Entering his fourth season at the helm of Indy Eleven, Head Coach Martin Rennie has led his side to 41 regular season and playoff victories over his first three seasons at the club. | Photo courtesy Matt Schlotzhauer / Indy Eleven
After a busy offseason that saw numerous players moved on via transfer to Major League Soccer clubs and the recruitment of high-profile replacements, Indy Eleven kicks off its 2021 USL Championship season this Saturday night with a visit to Birmingham Legion FC (7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN+).
USLChampionship.com’s Nicholas Murray caught up with Indy Head Coach Martin Rennie to talk about new Houston Dynamo player Tyler Pasher, getting his break in Cleveland, what it means to be returning to Michael A. Carroll Stadium permanently, and the players he’s most excited to have aboard for the new campaign.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nicholas Murray: So, have you been keeping up with Tyler Pasher the last couple of weeks?
Martin Rennie: Yeah, I’ve noticed he’s done well the first couple of games. Not surprised at all, though, it took us three years to really get him going, but he’s a great player, got great ability.
NM: How does it make you feel to see him not only getting starting minutes for the Dynamo, but looking sharp in the way he’s performing?
MR: Not surprised, but really happy. That was the thing, he was with us for three years and the first year he didn’t really play, had a lot of things to work through and I think we worked very hard to help him, but his ability is way beyond. I think his level is above MLS, he can play at a level higher than that, it’s just whether he can put it all together and find that little edge that you need to have. Technically and physically, he’s a top, top player.
NM: I’ve got to say, it’s been really exciting for me given how much I’ve enjoyed talking with and watching him play. It feels like it used to be mostly defenders that could move up from the Championship and find a solid starting spot somewhere, this feels new with an attacking player like Tyler starting to shine a bit more brightly.
MR: Exactly, and we sold four players in this window, and while Evan [Newton] was a goalkeeper, the other three were all attacking players. Cal Jennings has already been on the field, Josh Penn has already been on the field in MLS as well, so they’re also very talented players and I think you’ll see a lot from them, especially because Josh Penn’s so young, he might surprise at just how well he can do, but Cal Jennings has that potential as well.
It’s really good for a club like Indy Eleven to be able to sell those guys, and it’s helped us recruit guys that are very talented that could also do that.
NM: Do you think we’re getting close to a turning point in terms of the way top Championship players are starting to be perceived by more MLS executives?
MR: It’s hard to know. I think it should be the case. There are certainly a number of guys who have had success at this level who would definitely be able to do well in MLS, and definitely would add to the squad of an MLS team – the first 15, 16 players – so I definitely think that. The game’s maturing, the USL Championship’s developing, there’s a lot of very talented players and really excellent coaches, and I think there’s going to be more of a pathway for players and coaches into MLS going forward.
I think it should be the case. There are certainly a number of guys who have had success at this level who would definitely be able to do well in MLS, and definitely would add to the squad of an MLS team – the first 15, 16 players – so I definitely think that.
There’s a lot of guys who come over from other countries – coaches and players – and they don’t know the system, they don’t adapt to the culture. There are always some, of course, that are big hitters that have done really well, but there’s a lot of guys that are on that next level down where there are better players than them in the USL.
NM: Let’s go back to the start, to Cleveland and the City Stars. You guys were really good, really fast in the old USL Second Division, you won the title in 2008. What do you remember most about that experience, and what did you take away from it?
MR: Obviously, it was my first experience of coaching professional soccer, so it was really a fun opportunity for me to take all the ideas I had about coaching and actually put them into practice. The thing about that club was we didn’t really have any money, but we had a really good vision and a really good group of people, and we wanted to give people opportunities. That was an example, again, of developing younger players, for example like Adam Moffatt, who went on to play in MLS and won two MLS Cups, had a 10-year career at that level, so there were even guys back then who we were trying to give them that opportunity, and it was up to them if they took it or not.
We had players living with host families, not only were we driving to and from games in two white minivans, I was personally driving one of them. A lot of times, I’d take the laundry home from practice and my wife would do the laundry, it was really raw and ground-level, and it was just really making the most of an opportunity. And in two years at home, we never lost a game, and in the first year of the entire franchise we only lost one game in the regular season, so we achieved a lot, by the second season we won the championship and developed a lot of players, so it was really a lot of fun experience.
Beyond that we did a lot of great things in the community as well. We helped a lot of charitable organizations in the inner-city of Cleveland and in the urban area, and I think we brought a lot to the community years before that concept became popular, if you like.
Since beginning his professional coaching career with the Cleveland City Stars in 2007, Martin Rennie is now approaching 400 games on the sidelines. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
NM: When you see some of the young coaches in the league now, guys who are under 40 like Mark Lowry over in El Paso, is it fun for you to see guys that were on the same path you were at the start of your career, churning out successful teams with their own philosophies?
MR: Yeah, definitely. I think that there are things that we would have in common with [Tampa Bay Rowdies Head Coach] Neill Collins as well, where this is their first opportunity, and they have this idea and this identity. The thing that they have really at that point of their career is they have absolute confidence, and they have incredible energy and enthusiasm, because at this point they don’t really know what they don’t know, which is a good thing, because then you’re not second-guessing yourself.
Sometimes in the early stages when you’re almost naïve a little bit, but with enthusiasm and great ideas that can take your team a long way because they believe in you, and you believe in what you’re doing. I think that’s a really important thing for any coach.
Sometimes when you go higher and higher, you coach against better coaches, better players, bigger leagues and all that kind of thing, you start to realize, ‘Oh, I need to learn about this, and I need to learn about this, and I need to learn about that.’ Sometimes in the early stages when you’re almost naïve a little bit, but with enthusiasm and great ideas that can take your team a long way because they believe in you, and you believe in what you’re doing. I think that’s a really important thing for any coach, as you gain experience, make sure you keep your enthusiasm and your initial belief, because when you start out you think you can win it all every year, and sometimes if you’re doing it for a while and you have a couple of times where you don’t win it all, you can lose a little bit of that. If you can gain that back and then have that little bit of experience, I think that’s when you can excel as a coach.
John Wooden was the guy who said it took him 40 years to become an overnight success, and I think that can happen sometimes in coaching where you’re working hard, you’re learning a lot, and it maybe takes time for it all to really click.
NM: Did you enjoy the city of Cleveland itself? I know people from there and they really like it, they enjoy being from Cleveland, they like what Cleveland represents as a city.
Soccer is really big in Cleveland, there’s a great history of soccer there, there were some really high-level indoor teams that had big crowds and a great following, so I definitely think the market is there for that.
MR: Oh, yeah, I loved it. I’ve really been fortunate that I’ve liked wherever I’ve lived – some of that’s a mindset, too, you adapt and see the good in people and you see the good in places, and I think that was something about Cleveland. I was there with some fantastic people, we did some fantastic things, young group of people, really enthusiastic and going for it, making the most of life, it was really, really a great place for us to live.
NM: That’s a market that some people have pegged as having potential for professional soccer now, especially with the way the Championship is looking to move into bigger markets that don’t have a professional soccer team right now. Do you think a team there would be a success more than a decade on from the City Stars?
MR: Yeah, if it was run the way our clubs was run and given a bigger budget, it would be a success for sure. Soccer is really big in Cleveland, there’s a great history of soccer there, there were some really high-level indoor teams that had big crowds and a great following, so I definitely think the market is there for that. If it was the right revenue, with the right gameplan it would be really good.
Sometimes what happens is these clubs get brought up by a youth club, and that would be difficult in Cleveland because there is so much competition, there’s so much dilution of talent, and there’s a little bit of territorialism, so if someone could come in that was maybe a little bit separate from one club but that could unite all those clubs, the market’s really ready for another team. I think it would be well supported and I think it could be very successful, but again, it comes down to leadership and ownership.
NM: Last year – I hate to drag that back up – everything seemed to be going right, and then suddenly it wasn’t anymore. What was that post-mortem like looking back on how the season unfolded, ultimately missing the postseason?
MR: I think last season was really an unusual year, and obviously you’ve got to review everything and take lessons from it, and we definitely did that, but you’ve also got to look at it and say we’re in the middle of the most unusual part of time in history, certainly our history, and I think it impacted us in the sense that we started off really well, going along really well, had a lot of good results, lot of wins, and then didn’t finish well. I think there were some reasons for that, some if it was just the mental drain on players over time in the sense of you were just going to training, going back to your apartment, go to training, go back to the apartment. You weren’t really socializing too much, when you went on the road you weren’t able to connect with people, get out of your room and that, so I think there were a lot of things outside soccer that impacted us last year, and maybe impacted us more than some other people.
Of course, it affected everyone and there’s no excuse that comes just down to that, but I do think that was a factor. I think as well, there was a lot for us to learn in making adjustments and growing our team and adding to our squad. One of the big things that we took from it was over the past few years, we’ve built a very good team, we’ve become one of the best teams in the USL, but we want to be the best, and to do that we maybe need to find some other players that maybe haven’t played in the USL before.
We’ve built a very good team, we’ve become one of the best teams in the USL, but we want to be the best, and to do that we maybe need to find some other players that maybe haven’t played in the USL before.
In the three years before, the players that we’d signed had been players at this level, and they’d been good players at this level, but if you want to be better than that, you’re going to have to try and find some players that are above that level, and that’s very hard to do, but we feel like we had a long offseason and an opportunity to do really put so much time into scouting and recruitment.
There were also players available this year that aren’t normally available, so I think we were able to get some guys that would normally have been out of our price range or budget, but also just wouldn’t have really been looking at the USL. With what’s going on in some other markets, they were interested, and we’ve been able to get some guys we’re really excited about.
Venezuelan forward Manuel Arteaga is one of the newcomers for Indy Eleven this offseason, bringing experience from both Europe and South America to the Circle City. | Photo courtesy Indy Eleven
NM: You mentioned this earlier, the higher you go, the more you start to think about it, there can be a challenge that when things don’t go right, you can start to question yourself – I think that’s true of any profession, not just soccer. How do you try to compartmentalize, learn and then move on without looking back too regularly?
MR: I’ve done this for a long time, I’ve done it for about 15 years, and before that I had a 10-year career in business, and from that one of the skills you learn is winning, but then learning from your mistakes and moving forward from it. There’s no point dwelling on your mistakes or beating yourself up about, ‘oh, this game didn’t go well,’ or ‘we lost that cup final, this means we’re terrible.’ The reality is we’re very close. All the teams I’ve coached, we’ve won, I’ve been successful, but there are some of them that were just a game or two away from being the best, and that’s really the trick, finding a way to win those consistently, win those big one or two games that take you over the top. That’s, I think, where we are with Indy Eleven and where I am as a coach, and I think that’s a good place to be.
Obviously, the best place to be is to be winning, and keep winning, and keep winning, and keep winning, but there’s only a couple of coaches in the world that do that, and even they have years and days and weeks where it doesn’t work out. That’s just part of the game, when you’re playing, when you’re competing, there’s another team and another club trying to win, so you’ve got to give respect to the others as well.
NM: You’re back at Michael A. Carrol Stadium – The Mike – this regular season, which I think a lot of fans are excited about. After the taste you guys got during the 2019 Championship Playoffs, what is it going to mean calling that venue home for the full campaign this year?
MR: I think that’s something everyone involved with the club is very excited about – the front office, the players, and of course the fans – just because the atmosphere in that stadium is really electric. It’s almost like a European-type venue where it’s really loud, the fans are very close to the field, it’s open air as opposed to Lucas Oil where you couldn’t have any pyrotechnics or anything like that. It’s a great venue, it’s an old venue but it’s a venue with character, and a venue that brings certain homefield advantages as well.
NM: Your preparations seem to have been going well, too. How close do you think we are to seeing a fully realized lineup and the potential that it holds the newcomers that have come aboard this offseason?
MR: We have our first game this weekend on [May] 1st, and then our second game on the 8th, then we have a week off, and then the week after we get back at it and then we’re consistently playing after that. The first couple of weeks, we want to be ready to go and play and win and do well – and we think we can – and at the same time I think we’ll be building our squad at that time. We’ll be learning more and more, we’ll be getting guys into full fitness to start those games, so it might take those first two couple of weeks, but I think hopefully once we’re into the mid- to end-of-May we should be up and running and looking good.
NM: Who are you most excited about in terms of the newcomers that have joined the club, because for me personally, I love Jordan Hamilton, I’ve gotten to know him a little bit seeing him when Toronto was down here for preseason, and the ability he brings, I’m really excited to see what he can do full-time in this league.
MR: Me too, I think in preseason him and Manuel Arteaga – who you might not know – both scored six or seven goals each. They’re both strikers, they’re both very good, high-level players, and that was something I think last year we didn’t really have, a No. 9, and now we’ve got a couple of guys who can score goals, who can hold the ball up, who can lead the front line, who can do a lot, so I think those will be two to watch, but there’s quite a few guys that maybe aren’t well-known in the USL but are very good players.
Someone like Gershon Koffie, who has played about 200 games in MLS, has played at a high level in Europe, he’s a really accomplished player. Abou Sissoko was the best player in the Canadian Premier League last year, he isn’t well-known here but we’ve seen him up close throughout this preseason and he’s an extremely exciting player, very talented, and then there’s guys like Nicky Law, who people here don’t really know but has played 500 games in his career and is extremely fit, extremely motivated and I think has scored 100 goals, 100 assists in his career, which is just phenomenal for a midfield player.
English midfielder Nicky Law has made more than 550 professional appearances in his career as he joins Indy Eleven for the 2021 USL Championship campaign this season. | Photo courtesy Indy Eleven
NM: I know the hype train from Canada has been steaming down the tracks about Sissoko, so I’m really excited to get to see him on a regular basis. I got to see him a little bit in the Canadian Premier League last year, those games were airing on Fox Sports, so I got a couple of chances to see that league in action, but I think he’s a really intriguing prospect.
MR: He is, and I just think there’s a lot of guys in our team that have a lot to prove. There are guys like Patrick Seagrist, who’s on loan, who’s a very talented player, Rece Buckmaster, who a short time ago was playing in MLS Playoff games for the Red Bulls, so there’s a lot of guys like that who are maybe a little bit below the radar.
I think also this season, because last year was a little bit different, I think a lot of teams in the USL looked at last season as, ‘Oh, we had a really successful year,’ but they may not have been playing against the best competition every week, and there’s a significant difference between the top three or four teams, and the bottom eight teams. So, if you were in a group where you were playing the bottom eight teams on a consistent basis, you might come away thinking, ‘we don’t need to improve our team that much, we’re right on track.’ If you look at us, where it was pretty much Pittsburgh, Louisville, Saint Louis pretty much every week, then we look at our season a bit differently.
We’ve been working so hard to improve our team, we’ve put so much into really improving and developing and even selling players, so I think this season’s going to be interesting. Last year might have thrown a few people off on exactly where their team’s at.
We’ve been working so hard to improve our team, we’ve put so much into really improving and developing and even selling players, so I think this season’s going to be interesting. Last year might have thrown a few people off on exactly where their team’s at. Not sure, but just a feeling I’ve got.
NM: If you had to rate yourself, where would you put Indy in the pecking order in terms of the Eastern Conference?
Indy Eleven President and CEO Greg Stremlaw and Head Coach Martin Rennie after a contest in the 2019 USL Championship season. | Photo courtesy Trevor Ruszkowski / Indy Eleven
MR: [Pauses] I don’t know, that’s one that comes back to bite you, doesn’t it? Because as a coach it’s my job to see ourselves as the best, and it’s our job to see ourselves as the ones that can win it all, and I think that’s definitely possible for us. That’s not being disrespectful to other teams, because I think there’s a lot of good teams – Pittsburgh, Louisville, Birmingham, Tampa – and others that are always going to be good like Charleston, Hartford were good last year, so there are a lot of good teams in the East and there are new teams in the East that I don’t really know. Even teams like Kansas City last year had a lot of players who were not young, academy kids, who were talented players who were 23, 24, looking to make their breakthrough into the First Team.
Ultimately as a coach of any team, I’ve got to believe my team can be the best, and I’ve got to believe that my team can win it all, and I’ve got to believe that we can be consistently winning games and playing in an exciting way, because we can. We’ve already shown that in preseason, but now it’s up to us to show it in the regular season, and then importantly to do it, but then to keep doing and to be consistent with that. I think we’ve got the players to do it, we’ve got the coaching staff to do it, what we really need is that connection amongst each other, that culture and that sense of team sprit that we feel like we’re getting that is just so, so important.
NM: The Mike’s great, everyone’s excited to be back there, but we’re seeing the new venues start to appear around the Championship that are really taking the league to a new place in terms of infrastructure. We’ve seen the plans for Eleven Park. What would it mean for Indy to see Eleven Park come to fruition as a permanent home for the club?
MR: That would be an absolute gamechanger because we already have all the other pieces in place. We’ve got the fanbase, we’ve got the front office, we’ve got the people on ticket sales, sponsorships, all that kind of thing, we’ve got incredible ownership, unbelievable training facility, great housing, really nice place to live, all sorts of recovery, nutrition and psychology there for the team, but the stadium is the key because that’s where you can find a home and a field that can take you over the top and maybe even allow you to add a few more players to the squad. That, to me, would be a gamechanger.
NM: Do you hope it happens? Do you think it happens?
MR: It will happen, there’s no doubt about it.