Thursday, April 6, 2023

Indy Eleven vs Michigan Stars - 2023 U.S. Open Cup


- Opponent: Michigan Stars
- Location: Carroll Stadium
- Attendance: -
- Final Score: 3-1 W

- Starting XI: Oettl, Boudadi, Jerome, Vazquez, Rebellon, Lindley, Blake, Torres, Tejada, Robledo, Guenzatti (C)

- Substitution:  Dambrot (Rebellon 45’); Asante (Torres 45’); Quinn (Blake 45’); Diz Pe (Jerome 64’); Fjeldberg (Lindley 85’); Rissi 105’ (Robledo)

- Unused: Trilk, Jerome, Rissi, Torres

- Scoring Summary:
MICH – Popovic 45’+2’ (penalty kick)
IND – Robledo 59’ (assist Asante)
IND – Guenzatti 92’ (assist Asante)
IND – Tejada 106’ (assist Fjeldberg)

- Bookings:
MICH - Chalbaud 15’ (Yellow)
MICH – Umeda 45’+3’ (Yellow)
MICH – Nikolla 79’ (Yellow)
MICH – Alewine 109’ (Yellow)

- Referee: Alex Beehler
- Adage goals: One

Thoughts and Opinions

There's a reason they call them Cupsets, and Indy has seen their fair share of them over the years, including most recently as Coach Lowry's inaugural year where Indy failed to score a goal and were booted out of the tournament by St. Louis CITY 2 by a score of 2-nil. Indy have only tasted victory 3 times in the previous 10 games they have played in the Open Cup. The first win was a 5-2 win at The Mike against the Dayton Dutch Lions in 2014 (these are all links to my previous articles on the games), when Blake Smith registered Indy's first club hat trick. Indy would move onto play the Columbus Crew, in Akron, before succumbing to an extra time goal to bow out of their first foray into the tournament. After that first season, Indy's success in the Open Cup was severely limited. Indy lost to a, then lower division, Louisville City in 2015 at Carroll Stadium. Indy turned around in 2016 to beat Louisville City at Carroll Stadium before losing in penalty kicks at the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. Indy lost on the road to amateur teams in 2017 and 2018, Michigan Bucks and Mississippi Brilla, respectively. Indy picked up a win in 2019 against Lansing Ignite playing at the Butler Bowl, despite a red card handed out to Evan Newton in the 21st minute, where we saw the first step of Jordan Farr's rise to his current goalkeeper of the year status (I hope I never forget the excitement from Jordan as he experienced his very first media scrum. I'm glad I get to say I was there for that first one.). Indy then fell on the road to league rivals Pittsburgh 1-nil in the next game. Two years of absence to due the pandemic, before the aforementioned loss to St. Louis CITY 2 last year at The Mike. If you're keeping track, that's technically 3W-1D-6L (the game against the Fire technically goes into the record books as a draw, but somebody has to lose in a single-elimination tournament, so the penalty kicks determines that). 

While it didn’t help Indy last year, working in Indy's benefit was that this game was at home, where Indy have managed a 3W-0D-2L record at home, and a pathetic 0W-4L-1D record on the road. Despite an hour delay in the start time, Coach trotted out a very similar starting lineup to what was seen on Saturday against Las Vegas. With a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday week of games, Coach Lowry started Jerome, Torres, Tejada, and Robledo, in lieu of Diz Pe, Quinn, Asante, and Martinez. 

Fortunately for Indy fans, the lineup didn't take the reigning NISA champions for granted, and came out trying to get ahead early. From Coach Lowry, "our objective was to score early today, come out aggressive. And we did, but I don't think our quality in the final third was good enough. The crossing wasn't quite good enough, the final ball wasn't quite good enough, Even in the second half when we were creating a ton of chances, the finishing wasn't quite good enough."

With Sacramento’s run last year and the publicity that it brought to their club, it feels like there might be a renewed interest in taking the early rounds of the Open Cup seriously. Indy could have pulled in some of the Academy players, fresh off their Academy Cup championship, but Coach Lowry’s starting lineup made it evident that they were not taking the Michigan Stars lightly. “When you look around the scores of the Open Cup, games are tight. A couple of Championship teams lost today. These games are never easy. You just have to get through them and move onto the next round. ... Sacramento showed last year what you can do in this tournament. Kind of made it a little bit more believable for people, and we definitely have a team where we think we can make some noise in this tournament and make it exciting.”

Open Cup games are different. Mid-season elimination games create a different energy when you know that there is going to be a winner and a loser, and that the loser doesn’t get to continue playing for a trophy. Add in that these early games are generally teams of different divisions, the lower division team is motivated to have a good showing, and the higher division is trying to not be one of the Cupsets. There’s often not any kind of live stream, the number of fans are reduced, and even some of the Indy Eleven staff are left to cover other tasks. The normal color commentator, and VP of Marketing & Club Growth, Brad Hauter, had no television work to be done, so was charged with running the clock. Having no experience with running the clock, Hauter had some nervy moments as he learned his new role, but managed to do his job like, wait for it, clockwork.

If you thought Las Vegas’ compact 4-4-2 lineup was difficult to breakdown, Michigan Stars spent a good portion of their time defending in what looked like a 5-3-1 Fort Knox Bunker ™. Even when they had possession, it looked like a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree. Indy held possession, and probed and probed, but had difficulty early in finding enough passing lanes to break through. Indy kept trying to probe from far left to far right, but it rained a lot today, and this was the first time many of the Indy players have had to deal with the wet Carroll Stadium turf so those early passes consistently skipped away from the intended recipient.

It took until the 36th minute for Indy to have a “shot on target.” I put that in quotes because there was some disagreement in the press box on whether it actually qualified as an actual shot. My contention was that it was definitely a cross, but calling it a “shot” was a bit of a stretch. 

With Hauter in the press box, I went over just before halftime and did my best Rakestraw impression and asked Brad what he thought about the first half, what Coach Lowry might tell the boys at halftime, and what the team could do differently. “Happy with the possession, but things have to move quicker. There are too many touches to get the ball from one side to the other, and Michigan is shifting too easily to cover.” 
“Would you make any player changes?”
“Not at this point.”

Then moments later, Michigan was awarded a penalty kick in the 45’+2’ minute on a clumsy challenge from Jerome in the box. Everything changed from that point forward as Indy tried to prevent themselves from becoming yet another Indy Eleven team to fall to a lower division team in the Open Cup. Lowry made three subs at halftime to try and jumpstart the attack. Asante, Dambrot, and Quinn entered for Torres, Rebellon, and Blake. 

Indy finally found their equalizer in the 59th minute thanks to quick passing and a cross. Indy made a much more concerted effort with the substitutes to move the ball faster and get the ball into the box. As Coach said, they just weren't clinical enough with their finishing to pull ahead and finish the game.

Six minutes of added time in the second half wasn’t enough, so on a night when rain forced a late start, the fans who attended the game had to go home even later as extra time started just past 10:00 in the PM.  As Coach Lowry stated after the game, "It should have been put to bed in the 50th to 60th minute, to be honest with you. When you don't take your chances and you aren't clinical, you have to play an extra thirty minutes."

Then within 90-seconds of the start of the first extra time period, Indy finally found the back of the net again. After that, it was 28-minutes of managing the clock, managing field position, and trying to hang on without giving up a goal against the run of play on a counterattack. With three games in a week, an extra thirty minutes of action on many of the guys’ legs was not what the team needed, but at least the weather was at a temperature where nobody was cramping. 

Indy put another goal on the board in the 105’+1’, and nearly put a fourth in the 105’+2’ by Fjeldberg that went inches wide as a result of a 4-on-1 break. It’s those missed chances that continue to put Indy in the position they find themselves in the early stages of the season. Plenty of possession, but struggling in the final third. Indy was punished for one of their few backline mistakes on defense, but needing 60-minutes to get a goal and extra time to finish off an opponent after dominating possession is something Indy needs to get fixed soon. Until Indy figure out how to connect in the final third, this will be a reoccurring trend moving forward. Las Vegas made it work to a scoreless draw, and Michigan Stars pushed it to extra time with generally the same tactics. Defend, defend, defend as Indy possess, pass the ball around, without any kind of significant threat on goal. There isn’t any film on this game, but another 80-90% to 10-20% possession tells teams that the tactics were the same, and that they work or nearly work. 

The good news is that Indy found a way to win and will move on in the tournament. With this kind of tournament, not all the goals for the team were met during this game, but the one that matters most happened. Coach Lowry was still optimistic about the team moving forward. "The way we're playing is fantastic. These performances have to start translating into goals and wins obviously." 

Indy return to The Mike on Saturday night to play Oakland Roots with hopes that their recent absolute domination in possession can turn into more goals to keep the team's undefeated start to the season going.

The Game Beckons Game Ball
Prior to Indy's first goal, Asante had sent in a handful of crosses trying to get the ball into the mixer in the hopes of somebody from Indy getting a good touch to it, or for Michigan to get a poor touch to it. The finishing touch wasn't there, but Asante’s presence changed the game. In addition to his crosses, he was attacking the backline with pace, which forced the Michigan defenders to react more quickly than they were forced to do in the first half. Another hat trick of A brace of assists from Asante speaks volumes to what he was able to accomplish tonight. [Editor's note: Indy's official recap credited Asante with an assist on all three goals, which was inconsistent with how it was announced during the game, but I used their value thinking I had not seen it correctly, or misheard the announcement. However, in the team's recap video, it's clear that the assist on Tejada's goal came from Fjeldberg.]

Additional Photos (Don Thompson Photography)

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