Brown eyes widened. Forehead scrunched and creased. Martin Rennie sat at full attention at the end of the wooden table that absorbed much of the space in the conference room at Indy Eleven’s training clubhouse at Grand Park. At the opposite end of the table, black leather notebook in hand, sat Barry Pauwels sporting the branded gear of his employer, U.S. Soccer, a white polo covered by a red quarter zip. Pauwels, born in Belgium, spoke softly with a slight accent as he discussed tactics and drills with Rennie before the two left the club house.
The destination? Grand Park Events center, just a short trip east of the clubhouse. In a sport with the global nature of soccer you never know where the road will take you – on this day, the road was lined with corn fields and classic farm homes, and it took two native sons of Europe to one of America’s largest indoor soccer facilities. Who would have thought five years ago? Three years ago? Even one?
But here was U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Education Pauwels, spending his afternoon inspecting Rennie. Making notes on his movements and the phrases he would shout to players during a training session, all while videotaping drills and examining cone formations.
“Press higher! Drop back! Quicker, quicker!” Rennie shouted as his players darted the bright green turf.
The reason for the 48-year-old Belgian stalking Rennie’s every move? A license. Pauwels found himself bounded by yellow corn stalks in a vast, gray building, not unlike a titanium farmhouse, because of a license – one only 42 coaches in the United States currently possess. The U.S. Soccer Pro License.
Rennie’s reason for being stalked? Education. Not just in the game of football, but in the game of life. The Scotsman, who turned 43-years old on May 22, believes education is what betters a human. As a result, he is on a constant quest to sponge up any knowledge and experience he can to better himself. In this case, through the pursuit of a Pro License, the highest-level coaching license in the country. Only a small group of people are allowed to take the course, which lasts one year in duration and is currently in its fourth edition.
Think of it as the Ivy League of coaching education – only the cream of the crop are even able to apply.
“First of all, you need to have enough experience in the game at a certain level,” Pauwels explained. “You then go through an application process where only this season the best ten candidates, based upon analysis and based upon grading, enter the program.”
Rennie is currently one cog in this 10-man machine that is comprised of five Major League Soccer coaches (including Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese and Real Salt Lake sideline boss Mike Petke), three counterparts at USL Championship sides – Simon Elliott (Sacramento FC), Cameron Knowles (Portland Timbers 2) and Marcelo Serrano (Austin Bold FC) – and U.S. Under-19 Men’s National Team Head Coach Dave van den Bergh.
According to U.S. Soccer, the Pro License course is “designed for coaches to further develop the skills and competencies necessary to work as a professional coach in a professional environment. Based on their individual needs, each candidate will go through a tailored program designed to bolster their efforts to create a winning culture/team, develop a style of play, implement sport science initiatives at their clubs, reflect on their growth as a coach and serve as leaders in their organizations.”
Later in U.S. Soccer’s official language, the course is referred to as a “journey” – now that’s something Rennie can relate to. Rennie’s experience in coaching is vast, as he already is in his 14th year as a head coach. He holds his UEFA Pro License and is on his way to holding a Pro License in the States, a feat only a handful of coaches can lay claim to. His quest for coaching knowledge began some 20-odd years ago after earning a degree in business at Glasgow Caledonian University, where he would do what so many students have done to succeed – balance his passions and work simultaneously. He would continue to pursue his soccer dream after securing a job with software company Blackbaud, learning from the grind both on and off the field.
“When I was playing in Scotland semi-professional I was working in business in sales and marketing,” Rennie said. “So while I was still playing I started to do my coaching licenses. Then I was a player-coach, while I was still working. There was a lot of things I learned from that that I thought would be useful if I ever became a coach.”
One major takeaway Rennie gained from his experience was the power of one’s mindset.
“When I was working, I’d be getting up at 4:00 in the morning to fly to London and I’d be in the shower thinking, ‘Alright, in a couple more years I’ll just be coaching,’” Rennie said. “That was really clear in my mind. That was my goal and I had a lot of belief that it was possible. I used that mentality to help me as a coach and to help me develop and go further.”
The grind would pay off, as Rennie earned his UEFA A License at 26-years-old. Two years later the journey would pay off, as a trip to Africa through the charity Soccer Ambassadors ended up with an offer for his first head coaching gig with the USL Premier Development League’s Cascade Surge in 2005.
“That was exciting. It was like an opportunity to take all the things I was learning and working on and put them into practice,” Rennie said of his one very successful season with the Oregon-based club. “You have all these ideas and theories, but then to actually get to do them and see what works and see what needs changed is really fun.”
His success didn’t stop there. Rennie won the league’s Coach of the Year award in his first season with USL Second Division Cleveland City Stars in 2007 and would again win the award in 2008, in addition to leading the Ohio based club to its first championship title. After Cleveland came Carolina in 2009, where he would stay with the RailHawks, now North Carolina FC through the summer of 2011 before taking the reins of Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC for their 2012 & ‘13 seasons.
Obviously, every player’s and coach’s aim is to reach the highest level of competition possible, which in the case of North American soccer is MLS. But to Rennie, coaching in MLS wasn’t drastically different than his time coaching in what is now known as the USL Championship.
“A lot of it was the same,” Rennie said. “The players were the same and the tactics very similar. I learned a lot and enjoyed it, but the actual coaching part wasn’t all that different.”
That can only spell good news for the USL Championship, a league that represents the second division of U.S. Soccer’s professional structure. With that said, Rennie doesn’t think one should mistake “second division” for “second tier.”
“I think the standard of coaching in the USL [Championship] is very high,” Rennie said. “There’s lots of experienced coaches, some with the license like John Hackworth (Louisville City FC) and Tony Pulis (Saint Louis FC), who have great knowledge and work really well with their teams.”
Now Rennie looks to join Pulis and Hackworth in possessing the Pro License, in addition to the UEFA Pro License he attained during a year-long sabbatical away from the sideline before joining Indy Eleven. Rennie was anything but disconnected from the sport, spending much of 2017 traveling to Switzerland and the United Kingdom, spending time in Liverpool where famed German manager Jurgen Klopp resides and journeying to London to watch Tottenham Hotspurs train under manager Mauricio Pochettino.
All the knowledge he’s gained during his near 15-year head coaching career is beginning to turn into a thousand-piece puzzle of Rennie’s version of the Mona Lisa.
“When you look at it, when I was in MLS for example, where I was 35 years old, I was really young,” Rennie said. “It’s been nice to just experience that and other things.”
That vast treasure chest of experience helped Rennie take the wheel of an Indy Eleven side in 2018 that not only didn’t have a roster when he took over – just weeks before his late-January hiring, it didn’t even have a league to play in with the uncertainly surrounding the North American Soccer League at the time.
“It was a really difficult situation I came into because we started so late. People don’t realize it, but you need time to build the team you want, and I think we did well. We made it to the playoffs. It was one of the better seasons that Indy Eleven has ever had,” Rennie said of 2018. “Now we want to make sure this is the best season the club has ever had. We have a great team, and it’s really starting to come together. It will really be fun for the players, coaches, and fans.”
It’s Rennie’s mindset and his willingness to continue to grow that have made him as successful as he has been in his young, and already illustrious, career. It’s a quality that many have noticed, including Pauwels.
“Martin is a coach who has an enormous winning mentality,” Pauwels says. “If you see his past, where he’s coming from, and how he got to his Pro License in Scotland, and is still eager to learn and take the American Pro License, where it’s normally not necessary to take it, for me that says a lot about the personality of Martin.”
A positive personality accompanied by a winning mentality make Rennie dangerous as a head coach. Yet the Scotsman remains humble, always looking for opportunities to grow, to learn, and develop even further as a head coach with Indy Eleven. Could that mean landing his second stint in Major League Soccer without having to leave Indiana’s Team?
“It’s a possibility,” Rennie says. “We should be striving to be at the highest standards and reach the highest recommendations and qualifications that are out there, and I think our club is moving in the right direction on every front.”
For now, Rennie’s focused on what’s in front of him, rather than looking too far into the future. What’s in front of him now is the 2019 USL Championship season and come October, the USL Cup Playoffs. The Scotsman’s now been given a full off-season to compose a team he sees fit to be crowned champions.
With the pieces in place, his objective this season is simple: win. A modest goal that can prove to be a lofty, complicated task for any head coach at any level – but one Rennie believes he achieved as part of his doctorate-level coaching dissertation in 2019.
After a month at home in league action, Indy Eleven will now hit the road the next two weekends, beginning with this Saturday’s first-ever meeting against expansion side Memphis 901 FC. Kickoff for the contest at AutoZone Park is set for 8:30 p.m., and the match will be streamed live online via ESPN+.
After another road tilt on June 15 at another expansion side, Loudoun United FC, Indy Eleven will return to Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, June 22, when it welcomes Atlanta United 2 to the Circle City for a 7:00 p.m. kickoff. Tickets for that contest – and matches in quick succession on June 26 against Birmingham Legion FC and a rivalry contest against Louisville City FC on June 29 – remain available for as little as $15 and can be purchased at indyeleven.com/tickets or by calling 317-685-1100.