Monday, June 26, 2017

Indy Eleven vs North Carolina FC - 04.13

- Opponent: North Carolina FC
- Location: Cary, North Carolina
- Attendance: 3,494
- Final Score: 2-1 W
- Starting XI: Busch, Franco, Falvey, Keller, Vukovic, Ring, Smart, Speas, Ubiparipovic, Braun, Zayed
- Substitutions: Henderson 67' (Ubiparipovic), Goldsmith 77' (Zayed), Manning 85' (Keller - cramping)
- Unused: Cardona, Thompson, Plumhoff
- Goals: Braun 22' (assist Franco), Zayed 24' (assist Braun)
- Bookings: Smart 45'+7' (Yellow), Busch 88' (Yellow)
- Adage goals: None

Much like last week, I'm trying to not let my inherent pessimism overcome this recap, but the realistic side of me says that yes, the Indy Eleven are on a two-game win streak, but all they've really shown me is that they can beat North Carolina FC. Although, I can't dispute that they looked much better this week than last week. There were good stretches of possession, very few poor giveaways (that I can remember), good spacing, and good one-touch passes between players on a number of occasions, most notably the ones that led to Zayed's goal.
Statistically speaking, this was a very even game and one that I would agree the Eleven deserved to win. If Braun's shooting touch was a little better, he could have easily had a hat trick. North Carolina FC jumped out to an early lead in the 9th minute when the ball had a fluke deflection off the post straight to Shipalane, who was able to easily tap it in to the goal. Franco was a bit out of position on the play, but that's the kind of bounce off a post that you just have to chalk up to luck. The Eleven fought back and Franco redeemed himself with a perfectly weighted cross to the middle of the box that Braun made no doubt was going into the goal from his header.

A couple minutes later, the aforementioned goal by Zayed put the Eleven ahead in what looked like it could be a high scoring affair. Braun missed a shot wide from inside the six right before halftime that I'm sure he still wonders how he missed. After halftime, the frenetic pace of the first half continued for another 15 - 20 minutes. At that point, the game began to slow down as players' legs began to weigh from the heat and effort. Daniel "Swiss Army Knife" Keller eventually became the player that would succumb to the heat and would exit in the 85th minute with cramps. Clinging to a one goal lead on the road, Coach Hankinson didn't waste much time using his final sub on Keller, bringing in fresh legs in Manning, rather than trying to let Keller gut out the final minutes of the game.

NASL/OptaStat - Eleven Average Position
The OptaStats provide for some very interesting nuggets to the game as well. First, just like last week, the Average Position of the Eleven ended just like you would expect of the players that composed this 4-4-2 diamond. The centerback pairing of Falvey and Keller holding down the defense, while Franco and Vuko had the liberty to make runs forward. Brad "Defensive Mid from Hell" Ring tucked in ahead of Falvey and Keller providing cover, while Ubi orchestrated the offense moving forward. Smart and Speas tucked in slightly, helping facilitate the overlapping runs from Franco and Vuko, and Braun and Zayed up top. There's a lot of movement between the parts that gets lost in the Average Position chart, but it's not surprising to me to see how it all settles into what you would expect over the extent of 90 minutes.

NASL/Opta - Average Position - Falvey & Keller
Second, Falvey and Keller set a line and stuck to it. The Heat Map for those two guys looks like someone drew a straight line across the field and told them that they could deviate from a 15-yard range of that line only for defensive or offensive set pieces. I know I'm not the only one saying this, but until Keller shows me something otherwise, he's my preferred centerback pairing with Falvey. KWS and Manning are listed as defenders, whereas Keller is a listed midfielder, but his performances in that position gives me much more confidence that he is going to be in the correct position when needed. Busch has been quoted (and I'll paraphrase) that he knows what he is going to get with a Keller and Falvey combination and they have a good rapport. If Busch is comfortable having him in that spot, then so am I.

NASL/Opta - Average Position - Brad Ring
So that covers the overall team position and the centerback positioning. Let's move forward along the spine to Brad Ring. Much like Keller, I don't think that Ring was Coach Hankinson's starting defensive midfielder coming into the season. Also much like Keller, I don't think you can take the job away from him at this point. Torrado is Torrado and regardless of how much I love Ring, Torrado's overall vision of the field is far superior to Ring's. Torrado's age may be catching up to him a bit this season, but Ring has become a box-to-box defensive midfielder who doesn't shy away from contact or yellow cards and is going to give you 90-minutes of hustle on both ends of the field, but routinely provides cover for the centerbacks. Ring was 2 for 2 on tackles, he was 3 for 3 on duels, he had 4 interceptions, he was 41 of 44 in passes, and, oh yeah, he created 2 offensive chances including a shot on goal. I know it seems counter to keep a World Cup veteran in Torrado on the bench, but I think Ring is the better option right now.

NASL/Opta - Average Position - Justin "Steve" Braun
Moving up the pitch... In the morning interview with Coach Hankinson on Soccer Saturday with Greg Rakestraw, Coach implied that Ubi's performance on the field has been improved because the team is trying to play him in a deeper role, receiving the ball further in the defensive side so that he can pick better spots moving forward. However, what wasn't said is that this year's team's offensive leader, Justin "Steve" Braun is also coming back further to receive the ball and help distribute. Braun's work-rate and motor still puts his average position at the end of the game tucked just behind Zayed, but he was routinely coming back into the defensive half of the field to receive the ball and distribute. It could be argued that isn't where a team wants their target forward to play, but given that he touched the ball 60 times, completed 41 of 45 passes, while also creating 3 chances, 4 shots, 1 goal, and 1 assist, it's hard to argue with him coming back so far. With the exception of two shots that I think he would like to have back so that he could put both in the back of the goal, Braun played a pretty great game.

Two final thoughts. There are two team stats that jump off the screen for me. The first are the aerial duels. The Eleven are credited with winning 28.6% of their aerial duels. If that seems low to you, it is. Like 26 points below their average for aerial duels coming into the game. The Eleven were averaging close to 55% on their aerial duels and have routinely been higher than 70%. So it's odd to see that stat so drastically different than the norm and, by far, a season low for them. However, I don't know if it gets factored into the stats, but I recall during watching that I remember thinking that the Eleven were periodically backing off from the aerial duels and setting themselves up for the second ball. They were putting themselves in a better position, anticipating a poor first touch by the NCFC players. I don't know if this was a conscious effort based on film review, something they've been working on in practice, or something else, but it surprised me to see such a low number.

The other stat is the offside calls. Like last week, the Eleven were called offside seven times. I don't know if it was something different that NCFC was doing than other teams, but the Eleven clearly didn't learn anything from the film session to be able to limit the number of times they were called offside. I know they can do it. Braun had a perfect angled run in the 60th minute that allowed Zayed to give him a weighted ball through the defenders while also keeping Braun onside. Ultimately, Braun's shot was one of the ones I mentioned earlier that I'm sure he would like back, but it's proof that they know how to make the run to keep themselves onside if they would just do it more often.

Just after Braun missed the goal high in the video above, NCFC unloaded a series of shots at the Eleven that Busch stopped, then Vuko stopped, then Busch again stopped. The effort needs to be watched over and over again. We'll look past the fact that NCFC players had much more space available to them than desired, but the end result was that the Eleven kept the ball out of the goal. There are times when I've convinced myself that Busch will not be returning next year (as a player), but the guy clearly still has the ability to play this game at a high level. I haven't watched the other games from the weekend, but don't be surprised if he makes the Team of the Week again this week.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

There are a lot of guys who could get the Game Ball this week. Busch's 6 saves were definitely worth. Falvey/Keller/Franco/Vuko? All worthy. Ring. Definitely worthy. Smart/Speas. Yep. Zayed. Sure. Yet, I have to give it to Braun this time around. See all of the above reasons. He impacted the game. Think I'm wrong?

The Eleven have 10 days off to stay/get healthy, rest, and prepare for a July 4th visit to New York City. If they play the Cosmos like they've played NCFC the past two weeks, I might let my optimistic start to creep back in. For now, though, I'm still going to temper my reaction and hope that a two-game win streak isn't an anomaly.

*videos edited from NASL telecasts


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Indy Eleven vs North Carolina FC - 04.12

- Opponent: North Carolina FC
- Location: Indianapolis
- Attendance: 8,092
- Final Score: 2-0 W
- Starting XI: Busch, Franco, Falvey, Keller, Vukovic, Ring, Smart, Speas, Ubiparipovic, Braun, Zayed
- Substitutions: Henderson 81' (Ubiparipovic), Plumhoff 89' (Braun), Goldsmith 89' (Zayed)
- Unused: Cardona, Lomeli, Manning, Ables
- Goals: Braun 60', Speas 84' (assist Goldsmith)
- Bookings: Smart 77' (Yellow), Ring 90'+1' (Yellow)
- Adage goals: None

By the twelfth match of the season, I should be better prepared to discuss an Eleven victory, particularly when this was the sixth home game of the Spring Season. Yet, I find myself wondering how to describe a game where the Eleven score twice, Braun and Speas both get back on the field and on the board, and the team gets their first win of the year and yet I'm not convinced that this week's uptick in points is a definitive sign of more positive things to come. At the end of the day, a win is a win, but it felt very underwhelming. Though that could my pessimism talking, the fact that this was a NCFC team that was coming off a mid-week game against MLS's  Houston Dynamo, and the fact that a win next week, against this very same North Carolina team, wouldn't change the table standings because the Eleven have dug themselves such a large hole.

Looking past my pessimism, there were definitely some positives in this game. For starters, Justin Braun was back from his calf injury giving the Eleven their offensive engine. Combined with Zayed, Speas, and Smart, the re-introduction of Braun into the starting lineup gave the team their first chance to have all of the offensive weapons on the field at the same time since early in the season. Braun showed a few signs of rust at times with some heavy touches, but given that he hadn't played in a couple games, his work-rate never faltered.

NASL/Opta Stats - Average Position - Indy Eleven
As seen from the Average Position graph, this version of the 4-4-2 looks exactly like how you would expect this collection of players to play together. Zayed up top with Braun just underneath. Speas and Smart tucking inside slightly on the wings so that Franco and Vukovic could make the runs up the sides from the backline. Ubiparipovic in the attacking midfield role with Ring sitting (or in his case, never sitting) in the defensive midfield role. Falvey, Keller, and Busch controlling and directing the defense. With the exception of Keller, this lineup is one of the few times this year where you can realistically say that every guy is playing in his position and to their strengths. That's an important aspect of this game and maybe even more important moving forward if the Eleven want to have any hope of clawing their way up the table (the combined table at this point).

If there's anything I've learned in my time covering the Indy Eleven in the NASL, it's that if you fall down with contact, even minimal contact, you're likely going to get the call. Other teams have learned to exploit this fact and the Indy Eleven, for whatever reason, tend to try and fight through the contact and stay on their feet. We can argue about which is the better way to play, but the Eleven are losing set piece opportunities and acquiring yellow cards at a much quicker rate. If Ring's yellow/yellow/red card against Edmonton in May hadn't wiped away the yellows, Ring would have received his fifth yellow card of the season (giving him a one game suspension). Ring plays with passion and energy, but you can't convince me that he's played rough to a point that would necessitate 5 yellow cards in 12 games.

Photo: Don Thompson
The second is that "even is off" when it comes to an offside call. My family's seats are at a location in the stadium where we can get a good look at whether an offside call is correct or not. It will come as no surprise to most Indy Eleven fans, but from my vantage point, the NASL refs are routinely wrong. When I think they are most often wrong is when a player is in the "even is on" position. That was in full display in the 13th minute when Marco Franco put a perfect ball into the box, which Zayed deftly headed over Sylvestre and into the back of the net. As former President of the Eleven, Peter Wilt, put it, "Indy Eleven robbed. Eamon Zayed was onside."

Photo: Don Thompson
I bring up those two points because they seem to be things that the Indy Eleven have not yet figured out how to overcome. They have received almost twice as many yellow cards as their opponents on the season and nearly 50% more offside calls on the season as well. In this game, the Eleven received two yellow cards to North Carolina's zero and I don't think they played any more physical than NCFC, but they don't seem to get the same calls. NCFC were called offside three times, while the Eleven were called off seven times and if we're honest, the goal that Speas scored in the 84th minute from Goldsmith's cross could have been called offside as well. Not because Speas was in an offside position, but because Braun was offside and it would not have surprised me if the goal had been disallowed because Braun's run affected the defense. The Eleven need to adjust to the way games are called to give themselves more chances, because they are squandering good opportunities by not giving themselves a half-yard more than they might normally if refs were actually calling "even is on" mentality. For a team that has struggled to get the ball into the goal, it's a change they need to make.

Justin Braun's goal in the 60th minute is a microcosm of Braun and his importance to this team offensively this season. On a soft cross from Speas, 5 defenders and Sylvestre had the goal well defended. Poor touch followed by poor touch and Braun's workrate gets rewarded by not stopping on a ball. I was reminded of his goal in Miami when Smart put the ball into the middle that should have been easily cleared, but Braun continued his run and gently ushered a ball into the goal that had no business being scored. This version required him to take an attempted clearance into his gut, but it still comes back to his motor.

NASL television screen capture

One last thing before I award this week's Game Beckons Game Ball. Immediately after the Eleven scored their first goal, the infamous "adage goal" looked like it might make an appearance because the team defending led to a scramble situation in front of Busch. Watching live, I wrote in my notes that the defending at that point was "poor." On the rewatch, I have to rethink my "poor" comment and reword it to just "frenetic." Guys were all over the place trying to cover for each other, but when Busch left the goal face and found himself on the outer edge of the 6-yard box, not one, but two Indy Eleven players placed themselves in the goal to try and prevent shots from going in; Falvey and Keller; with Ring right there to further clog the goal and prevent shots. I debated giving Keller the Game Ball because he's turned into a solid center back and I feel much more comfortable with him next to Falvey than I do with the other "true" centerbacks on the team. I wouldn't be disappointed to see him permanently supplant KWS in that role.
NASL television screen capture
The Game Beckons Game Ball
As I said, I thought about giving this to Keller. I also thought about giving it to Busch because he was credited with 6 saves and they were all fantastic saves. Yet, despite his late game yellow card, Brad Ring has become a defensive midfielder from hell. That ninja kick clearance of his is a sight to behold and he just seems to have a way of keeping guys from doing what they want to do. He had 6 clearances, 3 interceptions, 2 of 2 tackles won, was 90% accurate on his passes, and was the guy who got the NCFC defense to shift to the middle by faking a shot before passing out to Speas on the cross that ultimately led to Braun's goal. With Franco and Vuko pushing forward into the offense, Ring perfectly served as the shield in front of Keller and Falvey, helping keep guys like Laing and Fondy in check.

The Eleven head to Cary, North Carolina on Saturday in another of NASL's odd back-to-back scheduling to face an NCFC team that will have more rest than they had this week. Will that be enough to help NCFC flip the switch, or will the Eleven be able to use this week's win as a catalyst to more wins?



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Indy Eleven vs Armada - 04.11

- Opponent: Jacksonville Armada
- Location: Indianapolis
- Attendance: 8,516
- Final Score: 1-4 L
- Starting XI: Busch, Franco, Palmer, Falvey, Vukovic, Ring, Smart, Keller, Thompson, Speas, Zayed
- Substitutions: Ubiparipovic 45'+3' (Thompson), Plumhoff 64' (Smart), Goldsmith 75' (Zayed)
- Unused: Cardona, Lomeli, Manning, Ables
- Goals: Zayed 10' (assist Vukovic)
- Bookings: Franco 30' (Yellow), Palmer 45'+1' (RED), Ring 48' (Yellow)
- Adage goals: Two

I honestly don't know what to write anymore about this team. Yes, there have been issues, but the lineup at this point should have been able to get at least one win on the season. Looking at the remainder of the Spring Season, I don't see where the Eleven get their first win. This coming week against North Carolina might be their best shot, only because NCFC will be coming into the game on short rest since they play a mid-week U.S. Open Cup game; a game in NCFC against the Houston Dynamo. Based on what I've seen out of the new NCFC (and NWSL's NC Courage) owner, they are not going to take the USOC game lightly, so they will likely play the normal starters in hopes of taking down an MLS squad. If the Eleven can't get a win at home against a tired opponent, the rest of the Spring Season doesn't look spectacular. They turn around and play two away games (NCFC and NYC) before coming back home to play the Cosmos and Jacksonville. Tell me where you see a win in those games right now.

Jacksonville came into Carroll Stadium, which was an impossible location for teams last year, and walked away with a 4-1 win. In the process, they might have also taken three more players out of the lineup for the Eleven as I wouldn't be surprised if Thompson is out on concussion protocol after taking a hard hit ball to the face in the waning minutes of the first half, Plumhoff dropped to the ground as soon as the game was finished after taking a hit late in the game, and Palmer picked up a red card shortly after that. More on that one in a minute, but for a team that has been struggling to keep guys available for selection, the potential for three more guys to be hurt/out is concerning.

Coach Hankinson was quoted on Soccer Saturday that the Eleven wanted to limit Pitchkolan's ability to be the Armada's starting point for playing the ball out of the back. It was clear in the early parts of the game that this was definitely a focus in training during the week because Pitchkolan rarely touched the ball where he wasn't chased into some kind of relief pass instead of being able to calmly start the offense. Pitchkolan had 69 touches, and a 62 of 67 pass completion rate, but he only had one successful pass in the Eleven's defensive half and most of them well in the Armada defensive third. Zayed listened to his coach early in the game because he routinely pressured Pitchkolan, but Speas and Thompson followed his lead and Coach's direction and routinely pressed the backline. The high press helped create some chances early, but the lack of depth and the man disadvantage made that tactic much more difficult in the second half.

Smart is no longer a Super Sub. He's an absolute necessity for the Eleven offense. The Eleven, due to a number of factors, including experience and injuries, do not have a difference maker on the offensive side of the ball. There hasn't been anybody that has routinely take guys on one-v-one, nor run past them to get to balls, nor put in well placed crosses. That all changes with the addition of Smart back to the lineup and was in full display just seconds into the first half when he created two good chances (even if he was only officially given credit for one all game).

I don't like to blame refs for poor results, but this ref made a ton of poor decisions. Starting with the penalty kick he awarded to Jacksonville in the first 3 minutes of play on marginal contact between Gebhard and Falvey, the poor decisions kept coming. One of the last that I remember was when he indicated advantage for the Eleven in the 79th minute when Plumhoff was taken out by Pitchkolan. Once he stopped play because Plumhoff was clutching his knee on the ground, the ref gave Pitchkolan a yellow card. A foul, feet outside the box, that is worthy of issuing a yellow card should nearly instantly be blown dead for a free kick at that spot. That's a much larger advantage at that point in the game.

The decision I can't argue is the red card given to Palmer. Palmer forced the ref to give it to him and there wasn't any other decision that could be made. The second you retaliate, after the play has been blown dead, you're going to get at least a yellow card. The second you retaliate by hitting another player at neck level or above, you're finishing the game in the locker room. It was a terrible decision by Palmer and as a result, the Armada were able to score two more goals while the Eleven were down a man.

This team has the talent. I still believe that, but they seem like they're constantly chasing the game and that makes it hard to get the mojo back. The belief that they had last year where it seemed like the balls were going to bounce their way has flipped 180-degrees and it seems like if a ball can go against them, it will. This team needs a win in the worst way and next week's home game against a NCFC team on a 3 games in 8 day stretch might be the thing that turns a season full of valleys into something better.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

This week it's easy to give the Game Beckons Game Ball. Don Smart. He was effective when he was in. He gave the Eleven a dynamic that they haven't had in weeks and they didn't look the same after he left in the 64th minute.