Monday, January 29, 2018

Eleven Best XI

To put it mildly, the Indy Eleven are going through some roster changes. Guys that I expected would be locks to return for the 2018 season have been announcing their departure every couple days. Only time will tell whether the scorched earth rebuild of the roster is a success, but it's difficult to watch crowd favorites leaving to find new homes. With less than two months before the first game and around 2 weeks before players are expected to be in town to start preseason, only four players have been officially signed so the next couple weeks should be awash with additional signings. Whether there are a few players from last year returning or not will be seen, but we do know that the team will be without Bush, Zayed, Falvey, Franco, and Vukovic, all key pieces of the 2016 run to the Championship game.

As I sat and discussed the roster changes recently and thought about the 70 players that have signed with the team since its inception (now 73 players with the addition last week of Reiner Ferreira, Brad Rusin, Kevin Venegas), I thought it would be a good time to consider an Indy Eleven Best XI, using the rosters from 2014, 2015, 2016, & 2017. As can be expected, my Eleven Best XI is heavy on players from the 2016 season, but winning tends to skew opinions of players. As I started evaluating the players, I decided to expand it to include 11 starters, 6 substitutes, and even added 2 honorable mentions.

GOALKEEPER:
Jon Busch

DEFENDERS:
Marco Franco
Colin Falvey
Greg Janicki
Daniel Keller

MIDFIELDERS:
Gerrado Torrado
Brad Ring
Don Smart
Dylan Mares

FORWARDS:
Eamon Zayed
Justin Braun

SUBSTITUTES:
GK Kristin Nicht
D Nemanja Vukovic
D Lovel Palmer
D Cory Miller
M Zach Steinberger
F DukeLacroix

HONORABLE MENTION:
F Ben Spencer
M Kleberson

GOALKEEPERS:
  • In four seasons, only three goalkeepers have seen playing time, but this is the easiest decision of all the positions. Nicht is the first player ever signed by the Eleven, but Busch is a legend who played much younger than his age will make you believe. The team gave up a lot of goals in 2017, but there were games where Busch seemed to single-handedly keep the team in the game with amazing save after amazing save. 
DEFENDERS:
  • Marco Franco is the team's career minutes leader despite the fact that he didn't join the team until September of the 2014 season, having been loaned to the Eleven from the Chicago Fire. Like a couple of the guys on my list, Franco continually performed at a level that made it difficult for coaches to keep him off the field. 
  • Colin Falvey is the Captain. As Kevin Johnston stated on a recent Soc Takes podcast, there were several players on the 2016 roster that had been a captain at previous stops and Falvey differentiated himself as the clear captain. That's an astute observation and speaks volumes to Falvey's leadership and playing ability. Few fans will forget Falvey's head wound, getting stitches during halftime, and finishing the game.
  • In 2015, many fans were rightly disappointed by the play of Greg Janicki. However, the 2016 season for Janicki is one of the best examples I've ever seen of a coach believing in a player and putting him in a position to succeed. The centerback pairing of Falvey and Janicki was a successful one and Janicki's retirement proved his worth as the 2017 pairings were often serviceable, but never had the same affect.
  • I might catch some naysayers with my selection of Daniel Keller in the starting Best XI, but "K-Swiss" proved to me this past year that he was also a player that made it difficult to keep off the field due to his ability to play multiple positions. Other players were intended to be starters in the defense, but Keller's consistency consistently put him in the starting lineup.
MIDFIELDERS
  • Torrado is another legend that Indy Eleven fans have had the privilege of watching. Torrado rarely showed up on the score sheet, scoring just twice (both in a memorable game against the Cosmos) and having one assist, but Torrado rarely made the wrong decision with the ball, completed most of his passes, and was unafraid to play a physical style of game routinely receiving yellow cards. 
  • On a team that has had legends of the game, Brad Ring is the one who has acquired the "Legend" nickname. Like Torrado, Ring is unafraid to play physical, despite his somewhat diminutive size, to the point of being the team's career leader in yellow (and red) cards. He's been good for a goal a season, but they seem to always come at key times. If all that's not enough, he famously chugged a bear on the field during the on-field celebration when the team won the Spring Season in 2016. #Legend
  • "Super Sub." "Mr. Indy." "Bae." Whatever you want to call him, Don Smart is the longest tenured Indy Eleven player and the greatest example of a player that has continued to make it difficult for the coaches to keep him off the field. As the seasons have progressed, his improvement in his defensive responsibilities and his crossing ability have taken his playing to another level.
  • Dylan Mares may forever be known by Indy Eleven fans as the best player to have gotten away. Mares turned a fabulous 2016 season into a large payday in 2017 as Miami FC offered the midfielder a pay raise that the Eleven couldn't match. Then in 2017, on what might have been the best Division 2 team in the country, Mares finished the year on the league's Best XI, scoring eight times with five assists and made the Team of the Week 8 times. Despite moving to another team, Mares is still the team's career assist leader, top 3 career leader in goals and points, and top 5 in games played. Like a couple of these guys, coaches couldn't keep him off the field despite the fact that I don't think Coach Hankinson initially thought of Mares as a starter. 
FORWARDS
  • "Mr. Hat Trick" has taken goal scoring to a completely different level for this club. Zayed scored a goal, on average, every 2.2 games. He "weakness" was that he was not known as a guy that could easily create his own shot, but with the correct service, you would be hard pressed to find a guy that could so routinely find the ball to put it on frame. Zayed scored three goals in the "Miracle at the Mike" to give the Eleven a 4-1 win over Carolina and the team's first piece of hardware. 
  • Justin Braun's work-rate, size, and ability to find the back of the net made him the team's MVP last year despite not playing a large portion of it due to an injury. Braun forces teams to keep track of him and his constant motion routinely causes defenses to lose track of the other Indy Eleven players, allowing them to slip behind the defense. A healthy Braun keeps defenses honest and gives his teammates opportunities to do great things.
SUBSTITUTES:
  • Like Busch, Kristian Nicht periodically kept the Eleven in games, but he was not blessed with the same level of defense as Busch. He'll always be known as the first player signed by the league and came to love this town.
  • Nemanja Vukovic is a striker playing in a defender's position. Team's learned his propensity to go forward with abandon and not always hustle back on defense, but he could put in an great left-footed cross. His set-piece kicks were a thing of beauty. 
  • As Greg Rakestraw liked to say, Lovel Palmer was the "most yoked" soccer player I've ever seen. Palmer was a physical presence that's hard to match in the NASL. The thing that kept him out of my Best XI was that my eyeball test told me that he was a bit prone to the long ball. Don't know if the stats confirm that, but it feels like that was part of the reason Franco bumped Palmer out of the starting lineup.
  • Cory Miller may be the best in the league at winning defensive headers. Much like the physical presence that Palmer and Falvey brought to the backline of the Eleven, Miller makes sure you know who is defending you. Periodically, his defending required last ditch slide tackles, often times in locations worrisome for fans, but he tends to win more than expected.
  • If memory serves me, Zach Steinberger was signed on a Wednesday and made the starting lineup that Saturday after being loaned to the Eleven from the Houston Dynamo. It was a somewhat desperation move by Peter Wilt to salvage a rough 2015 season, but Steinberger turned out to be a good addition to the midfield. 
  • Duke Lacroix, "Super Sub 2.0." Lacroix brought a pace that most team's couldn't match when he was brought on late to create a spark. Lacroix finished his time in Indy with 4 goals and 4 assists, putting him in the top 10 in career points for the team. My main objection to Lacroix, and this is minor, is that he often continued to dribble when the pass would have been more effective. Though given what he was asked to do when brought on, which was attack and attack with speed, I'm kind of nit-picking. 
HONORABLE MENTION:
  • Ben Spencer makes my honorable mention not so much because of what he did as a player, but for the potential that was there when he was healthy. Unfortunately, that didn't seem to happen that often. Spencer only played in 11 NASL games that first Indy Eleven season, but managed to score twice and have two assists. He was a big strong target forward for the Eleven that has since found his way onto Toronto FC's squad, finding the occasional minutes and goals/assists for an MLS team.
  • Kleberson. Oh, Kleberson, what could have been with or without you? Kleberson is another legend of the game to wear the Eleven crest, but he wasn't surrounded by enough guys to properly utilize his talent. Unfortunately, a lot of money was wrapped in his salary and an achilles injury basically ended his time in Indy and limited the amount of money that could have been spent on other players. Much like Torrado, he routinely made the right decision with the ball and the guy has some of the most amazing free kicks this team has ever seen.
So that's who I would put on my Eleven Best XI (with subs and honorable mentions) and the reasons why I selected them. Where did I go wrong and who would you have picked?

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