Photo credit: Indy Eleven/Matt Schlotzhauer
In an active offseason for Indiana’s Team, head coach Tim Hankinson made the decision to bring back 12 players (so far) from the 2016 team that won the club’s first hardware and marched all the way to The Championship Final.
Flying under the radar, though, were the confirmed additions of former MLS veterans Ben Speas and Kwame Watson-Siriboe – both of whom carry the pedigree to be true difference makers on their new squad.
“Ben and Kwame are starting-level players, and there’s more to be confirmed,” Hankinson said late last week in the build-up to the squad’s fourth preseason. “We’ll certainly miss the guys that have retired or moved on, but I think the players that are coming in to take the baton from them and lead the way in 2017 make us even stronger.”
Make no mistake, the contributions from the likes of “Eleven Original” Dylan Mares and veterans Nicki Paterson and Greg Janicki will not be easily made up, but Hankinson is determined to look forward rather than dwell on what’s been lost.
“We are ready," Hankinson said. "We have meetings and testing still to do, but, clearly, I’m looking forward to the first day on the field next Wednesday and getting this side back running.”
Taking a closer look at the first two new additions, each one brings a different skillset to the 2017 squad – a piece of something that was missing last year. When asked, Hankinson referred to these two as perhaps the final piece of the puzzle that could propel them to the next level.
Watson-Siriboe brings more depth to the center-back position, and, at age 30, adds another layer of experience – a common theme from last year’s signings.
One advantage for the native of Chino Hills is his connectedness with goalkeeper Jon Busch, or “Uncle Jon,” as Watson-Siriboe refers to the now 21-year professional. Their paths crossed with Chicago Fire SC during their MLS days and Watson-Siriboe considers “Buschy” one of his truest mentors in the game. Now reunited in Indianapolis, coach Hankinson is looking for the man who has labeled himself “Kwamekazi” to return the favor of mentorship.
“I’m a big fan and a big believer in older players looking out for younger players, Kwame’s relationship with Jon [Busch] was just that," Hankinson said. "Having that relationship is a wonderful thing. However, Kwame’s no longer a young kid on the block who needs mentoring. Now, it’s on him to take a younger player and learn to be a mentor to the next guy and bring someone else along the same way that Jon brought him along. Having that helps build our team and we think he’ll be a great fit.”
With the spine of the side’s back four remaining largely intact, Hankinson’s addition of Speas allows for a little more creativity – and variety – in attack from all directions. Just 26 years old, Speas considers his best days still ahead of him, this after the two-time NCAA Champion (at both Akron and North Carolina) played an increasingly important role with Minnesota United as their 2016 season - his first in the NASL after four years with Columbus Crew SC - rolled on.
“Speas can play as a second forward, as an attacking midfielder, and even as an outside midfielder on either side," Hankinson said. "We’re not expecting him to go down and hit crosses like Dylan [Mares] did, but there are some similarities in what they bring. However, Ben has the experience of Major League Soccer, which I feel any player who goes through that level brings a professionalism and pedigree that you can’t get anywhere else, so we’re expecting big things out of him.”
Hankinson saw that adding an ingredient like Speas into the midfield area would produce what he saw as the perfect equation – like a pie that needed just a final touch of sweetness. But, Hankinson also knew that when a player like Speas becomes available there would be a short window to get him in. He got his wish.
“We’re very excited to have him in, he’s just good stuff,” Hankinson said. “He attacks very directly, so we’ll look to get him into the box and into a position to make a final pass for players like Justin [Braun] and Eamon [Zayed] to latch onto and get used to. But, he can also go to goal himself and find the back of the net. He’s a hard worker and always on his guard.”
While Watson-Siriboe and Speas are the only two confirmed additions so far, Hankinson also briefly touched on the topic of trialists and the potential to discover someone who just needed a chance.
“We’ll probably have up to six younger guys in the side on any given week," he said. "These are players from the NPSL or are fresh out of college and are looking to break into the pros. But before our contracts are committed to any player, they’ll first have to come in and prove that they deserve it. We’ll invite enough in where there’s competition for those spots.”
With competition already heating up for the starting XI, it will take a significant amount of work for a younger body to break into the team in the coming weeks. As the Boys in Blue begin their first day of testing on Tuesday, Hankinson is watching his new signings in particular and hoping that that final ingredient – that final piece of the puzzle – fits perfectly.