Sunday, October 21, 2018

Indy Eleven vs Louisville FC - 05.35 - USL Playoffs

- Opponent: Louisville City FC
- Location: Louisville
- Attendance: 6,763
- Final Score: 4-1 L
- Starting XI: Fon Williams, Ouimette, Mitchell, Ferreira, Ayoze, Matern, Moses, Watson, Mares, Speas, McInerney
- Substitutions: Venegas 45' (Matern); Collier 61' (McInerney); Saad 61' (Watson)
- Unused: Lundgaard, Rusin, Ring, Guerra
- Goals: Saad 67' (assist Mares)
- Bookings: Mitchell 46' (Yellow); Ouimette 72' (Yellow)
- Adage goals: Two

Indy Eleven limped into the USL playoffs losing 4 of their final 6 games, including a loss last week to tonight's opponent in Louisville City FC. In those final 6 games, Indy played the elite teams of the eastern conference in FC Cincinnati, Louisville City FC, and Pittsburgh, as well as Bethlehem Steel who also made the playoffs. In those four games, Indy was outscored 8 to 3, giving up a trifecta of goals to Pittsburgh and FC Cincinnati. As I've pointed out before, Indy's record against the top four teams in the league (FCC, LCFC, Pittsburgh, & Charleston) was 2W-6L-4D.

Indy was good, but not great all season. Tonight, they were great for the first 5 minutes and came away with nothing to show for that effort. McInerney had a good opportunity within the first 20 seconds and Matern had another a few minutes later. After that, and much like last week, the better team won. Once LCFC put a goal on the board in the 29th minute by McCabe (his first of 2 on the night) and Indy had to push more numbers forward to get an equalizer, they were going to continue to provide opportunities for LCFC to exploit them.

Immediately ahead and behind the halftime break, Indy gave up free kick chances that LCFC put into the goal, creating an insurmountable lead. Coach Rennie went to the bench early in the second half, substituting Venegas in for Matern at halftime and then held off until the 61st minute before throwing all of his chips into the table. Out came McInerney, who felt a bit non-existent at times, for Collier and Saad in for Watson, both in the 61st minute. Indy had another good stretch of play after the substitutions and Saad made an immediate impact, pulling one back for the visitors in the 67th minute.

The optimism about Indy potentially making it a close game was short-lived though as Lancaster placed a (potentially) wind-assisted free kick over the wall and into the upper 90 out of reach of a fully-stretched Fon Williams. With that dagger, the rest of the game played out like a painful death march to the off-season for Indy Eleven and their fans.

The game finished as I expected, if not by the goal line that I expected. Indy was always going to have issues going into Louisville and getting a win. Exacerbating their odds were relatively poor performances from some guys like Ouimette and Matern. Not surprisingly, Ayoze and Mares played well in the loss and I would hope that they find their way back onto next season's roster. I'm more confident that Ayoze will be back, but I suspect Mares will once again be offered a contract some place that the Eleven will not be able to match. If I believe the line that Coach Rennie has stated all year about needing time to achieve proper chemistry (apparently 8+ months isn't quite enough), I would assume that most of this year's squad will be returning next year though I have to wonder if Lewis, Amankona, Pasher, Ring, Rusin, & Steinberger will be returning.That's a discussion for another time though.

Tonight, the Eleven begin their off-season after a disheartening 4-1 loss to a rival after having a good, but not great, season.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

Ayoze and Mares. Ayoze is the team MVP and Mares gets 2nd place just because of his limited time here in Indy this season.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Indy Eleven vs Louisville City FC - 05.34

- Opponent: Louisville City FC
- Location: Louisville
- Attendance: 10,686
- Final Score: 1-0 L
- Starting XI: Fon Williams, Venegas, Ouimette, Ferreira, Ayoze, Matern, Moses, Watson, Mares, Braun, McInerney
- Substitutions: Collier 54' (Braun); Guerra 78' (Matern); Speas 81' (Moses)
- Unused: Lundgaard, Rusin, Amankona
- Goals: None
- Bookings: Ouimette 51' (Yellow); Moses 78' (Yellow); Mares 82' (Yellow)
- Adage goals: None

I wanted to wait to write my thoughts about the Eleven's loss to Louisville until the rest of the results from the league's Sunday games were final as it affected where the Eleven would end in the table, and by extension, where they would play in the first weekend of the playoffs. At the conclusion of the game against LCFC, Indy maintained the spot they entered, which was in 5th place. At the conclusion of the Sunday games, the Eleven fell all the way to 7th, forcing a rematch with Louisville City FC next weekend.

Knowing that it was a possibility for the two teams to play again next weekend, I considered the option during the 2-hour drive home. I would like to be wrong about it, but I don't believe that the Indy Eleven can win the game next weekend. They have played Louisville tough this season, but at the time of year when it matters most, the Eleven don't look like the team that can win against the top level talent in the Eastern Conference. They've played the top teams in the closing weeks of the season and have lost 3 of their last 5. That's not exactly the run-of-form that you want when heading into the playoffs.

With what we've witnessed Saturday, the Eleven held their own in the first half, but chased the game in the second half and not just chasing the game in the sense that they adjusted their tactics to find an equalizer after falling behind from a 34 minute penalty kick goal from Lancaster. Rather, they were constantly chasing the ball trying to catch up to the ball movement from Louisville. I don't see how the team remedies that in less than a week.

Then there's the field... LCFC have clearly figured out how to play in a field that is short, narrow, and watered down with dish soap laden water. How many LCFC players did you see slip and slide making cuts in the infield "grass" and how many Indy Eleven players did you see slip and slide making cuts in that exact same area of the field? I think Braun's early second half departure was a result of a slip that caused him to slowly pick himself off the turf. In the first half, Venegas looked like a thief tip-toeing through a house in an absurd soccer crime-caper movie. Which, I'm sure seems obvious, is not an ideal way to defend a team. Particularly when you're playing more of a three back lineup. So in addition to the eleven players on the field, the Eleven had to compete against the field itself.

LCFC were not as affected by their field, and by all indications, avoided the baseball infield portion of the field as much as possible. Yet, even with LCFC playing in just the northern half of the field, the Eleven were constantly trying to catch up to the movement from Louisville.

In the first half, the Eleven were going from West to East. I took the heat map from the game's match center, roughly drew in the location of the infield "grass," rotated the map to reflect the actual field, and split it for each team. Here's what that evaluation confirmed for my eye-ball test.

Indy defended a lot and the majority of their touches were within their own half. That was in both halves, but the second half was even deeper in their defensive third.

Indy Eleven 1st half heat map - defending west

Indy Eleven 2nd half heat map - defending east
Louisville, on the flip side, had a great deal of their touches in Indy's half of the field and looked to make a concerted effort to avoid the infield "grass." They seem to have adjusted their play to the difficulties that the infield and pitcher's mound presents. Yet, even with that compressed field limitation, LCFC's passes consistently forced the Eleven to recover defensively.
LCFC 1st half heat map - defending east

LCFC 2nd half heat map - defending west
With less than a week, Coach Rennie and the rest of the coaching staff have to figure out how to beat a team that, to me, were the better team on Saturday without any way to recreate the difficulties of playing on the surface they saw this week. Which is going to be a tall order and leads me to this week's Game Beckons Game Ball.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

Owain Fon Williams in a runaway. Fon Williams set a new season high for him in saves on Saturday, officially tallying 8, but what felt like more. Coach Rennie was quoted afterwards of saying that he thought "he [Fon Williams] deserved a clean sheet" and "it was only a penalty that was able to beat him." Owain had to deal with more than double the Shots on Target as his LCFC counterpart, Ranjitsingh, and was able to keep the Eleven in the game. He managed to minimize the scoring damage and a penalty kick is a rough way to lose a clean sheet, but he played well and was the definite bright spot for the team.



Sunday, October 7, 2018

Indy Eleven vs Bethlehem Steel FC - 05.33

- Opponent: Bethlehem Steel FC
- Location: Indianapolis
- Attendance: 14,894
- Final Score: 1-1 D
- Starting XI: Fon Williams, Ouimette, Mitchell, Ferreira, Ayoze, Matern, Moses, Watson, Mares Collier, Starikov
- Substitutions:  Rusin 41' (Mitchell - injury); McInerney 62' (Moses); Speas 70' (Starikov)
- Unused: Lundgaard, Ring, Guerra, Saad
- Goals: Starikov 60' (assist Ayoze)
- Bookings: Moses 58' (Yellow)
- Adage goals: None

The Eleven came into the game knowing that a win solidified their place in the playoffs, a draw kept them in the running, and a loss took their fate out of their own hands. To prevent that last scenario from happening, the Eleven were forced to fight back from a goal deficit when a ball was sent through to Bethlehem's Faris and he was able to walk into a close range for a shot after a recovering defensive run from Mitchell sent him into a heap on the turf with what looks like a significant hamstring injury. Coach Rennie was unable to provide any indication of the extent of the injury immediately after the game, but any time you see a player crumble like he did, you have to expect that he won't be available to play next weekend against Louisville City FC.

What that means for the lineup, which again was started with the 3 back setup for this game, will be an interesting evaluation during the week. Exacerbating the issue is that Mitchell's replacement in this game, Brad Rusin, also came up lame in the late stages of the game and he was forced to play more up top with Watson playing the defensive role to help nurse the draw across the finish line. Venegas was not available for this game after picking up a knock during training during the week. All of those injuries could create an interesting lineup on Saturday. If those three are not able to go next week, we may see Ring or Moses on the back line, with the team going back to the previously used 4-4-2. Coach Rennie has said that he didn't feel comfortable with a 3 back lineup until Ferreira returned and had some games under his belt with the other guys so I assume he didn't feel that Ring, et al, were capable of performing the way he wanted in that scenario. It will be interesting to see the injury report later this week.

Indy started this game with the three back lineup again with Collier and Starikov up top. Bethlehem's press forced the Eleven to pull Ayoze further back into a defensive role, but Coach Rennie wanted the team to continue to operate with the 3-5-2 mentality. The injury to Mitchell further complicated that tactic with the players being forced to adjust on the fly as the game progressed. Watson described it afterwards as "we went to a 4-4-2 at one point and we went to a 5-3-2...once we got the goal, it was just "we're not going to concede a goal."" and that mentality was evident as I remember at least twice late in the game where Mares tracked a player all the way back to the endline with Ferreira helping out. Both cases resulted in a corner kick, but it was obvious that the midfield was as much, or more, involved in their defensive roles as they were in the forward roles. That's a significant advantage to having players like Mares, Moses, and Watson on the field.

Collier and Starikov worked hard up top, but this was not one of Collier's best games. His hold-up play and connection with the other players were off early. I can't pinpoint the difference, but he just didn't seem to put passes where they were expecting them to go. He didn't play horrible, but he seemed off.

Fon Williams had one of his better games that I can remember. He had a spectacular double-save in the 16th minute and then another in the 83rd minute, all of them requiring him to bail out mistakes from the defense in front of him. When I asked him afterwards about what goes through his mind at times like those, he provided a very thoughtful response:
"Being a goalkeeper in that situation, you gotta put yourself as much in the attacker's mind as possible because at the end of the day, I don't know whether you've ever stood in goal, but it's pretty big behind you. You gotta fill that goal as much as you can. In that scenario, you've gotta realize what's the percentage, what's it going to be? Is he going to take the shot early? In that case, you've got to hold back or is he going to take his touch? In that moment, you got a decision to make whether you can go close him down and go for the presented ball with your body spread. Or whether hang back and be in a reaction save. You hold your ground and try to make the save that way. In the first half, I saw him come into the box, he took a little bit of a heavy touch, and at that point, that made my mind up I was going to come out and make myself as big as possible. Thankfully, in that scenario, it worked my way. Being a goalkeeper, it's all about decision making and it's all a learning curve. You win some, you lose some."
The following is a summary of some of my other notes about the game that I thought were interesting, but didn't deserve more detailed discussions:

  • The 24th minute tackle on Watson by Chambers is how guys blow out knees. Should have been a yellow card for Chambers. It was good to see Chambers finally pick up a yellow card later in the game, even if it wasn't until the 87th minute.
  • In the 32nd minute, Moses got the "1-2-3 foul" talk from the referee. Given the way that Moses plays, I knew it was just a matter of team before he picked up a yellow. Moses managed to make it to the 58th minute before getting a yellow card on a foul that was far less severe than some of the ones from the Bethlehem players that deserved yellow cards, but weren't given.
  • In the 33rd minute, Bethlehem's Ngalina injured himself on the stands, proceeded to walk back onto the field, and then fell down on the field...with a wrist injury. These kinds of things drive me crazy. It creates stoppage time unnecessarily.
  • Matern shot the ball towards goal (it was just his 6th of the season, with only 1 on target)
  • 86th minute McInerney bike attempt, Mares scissor kick attempt on goal just over the bar. That would have been a spectacular way to get a win.
The Eleven are still not officially in the playoffs, nor are the officially out of them either. A win against Louisville City FC on Saturday would be the best alternative; a draw relies on a number of scenarios working in their favor and a loss requires an even greater number of scenarios working in their favor. It going to be difficult to predict how the game will go until more information is known on their injury situation, as well as what lineup LCFC chooses to use since they are already in the playoffs. Do they chose to rest some guys before starting the playoffs the next week or do they play them due to the regional rivalry aspect of the game?

You can only play the team in front of you and the Eleven need the win so that they can avoid scoreboard watching on Saturday night.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

This was the kind of game where I have difficulty giving one player the Game Beckons Game Ball. Fon Williams was vital in the win with the saves that he made, particularly the double save in the 16th minute. Mares was steady in the midfield. Watson played well, both in his midfield role and the defensive role in which he was thrust late in the game. Starikov's goal was important.

Which leads me to my selection for the final home game of the season. Ayoze. For my money, he's the team MVP. In this game, he accounted for 5 of the team's 9 Chances Created. With his assist on Starikov's goal (which was a 50-yard dime and is the long yellow line on the screen capture of his distribution), Ayoze becomes the Eleven's single season assist leader, bypassing Dylan Mares. He's the team's set piece specialist. He takes all the corner kicks. This team would be completely different without him.