Indy Eleven supporters were stung by the announcement this week that team president Peter Wilt would soon be leaving the franchise to focus his work on launching a new NASL club in Chicago. The high-energy and gregarious Wilt leaves large shoes to fill, to say the least.
The Eleven were able to snag a locally-prominent replacement from the metro area in Jeff Belskus. The former Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) and IndyCar executive has been brought on board seemingly with one achievement in mind: secure support and funding from the city of Indianapolis and the Indiana General Assembly for a soccer-specific stadium. Without a doubt, Belskus has a rolling start on his key initiative and certainly has more connections and trust at the Indiana Statehouse than Wilt could garner in just a few seasons in the capitol city.
Belskus has previously helped to secure taxpayer funding to the tune of $100 million for the IMS and with service on the boards of the Indianapolis chamber of commerce and Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association he is connected at the right levels to carry out this assignment. The combination of Belskus with an owner as politically involved as Ersal Ozdemir will make a tough duo for the Republican supermajority to repeatedly reject. (However, the looming 2016 state-office elections may impact stadium funding more than anything these two can say or do.)
With a new team president signed and the obligatory offseason stadium talk out of the way, and with a few inches of snow and ice on the ground and little better to do, I think we should pass the rest of our time here speculating on Wilt’s replacement to oversee team management. And, while the number of available players and coaches is endless, the list of professional soccer executives in America seems small by comparison. There’s a chance we could nail this signing, so let’s dive in!
Chris Klein, President, Los Angeles Galaxy: One of my first thoughts, “The Eleven like to keep it local, is there anyone with Indiana ties that has experience as an American front office executive?” The former Hoosier and current president of the Galaxy (what a title!) has transitioned beautifully from player to executive. But in no universe is this hire going to happen.
Alexi Lalas, Provocateur, USMNT legend, Former MLS team president: Thinking of the Galaxy, my mind jumped to Lalas. He could surpass the name recognition and prestige of Wilt in the American soccer community, but this is also not going to happen. It would
likely be a very expensive move and Lalas seems to enjoy the comforts of television where he can make recommendations for teams but does not have to produce any winning results.
Eric Wynalda, Provocateur, Former USMNT player, Former coach and technical director: Considering Lalas makes me think of Eric Wynalda, his Fox Sports colleague, and while he holds a resume of rather impressive accomplishments and has experience in the NASL as a technical director, he just seems to rub people the wrong way. I can’t see this happening because his ego and commitment are unknown variables.
There are a few former MLS general managers we could consider, such as Tom Soehn, formerly of Vancouver, or Andy Roxburgh, once with the New York Red Bulls, that have high-level team management experience. Neither was very good in MLS and both would probably not provide enough value for the investment needed to hire them.
Moving to executives with NASL experience: Howard Cornfield, formerly of the former San Antonio Scorpions, has a name that is more than appropriate for an Indiana club but apparently a management style full of baggage. In Jacksonville, Dario Sala built an entertaining offense hindered by a dreadful defense, which got him fired after the team’s inaugural season.
(Okay, you’ve identified seven non-candidates and this is starting to go long, get on with it!) Fine, here are my top three candidates for Indy:
#3: Andy Smith, Former President, Atlanta Silverbacks: The Silverbacks remained competitive with little ownership support. Smith was able to cobble together the right coaches and players to play competitive soccer (although not always attractive) against teams with much more at their disposal. With more resources and a stable environment Smith might be able to build a serious competitor.
#2: Ricardo Campos, Former New York Red Bulls Technical Director: After moving up the ladder from intern to administrator then sporting director and technical director, Campos was released by the Red Bulls last spring. Recognized for his knowledge of MLS’ complex allocation system and his scouting skills (Campos helped build the core of the present NYRB squad), Campos would bring insider access to the network of MLS general managers, could acquire overlooked MLS-caliber talent, would likely be successful at identifying players to populate the roster and might even be able to find young players to develop and sell. This would be a very good hire but Campos is probably out of their league.
#1: Faruukh Quraishi, Former Tampa Bay Rowdies General Manager and player: With different roles in the Rowdies and Tampa Bay soccer for 40 years, Quraishi would bring a wealth of experience as a team and community leader. His GM experience includes helping the Tampa Bay Mutiny win the regular season title in the first season of MLS. Most recently, he was unceremoniously fired in 2015 after just more than half a season leading the Rowdies front office.
A fan favorite in Tampa, Quraishi is community focused, often strolls the parking lots on game days talking with supporters and, before being released, had built a team that was holding a spot in the NASL playoffs. Hiring Quraishi would be a good transition from Wilt and make waves amongst NASL front offices and supporters. While Wilt is irreplaceable, Quraishi is the candidate that comes the closest to replacing him and his unique abilities of leading a front office and connecting with fans and players; however, Faruukh may be too embedded in the Tampa Bay community to take on a new role in Indiana.
Spend time around Peter Wilt and you will quickly notice he is a cyclone of activity: talking, tweeting, eating, drinking, talking, messaging, laughing, glad-handing, messaging, tweeting, laughing. He is truly an unparalleled ambassador for Indy Eleven and the game of soccer. Replacing him will be nary impossible, which is why the team needs two (or more) new employees to succeed their patron saint. Belskus has entered the game as a statehouse substitute and, based upon his previous experience as the chief executive of a sports and entertainment business, I’m going to assume that he will also oversee the work the of the marketing and ticket sales departments. If that is the plan at the Majestic Buiding it simplifies the role of the second hire a bit – their work could focus primarily on team management and being an ambassador for soccer in Indianapolis and the Eleven nationally.
Enter the Wild Card
Thomas Rongen, Veteran coach, Commentator, Movie star, Bow-tie aficionado: In some ways the Dutchman is a replica of Peter Wilt: Big personality, huge social media presence, national name recognition, loves the NASL, possibly seeking revenge against a former employer. But, while he has proven to be fan centric and media savvy and certainly has an eye for talent with a massive network of players, coaches and agents, Rongen’s professional experience has primarily been limited to the role of coach. He does have stints on his resume as both an MLS academy director and a MLS sporting director, but, as one person commented when I shared this idea on Twitter, Indy already has two coaches, they don’t need another in the mix. At 59-years-old Rongen may be looking to move from the sideline and into the team suite. A role focused almost solely on identifying and acquiring players and being a team ambassador may also allow him time to also spend time as a talking head in the soccer media (a position of prominence that could be mutually beneficial to both he and the Eleven).
Hiring Rongen would be an ambitious, high risk/high reward move for a team in search of immediate success on the pitch, but it would certainly help the young club and its quest for relevancy in the larger American soccer scene, a priceless element that Wilt will is in the process of packing up and moving to Chicago.
Think I’m on point with my guesses? Do you agree that a former Rowdie will step in to fill the vacancy? Have a speculative candidate of your own, preferably one named Tim? Please share in the comments.