Sunday, July 23, 2023

Indy Eleven vs NC Courage U23 - 02.14 (Playoffs)


- Opponent: NC Courage U23
- Location: Carroll Stadium
- Attendance: 5,419 (new State of Indiana record)
- Final Score: 2-1 W a.e.t.

- Starting XI: Reason, Chatterton, Creel, Bahr, Martin, Kraszula, Rogers (C), Dewey, S., Soderstrom, K., Chester, Williams

- Substitution: Johnson 67’ (Dewey); Whitsett 67’ (Williams); Kugler 67’ (Kraszula); Sexton 77’ (Chester); Soderstrom, S. 81’ (Chatterton); Ojongmboh 116’ (Bahr)

- Unused: Edwards

- Scoring Summary:
IND – Williams 64’ (assist Kraszula)
NCC – Martinho 75’ (assist Oliaro)
IND – Martin 99‘ (unassisted)

- Bookings:
NCC – Geigle 47’ (Yellow)
IND – Ojongmboh 120’ (Yellow)

- Referee: --
- Adage goals: None

Thoughts and Opinions

#ItsTime is this season’s hashtag for the Indy Eleven. It felt like it was meant to be for the men’s team, but the women’s team has set the bar high for this club by making the USL W League’s final in just the second season of the league. After a compacted season for the Indy women, #ItsTime was today.

It seems crazy to say out loud considering that today’s match is a league final, but it could be argued that Indy Eleven underachieved at times this season. Notably the St. Charles loss when Indy had 24 shots, but failed to score. If Indy had managed to be slightly more clinical around goal in a few games, they would have rivaled the goal scoring of the other divisional leaders around the country. As it is, Indy has been peaking at the right time, scoring 3 goals in 2 of the 3 playoff games coming into today’s final. Indy’s defense has helped solidify Indy as one of the best in the league, even when the offense was not as clinical as we’ve seen in the past. 

Indy was trying to break an Indiana state record for a women’s game that was set in 1996 by the U.S. Women’s National Team when they played Iceland at Kuntz Stadium. The club wanted to make a run at that record, as well as the W League record by making today’s Final a doubleheader with the men’s game against Tampa Bay. The W League record was 6,900 (held by Minnesota Aurora), while the Indiana record was 5,123 people for that game at Kuntz. Attendance was announced as 5,419 giving today’s game the new record. Just one more thing that this team has accomplished in its short tenure.

Talking to USL Super League President Amanda Vandervort before the game, one of the keys things she mentioned was the level of competitiveness present in the league: 
“The expansion of the W League going from 44 teams in 2022 to 65 teams in 2023 has established us across the country and I think that national footprint has raised not only the awareness of the W League in the fan excitement and anticipation of what we’ve built, but it’s also created a conversation among players about what the W League really is and the standard in which we play. As a result, you’re seeing the level of competitiveness increase and the amount of fans coming to games rise.”

The start of this game was exactly what you expected to see and exactly the high level of competitive that Vandervort mentioned; high level soccer from two teams that have outlasted and outperformed 63 other teams in route to this league Final. Indy held some possession, NC Courage held some possession, with each with an early foray into the other’s half, but close to the 12-minute mark, the game became wide open as Reason was forced into a save after a giveaway from Martin led to a break. Once the ball was pushed wide, the ball eventually found Williams who had parked herself at the halfway line and sprinted after the ball that was blasted up Route 1. The shot eventually went wide, but the game became very exciting for both keepers. 

The game became wide open around the 20th minute, as both teams settled in and figured out that both teams could possess the ball and that it might take a long ball over the top to break down the solid defenses. The 30th minute hydration break didn’t change that, but it wasn’t until the 38th minute that Indy forced Allen into a good save when Dewey finally broke through the NCC defense. NCC had their own opportunities as the half drew to a close, as well as a flurry of activity by Indy in front of the NCC goal right before the halftime whistle, but neither team could break through for the opening goal and the teams went into the locker room with a nil-nil scoreline. The first half played out kind of how you would expect two of the best teams in the league to play out.

The second half started with a flurry of activity, and a little more fire as both teams had some bruising tackles, including one on Reason that brought the game's first yellow card. Another one of those bruising tackles came from Chatterton in the 56th minute, which led to the first appearance of a team’s trainer. While the team tended to Graham, one of NCC’s other players were helped with a leg cramp by a teammate. After the announcement that the game would be held in the afternoon in Indy in July, I questioned whether a league final should be played in that kind of weather condition. While the weather was better than could it could have been for this time of year, the teams’ fitness levels had its first look of maybe being a part of the storyline of this game. NCC made their first subs of the game immediately after the injury.

Minutes later, Indy opened the scoring in the 64th minute when Indy’s press forced a turnover before Kraszula sent a ball through the lines to Williams who, true to my refrain all season, perfectly tucked the ball around Allen and into the right side of the goal. Smoke cued and Indy was a clean sheet away from bringing Indy their first championship. Indy remained in control for the next few minutes, but the clean sheet was not to be when NCC found their equalizer in the 75th minute when Oliaro put a crossing ball into the box that Martinho managed to get a head on and over Reason who was trying to get back. 

The teams battled back-and-forth for the next 15 minutes, but neither team could get the final breakthrough to win this game in regulation. With extra time looming, NCC had one final chance from what amounted to a short corner as NCC was awarded a free kick. Once the ball exited the field and into the side netting, the game was whistled complete, at least from a regular perspective. A short break and extra time commenced. 

Everything that I’ve described above continued during extra time. Until Martin mishit a header that bounced right back to her and did a version of a bicycle kick that looped over the defenders, over Allen, and under the crossbar for a very unlikely goal in the 99th minute to give Indy another lead in the game. The rest of extra time was defend, defend, defend for Indy, while NCC tried to, once again, find an equalizer. NCC had some decent chances, but Indy closed out the game with group defending that was impressive to watch. The only thing that spoiled the day was the late game injury to Grace Bahr as she tried to keep one of NCC’s attempts out of the goal. Winning the championship was exciting, but Bahr’s late injury took some of the joy out of the celebration. Maddy Williams was emotional fighting back tears, stating “I would love to say that it [the celebration] was awesome, but when Grace goes down like that, and I’ve done my knee before, kind of knew right away what was going on, and that’s our MVP of this game, of this whole tournament, and it’s my best friend. So it’s great and I’m happy to celebrate, but it would be a little bit better if Grace was there to celebrate with us.” At the time of this article, it was unknown the extent of the injury, but it was feared that it was an MCL type injury. 

A very special group of women claimed another trophy for Indy Eleven (that wasn’t an Academy trophy, which Indy has had success (Awards List here). On a hot day in July, a group of women, many of them from the Indiana area, came together in a short period and gelled to become the best team in the USL W League for the 2023 season. “We had young ladies that played in the NWSL, and a lot of girls somewhere between there that, to be able to gel in the manner that they did, and play for one another, and battle for one another. You know, I wish I could say that there was something specific that we did as a staff, but the girls have been fantastic and they’ve showed me something different about the game this year. … Look, they believed in each other more than anything else.”

As a fan who has watched this team succeed from that first game last season against Kings Hammer, there’s a culture that has developed with this team that helps make it successful despite the changing pieces season-to-season, and a portion of that can be credited to Coach Dolinsky and the coaching staff. Yes, Indy returned some key players this year, but those players helped solidify the expectations for the new players. It reminds me of how the U.S. Women’s National Team often describe their success. While Coach can’t point to something, I think that maybe the most important thing he did was find women in that first season with talent, but also with a certain attitude towards winning.

That attitude lead to a successful first season, which culminated in a league championship in just the second season of the team. While talent helps, fans of this club can tell you that talent only takes a team so far. The women have shown this year that talent, a winning attitude, a “do whatever it takes” mentality, and fighting for one another can lead to great things. Like a league championship... This team didn't win a single post-season award, and yet they're the ones hoisting the trophy. 

Enjoy your new tattoos ladies! You’ve earned them.

The Game Beckons Game Ball

Maddy Williams called her the MVP and I can't disagree. When you're playing a team as good as the NC Courage are offensively, it's important that the defense is well organized. Grace Bahr has been a rock in the defense this year, consistently barking orders for where players need to be. Indy's player/coach last year seemingly eliminated some of her responsibilities this year by just having a player role, but all she really did was become a coach on the field. While I'm going to officially give Bahr today's GBGB, this was truly a team win as the midfield duo of Kraszula and Rogers were spectacular as well. And that's not even considering the gorgeous goals from Williams and Martin. Truly a team win, but Bahr literally put her body on the line for this win. I just hope she's okay and that she recovers well.

Game & Celebration Photos

(Don Thompson Photography)

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