple and inspiring. Everyone knew what had to be done. They just had to go back out there and give it all. For months, they had fought together–always together–whether winning or drawing. Just as they held Reinoso’s jersey up after scoring while he was in Florida with his wife for a difficult birth, they had always played to win as a team, not merely as individuals. Over the season Hankinson had melded them into a single unit; a family of winners. It was time to prove it.
In the second half, Indy accomplished all that was asked of them. Chants rang out and euphoria erupted as supporters rushed to celebrate with the battle-weary players. 4-1, Indy Eleven.
Never say never and give all for the others.
The stuff of champions.
Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road
And now we find ourselves in the Afterword with a shiny piece of silverware on its way and joy in our hearts. But there is bittersweet, as well.
Peter Wilt, outgoing President and General Manager, has been the heart and soul of Indy Eleven since the club’s inception. When he made it officially known in January that he would be leaving to pursue an NASL startup in Chicago, we all felt the sting of loss. At least he made the most of his last six months with our club. He installed Hankinson, he collaborated on bringing phenomenal talent such as Falvey, Vukovich, and Zayed to Indianapolis. Moreover, he handed his passion to the staff, the players, and supporters, saying, “carry this forward,” which we have all clearly been eager to do.
There was his favorite concession being turned into a t-shirt, his careful and loving historical explorations through the Hoosier state, and his untiring willingness to sit or stand with supporters and simply talk. All these and more will be missed. He gave his heart to Indianapolis. In return, I do think he received many special mementos and memories. One of them, a championship.
Peter Wilt cultivated an idea that had already sprouted in Indiana. He tenderly cared for it and watered it, making mistakes along the way but always eagerly searching for ways to make it grow. It grew and it blossomed. After three seasons, it has finally born the fruit Wilt wanted to see it produce. Now he can go on to new adventures knowing that it is alive. It is strong. And I think it is in the hands of good men who will continue to nurture what he has grown.
And, you know…
No one has ever won both Spring and Fall titles in the same year.