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?



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