Eleven Questions for the Season

Today I want to turn from retrospection to speculation. So much is unknown as we head into the first season for the Eleven. What are your biggest questions? Here are mine, with a short look at how I think they’ll turn out. (In keeping with team tradition, this list goes to eleven…)

1. How competitive will the league be?
2. How will the team take shape?
3. Can the Eleven make the playoffs?
4. How’s the stadium going to work?
5. What will attendance look like?
6. What’s the atmosphere going to be like in the stadium?
7. How much attention will the team get in the city?
8. Will there be a World Cup boost?
9. What’s next for new stadium plans?
10. How stable will the team and the league be?
11. Will the team press for MLS?

1. How competitive will the league be?

Looking back at previous seasons, the NASL is obviously a fairly competitive league… except for last fall. The arrival of the Cosmos completely warped the standings. They finished the half-season at 31 points — eight ahead of the RailHawks — and only lost one game. They racked up a +10 goal differential, and had both the league-best defense and second-best offense. In short, they lapped the field. Many pointed to the advantage New York gained by only playing half a season. They were fresher and played half as many games. But the team was clearly financed at a level above the other teams, and the player quality was a definite factor.

San Antonio was nearly as bad as New York was good, going 3-1-10 in the fall, winning none of their away games, and almost as bad at score differential as New York was good. But they were quite good in the spring, finishing within a single point of the top spot, only falling to third due to one less goal scored compared to Carolina. So over the whole year, they weren’t that terrible, though the Fall performance will leave their (quite large) fan base nervous about 2014.

Will the same continue this year? The seven other pre-existing teams now know what to target in terms of tactical style and overall quality, and the new teams will have been watching too. Whether they can achieve it remains to be seen. The best case would have different winners for the spring and fall seasons, playoff races that stay open to the last week or two of games, and no team that either wins all their home games or loses all their away games. Worst case, though, would see Cosmos (or another team) with another 50%+ advantage in points over their competitors. I’d also dislike seeing the same team win the spring and fall seasons (though I’ll make an exception if it’s the Eleven…).

Prediction: I fully expect that Cosmos will be the team to beat this year, but I’m betting that the league will be a lot more competitive. The two new teams will both field competitive sides, and at least a few of the older teams will improve over last fall’s performance. I worry most that a few teams will start to fall behind the rest of the league; hopefully we don’t end up with doormats by November.

2. How will the team take shape?

This is a really big question — a matter of both what style of play the team will bring, who will be the go-to players, and how well they’ll do overall. At the end of the year, how will fans and opponents describe the Eleven? It’s tempting to look at the preseason games and extrapolate from there, but I don’t think that’s ultimately productive. It’s a new team, and they have to experiment with players, lineups, formations, and tactics. It will even take a few weeks of regular-season games to draw any conclusions.

I think there are a few things we can look to though. One is coach Sommer’s stated intent to build “from the back”, starting with a strong defensive posture. And the second is the nature of the players he’s signed, and especially the midfield presence of Kléberson. I’m very curious how he’ll mesh with the rest of the team. Is he here for a payday, a chance to shop himself to a top-flight team, or to help build an institution? Will he be able and willing to play hard all year, or will his interest or fitness wane over the summer?

Prediction: I don’t think the team will be as defensively biased as, say, Edmonton. But I do think they’ll try to keep themselves out of holes, especially early in the year. I think we’ll see a team that would rather maintain possession than gamble. We might see more draws than most teams, especially on the road, but that’s not the worst outcome. And my gut says that Kléberson will play hard and stay engaged, at least if he remains fit. If he does, that’ll make him a top performer within the team, and would net them good results.

3. Can the Eleven make the playoffs?

This is the other half of the question, isn’t it? What will the results be? Predicting playoffs is a bit difficult due to the complicated nature of the system. In particular, the short nine-game spring season could turn on bad luck — weather, refereeing, or even small injuries. The more reasonable question is whether the Eleven can finish in the top four in points over the whole season, which would most likely get them into the playoffs.

That’s fourth out of ten teams. On one hand, that’s a big ask of an expansion team. On the other hand, pure random chance would be enough to get you a 40% shot — and I think the Eleven won’t be one of the worst teams, either. New York, Carolina, and Tampa Bay are probably most likely to be among the top teams, which doesn’t leave a lot of room.

Prediction: It’s a stretch, but I think the Eleven can do it. They’ll need to surpass quality teams like Atlanta and San Antonio, avoid losing streaks, and win some games away from home. I’d rate a playoff appearance as a good goal and a mark of a successful first season, while finishing somewhere above 40 points over the 27 games would be impressive too. It’s not really reasonable to have any kind of specific expectations just yet, but I have a feeling both goals are in reach.

4. How’s the stadium going to work?

Carroll Stadium is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s got great capacity, a good location, a nice setting, and easy fan access. It’s also limited: the track isn’t ideal, the existing stands have seen better days, the preexisting amenities are poor, and it can be tough to get suburban fans downtown. Indianapolis has a pretty high bar for its expectations, and Victory Field in particular sets a high standard (and provides formidable competition for Saturday night entertainment). So how well will it work out overall?

The team has certainly worked hard to do everything they can to create a good experience. The stadium improvements will help a great deal, and they’ve been creative adding stadium amenities — food via food trucks, for example. They’re certainly in better shape than if they’d chosen Kuntz Stadium. And I think the copious nearby IUPUI parking will be a secret weapon for bringing in more distant fans.

Prediction: I think it’ll be a mostly good experience. There will likely be some early glitches, but I get the sense that the organization is resilient enough to make improvements over the course of the season. They clearly place a lot of importance on the fan experience, and that in itself is a good sign. We’ll know a lot more after Saturday, but I’m optimistic for maybe a 4-of-5 star experience in the first year.

5. What will attendance look like?

It’s important for the team to have a good draw. The bar, for better or worse, is set pretty high. The NASL average attendance for 2013 was 4,670 per game, which would be about 40% attendance at Carroll Stadium. With 7,000 season tickets sold, the Eleven must surely expect to do better than that. But how much better?

There’s two ways to look at it, too. The 7,000 season tickets sold is a win no matter what; that money is banked by the team already and helps make the balance sheet look better. But how many of those season ticket holders will make every game? They might sell or give away some tickets — which would cut into the team’s sales of single game tickets. Or they might just choose to skip some games, which cuts down on the number of fans inside the stadium. That doesn’t just affect the stadium atmosphere; it also cuts down on concession sales, and creates a bad impression for fans. (“Nobody goes to those games.”)

Prediction: I think the best comparison is to San Antonio, who averaged 6,937 for last year — best in the NASL. If the team can average that number of butts in seats for 2014, I think it’ll be quite good. We’ll likely see a drop in the late summer as people get off to travel and recreation, so it’ll be important to see a strong spring season attendance. A popular World Cup and a late-fall playoff run could help too. A great outcome would be to have the team lead the league in attendance, and I don’t think that’s crazy.

6. What’s the atmosphere going to be like in the stadium?

This goes hand in hand with the previous two questions. It’s hard to have a good soccer atmosphere if the stadium is mostly empty or if the fans are having a bad time. The Eleven start with a huge advantage in the Brickyard Battalion. Their enthusiasm is great, but the level of organization has been especially impressive. I think they’ll provide a great deal of energy at the west end of the stadium.

The interesting question is about what happens in the middle. Indianapolis fans maybe don’t start with a great deal of experience with soccer, and tend to wait for a team to prove itself before they get on board emotionally. Go to an Indians game, and you’ll find a crowd that’s having a good time but hardly watching the game. But go to the Colts or Pacers (at least for now) and you’ll see fans that are working hard to support the team.

Prediction: Honestly, I’d settle for the “we’re all having a good time” vibe that the Indians get. It’s not a bad way to spend a summer’s night! But we know that the BYB is going to bring the noise (and the funk), and that might get the rest of the crowd energized to another level. As long as the team can keep attendance up, I think we’ll have an engaged crowd — and they’ll get better as the season goes on.

7. How much attention will the team get in the city?

In short, will the city care? Not everyone is a soccer fan, or even a sports fan. Minor league sports have been a big part of the city for a long time without really drawing a lot of mindshare. Everyone loves the Indians and the game experience, but few people could tell you whether the team won last night or how the stand in the league. Teams like the Ice or the Blast have even less of a presence on the radar.

But the Eleven have surprised me at every stage — or maybe I should say that the city has surprised me. People have been paying attention and are more aware than I would expect. That’s in great measure due to the efforts of the team, but I think the ever-increasing television coverage of international club soccer, and the EPL in particular, has a big part too. I can say that I’m always surprised at how many questions I get from friends who know I’m a soccer fan, and at how informed the questions are.

Prediction: The city is watching, and I think that will continue. The only debate is whether it’ll be a purely entertainment/curiosity kind of attention, or whether people will start to follow the outcome of the games, too. It’ll help a great deal if the team contends for playoff position. Watch the local Saturday night sportscasts in, say, early June. If they’re covering the Eleven games before Indians games, that’s a very good sign.

8. Will there be a World Cup boost?

It’s probably a great year to launch a soccer team. The nation tends to pay a lot of attention to the World Cup, and having the tournament in Brazil means the game times will be convenient for TV. The dramatic late success of the Yanks in 2010 will be fresh in many fans’ minds, and there will be high hopes for US success.

The fly in the ointment is the deadly group draw that the US faces. Facing Germany, Portugal, and Ghana would be daunting for any nation, and most knowledgeable fans will see the US as a serious underdog to advance from this Group of Death. The US could easily end up with a 0-1-2 or even 0-0-3 record, and I don’t think it’d be a major surprise. But that kind of defeat could crush the enthusiasm of more casual fans, and might make it hard to sell soccer as a fun time when July comes around.

Prediction: I have no idea what to predict for the US team. But I think the overall experience will still bring a great deal of excitement for fans to see soccer in person. They might have to wait a few weeks — the NASL will take a break for the World Cup — but I suspect that July games will see at least an initial boost in attendance.

9. What’s the next step on stadium plans?

Now we’re getting to the more speculative questions…

I was surprised to see the early push for a new stadium from team owner Ersal Ozdemir, including both the stamping plant proposal as well as the legislative lobbying. I thought it more likely that the team would get a season under its belt (or at least start) before a push for a permanent home.

I’m reading between the lines, but I think there’s a couple things that might be driving this. The first is the timeline for the stamping plant. The city’s RFP went out, and Ozdemir clearly had an interest in participating via his Keystone Construction Corp. (It’s important to remember that the stadium would likely occupy a bit less than half of the development — his interest will stem from other development opportunities beyond just finding a home for the team.) Given that he had to submit a proposal, it was necessary to start laying groundwork with the legislature to support his plans. MLS expansion might be another factor too; more on that in a moment.

Prediction: In the short term, it depends on attendance. If it stays closer to the league averages, I expect that public discussions will be muted (though backroom work is a different story). But if sustained attendance edges up — north of 7,000, let’s say — then I think a stronger case can be made, and you’ll see hints and seeds tossed around. That’ll also change if developments on the stamping plant progress with Keystone Construction still in the mix.

10. How stable will the team and the league be?

I don’t want to spend too much time on this question, because it’s filled with too many unknowns. But it’s in the back of my mind. Minor league sports isn’t exactly the home of stability and sustainability, so it’s always something to be aware of. Even the Indians, with their 112-year history, have been affiliated with three leagues and four MLB teams in my lifetime.

From the outside, the Eleven look like an incredibly well-run organization, focused not just on marketing but on building for the long term. I believe that’s true, but external surprises or hidden internal stresses can tear even good organizations down, and the launch of a new venture is an inherently stressful time. I think it’s like a NASA launch: you know they’re good, and you expect everything to go well, but you know it has its risks.

The league is honestly my bigger concern. The best run team can’t succeed if they have nobody to play. The league is three years old and has seen quite a bit of change over that time. For 2014, everything looks pretty good, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see unexpected team turnover on the horizon. (That could come from MLS promotion as easily as teams folding.) There will almost certainly be changes to the schedule and playoff format for next year.

Prediction: I feel good about 2014. I’m very confident that the Eleven will have a successful year, and I’m reasonably confident that the NASL will see more stability and improvement over last year. The offseason might see me get nervous, but I think we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy a good 2014 season.

11. Will the team press for MLS?

This for me is the biggest unknown. What are Ozdemir’s goals? Publicly, the team is focused on NASL, as it should be. But I’m sure eventual MLS membership is at least in the back of his mind, and might be an active if hidden piece of the team’s objectives.

It’s not just Ozdemir, either. The initial successes of the team have certainly turned heads, and MLS expansion to Indy has been discussed in places beyond the Hoosier state.  MLS is in a rapid expansion phase, and is actively trying to reach a well-designed mix of teams with a broad reach across the country. Much of that expansion is focused on the biggest coastal population centers — witness the new teams in New York, Miami, and Orlando. But there’s room for growth in the Midwest, too. I would rate St. Louis as the prime candidate, but a heady start for the Eleven (and the civic support behind the team) certainly puts Indianapolis into the conversation.

The timing might be difficult. This expansion phases is likely to be followed by a period of consolidation. So Indy could be facing a difficult timeline where MLS expansion needs to be secured before the Eleven have really solidified their foundation. Ordinarily I would fully expect the team to spend a season or two working on a solid NASL presence before starting promotion rumblings… but the natural course of events may change that.

I also wonder if the NASL could catch fire and grow rapidly enough that it starts to look like a competitor to MLS, at least in some markets. If that happens, there’s a small but fascinating chance — 1%, let’s say — that MLS could seek out a merger, or to wholesale promote the biggest NASL teams into Division I, something like the AFL-NFL merger or the ABA joining with the NBA. (Indianapolis is certainly familiar with that process.) The chances of that are really vanishingly small, but it’s fun to think about.

Prediction: I think the team is going to play it quiet for this year at least, but the questions will be raised by others if the attendance and team performance reach or surpass the high end of expectations. You’ll probably hear a lot of variations on “We’re just focused on the NASL, and want to succeed within that league.” But pay attention to who asks the question!

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? So many open questions, so many possibilities. It’s one of the reasons I’m deeply excited about seeing the team get started. But ultimately, the most important thing is to have a local soccer team to support and to see them play some games.

Three days!

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