So! I’m still catching my breath from the Eleven’s inaugural season. It’s funny how these things play out; I’m hoping to say more about the season down the road. But even though I haven’t been updating, the Eleven are still on my mind, and last week featured news that I really want to write about.
After Thanksgiving, the team (via a radio interview with coach Juergen Sommer on 1070TheFan’s Soccer Saturday ) announced where the roster stands for 2015. Any roster move is going to be big news, and addressing pretty much the whole roster in one go is worthy of comment.
So what do we have? Nine signings, ten departures, and seven players still in negotiation. Team President Peter Wilt has been busy!
To summarize the announcement:
- Eight 2014 players are signed and returning: Kristian Nicht, Jaime Frías, Erick Norales, Kléberson, Kyle Hyland, Don Smart, Brad Ring, and Cory Miller.
- Ten 2014 players have departed. Seven players with team contracts were released: Mike Ambersley, Chris Estridge, Jermaine Johnson, Andrew Stone, Jhulliam, Jon Dawson and Nathan Sprenkel. Three players who came on loan have returned to their clubs: Blake Smith, Ben Spencer, and Charlie Rugg.
- Seven players are still in negotiations with the club. Fejiro Okiomah, A. J. Corrado, Dylan Mares, Sergio Peña, and Corby Moore were under contract for 2014, while Victor Pineda and Marco Franco were loanees who have been released by the Chicago Fire and are in negotiations to return to the Eleven.
- Finally, one new player has been signed: midfielder Dragan Stojkov, who comes to Indy from LA Galaxy II, where he played with Charlie Rugg.
That’s a lot of change, but perhaps not more than I’d expect. The Eleven are a new team and frankly didn’t have a huge amount of on-field success last year, so roster changes are par for the course. And the mix of players — mostly either quite young or a bit older — also leads to changes from year to year.
But what does it mean for the Indy Eleven? To look into that, I looked at last season’s playing time. Let’s see where that stacks up, relative to players’ status.
2014 Playing Time
2015 # Name Min %Util + 24 Kristian Nicht 2610 100.0% - 15 Mike Ambersley 2289 87.7% + 3 Jamie Frías 2207 84.6% + 5 Erick Norales 2013 77.1% - 19 Blake Smith 1740 66.7% + 8 Kléberson 1546 59.2% ? 27 Victor Pineda 1509 57.8% + 18 Kyle Hyland 1386 53.1% ? 23 Fejiro Okiomah 1258 48.2% + 7 Don Smart 1194 45.7% ? 12 A. J. Corrado 1188 45.5% ? 22 Dylan Mares 1152 44.1% ? 20 Sergio Peña 1121 43.0% + 4 Brad Ring 1018 39.0% + 16 Cory Miller 810 31.0% - 6 Chris Estridge 800 30.7% - 17 Ben Spencer 731 28.0% - 14 Jermaine Johnson 663 25.4% ? 13 Corby Moore 621 23.8% - 2 Andrew Stone 549 21.0% ? 21 Marco Franco 540 20.7% - 9 Pedro Mendes 509 19.5% - 21 Walter Ramírez 467 17.9% - 99 Charlie Rugg 450 17.2% - 88 Jhulliam 295 11.3% - 26 Baba Omosegbon 44 1.7% - 20 Kevin Rozo 0 0.0% - 35 Jon Dawson 0 0.0% - 1 Nathan Sprenkel 0 0.0%
Note: I don’t have good numbers for stoppage time, so this chart doesn’t take that into account. +/?/- = Signed/Negotiating/Released.
There are a few standout names at interesting places on the list, which I’ll get to in a bit. But in general, it’s mostly easy to see where the list of signed vs. unsigned players comes from. The signed players represent 44.5% of last year’s minutes — pretty close to half. Another 25.7% are still in negotiation (though of course we don’t know how that will play out). The departing players (including those who left earlier in the season) make up 29.8% of the total.
Interesting numbers — but a bit misleading, too. More than just bulk minutes played, it matters who played when. Who was playing at the end of the season? More specifically, who played when the Eleven were winning? The graphic that follows shows how many minutes each player played in each game for last season.
Minutes per game for Indy Eleven players from 2014.
Note: Numbers are adjusted for the sake of graph clarity. As before, I don’t have good stoppage time numbers, so all games are normalized to 90′. That affects every game, but in particular the USOC match against Columbus was a 120′ game. I also cancelled out red cards, as they made the graph harder to read. So this graph presents as if every game had 11 players for 90 minutes.
For me, the last five games are the period to watch. That’s when Indy went on a D-W-W-W-D run, starting with the gutsy 0-0 draw with New York. It was maybe the most stable period for the Indy roster, and it saw the emergence of key players.
Well, where does that leave the team? Here’s how things will change for 2015.
The front line will be completely reworked next year. Maybe that’s not completely surprising; Indy took fewer shots than anyone else in 2014, and their goals scored ranked 7th of the ten teams. Still, it’s a bit surprising to see such wholesale change. The biggest loss: Mike Ambersley. Always an active, energetic player; #2 player on the team in terms of minutes; also had a big role through the team’s purple patch at the end of the season. He was a key player in 2014, and the fans will be sorry to see him go.
Ambersley wasn’t the only loss. Charlie Rugg was always due to return to LA after his loan, but he featured in the team’s resurgence in form at the end of the year. A third major loss is Jhulliam, who also had a big role in his short eight games with the club. Jermaine Johnson is gone as well; he did a great job in the middle of the fall season before diminishing late. And while he wasn’t available much in the fall season, Ben Spencer was another exciting talent who won’t be back with the club. When you consider that we also let Pedro Mendes go earlier in the year, it’s clear that our front line will be totally new for 2015.
I don’t know anything about why these guys aren’t coming back, but it’s worth remembering that contract decisions aren’t about whether a player is good — they’re about whether players are good value and fit the coach’s vision for the team. The players’ wishes come into it, too. And of course the loanees (Spencer and Rugg) were obligated to return to their parent clubs. Still, it’s a lot of change for the front line. Who’s going to play in the attack? Whoever it is, it’ll be a new set of names next year.
Midfield is a bit of a mixed bag, as far as players leaving and staying. Let’s look at the central midfield first.
To be honest, I was a bit surprised (pleasantly so) to see Kléberson has been re-signed. He was definitely our marquee player, and he did good work when available. His set-pieces were unmatched in the league. But he was injured for much of the fall season, and I can only guess he’s one of the most expensive players on the team. Still, it’s great to have him. Brad Ring is another good guy to see coming back. He moved around the field quite a bit, but perhaps he did his best work as a holding midfielder. He was lost for the season in San Antonio in August, thanks to Julius James’ tackle that broke his right foot. Here’s hoping Ring comes back healthy and can supply his energy and versatility next year.
There are still big question marks in the engine room, however, starting with the duo of Dylan Mares and Sergio Peña. Mares and Peña were both regulars in the central midfield through the last part of the season, and both are in ‘negotiating’ status for 2015. Corby Moore is another on that list, though Moore found playing time difficult to come by in the fall. The uncertainty here is balanced by the addition of Dragan Stojkov, who will add to the central-mid workforce. So the middle of the pitch is in a state of transition, but at least Kléberson and Ring will provide some continuity.
On the wings, it’s good to see that Don Smart has returned. In section 108 of The Mike, we always wanted to see more of Don, and he definitely got more starts late in the season. He’ll be back, contributing speed and width to the attack. Blake Smith though will be a loss, as he’s returning to Montreal at the end of his loan. Of the departing players, only Ambersley had more playing time. Victor Pineda had a big role on the wing in the fall season, and he’s one of the two loan players who the Eleven are trying to re-sign. Of the players still in negotiation, Pineda had the most minutes in 2014. Kyle Hyland and A. J. Corrado also did work on the wings (as well as in defense); Hyland is re-signed while Corrado (who saw little playing time in the fall) is still on the ‘negotiating’ list.
Interestingly, the defense — not really Indy’s strong suit — is also the area with the most continuity. Maybe that’s because the last five games were successful thanks largely to increased defensive effectiveness. The lineup of Frías-Miller-Norales-Franco was probably the best-organized we saw all year, and led to the eye-opening shutouts of the two best teams in the league.
Fortunately, Jamie Frías, Cory Miller, and Erick Norales are all signed for next year, as is Kyle Hyland. (Frías is interesting — I thought he was here on loan from Guadalajara? But the team reports that he’s signed for 2015.) Marco Franco is the only back-line question. He came to Indy on loan from the Chicago Fire, but the Eleven report he’s not been re-signed by Chicago and that he’s in negotiations with us. If he can sign, that’d be good news.
We had several other defensive lineups over the season. Significant time came from players such as Fejiro Okiomah and Corrado (both negotiating), and Chris Estridge and Andrew Stone (both departed). Okiomah was the player with the most playing time from that group, playing across the defense as Sommer tried to figure out the winning lineup. But the priorities are fairly clear, and re-creating that lineup from the last five games seems nearly complete. Fingers are crossed that Franco can come back — and that the Eleven can stabilize that wobbly back line.
And for the keepers? Well, Kristian Nicht will be back — how could it be otherwise? If there’s a face of the club, it’s Kristian, and he’s the only Eleven player that played every minute of the 2014 season. Both backup keepers — Jon Dawson and Nathan Sprenkel — have departed, so the Eleven will have to sign cover here. The only question is whether the new backups can pry any playing time out of Nicht’s XXL gloves.
When Sommer took the manager’s job, about a year ago, he said his priority was to build from the back. The preseason didn’t play out that way, but in this offseason I think we can see that philosophy finally coming through. Wilt has locked up 80% (or more, counting Hyland) of that season-end back five, as well as the midfielders who played most often in the holding role. We’ll start out with a defense that looks quite similar to what we saw — and enjoyed — in September and October. If Franco isn’t re-signed, the biggest signing to look for is a right back.
We’ll have much bigger questions going forward. At this point, none of our striker options are with the team, and the attacking portions of the midfield have a lot of uncertainty too. Kléberson, Ring, and Smart at least provide some continuity, and if the team is able to sign one or more of Pineda, Mares, and Peña, that will add a bit more stability.
With the MLS season finally finished, I would expect we’ll start to see some new player signings over the next few months. I don’t think it’ll tell the whole picture — I suspect the Eleven will continue to use loans as a way to get talent in the team, and those will come about more in the spring. But as winter descends on Indy, it’ll be exciting to see the 2015 direction take more shape. I can’t wait!