Friday, August 4, 2023

2023 Indy Eleven W League season - They Run This Mutha

Photo Credit: Don Thompson Photography
It's been a couple of weeks since the Indy Eleven W League team went into Carroll Stadium as Valley Division and Central Conference champions and left as the W-League's Champions after a 2-1 victory over the Southern Conference's North Carolina Courage U23 team thanks to a 99th minute goal from Alia Martin. In the league's and the team's second season, Indy Eleven joined Tormenta FC as the league's first two league champions. Going into the game, Indy had not been selected for a single one of the league's player/coach awards. 

Not Coach of the Year. That went to Michele Krzisnik of Flint City.

Not the Golden Glove. That went to Bailey Herfurth of Tampa Bay United.

Not the Golden Boot. That went to Baylee Desmit of Christos FC.

Not the Assist Champion. That went to Katie Shea Collins of Tennessee SC.

Not Defender of the Year. That went to Tianna Harris of Minnesota Aurora FC.

Not Young Player of the Year. That went to Mia Oliaro of North Carolina Courage. 

And not Player of the Year (announced this week & not before the game). That went to Nadia Gomes of San Francisco Glens.

Photo Credit: Don Thompson Photography
Indy Eleven dispatched those last three players in the playoffs in route to the league title, proving that a collection of talented players don't have to win individual awards to be able to win the team award. [Edit: there were 5 undefeated teams in the regular season; Tampa Bay United, Oly Town, Flinty City, Minnesota Aurora, & NC Courage; Indy beat three of those teams on their way to the league title and had to beat 2 of them just to win the Central Conference.] Indy had four different players score at least 6 goals (Dewey - 7+2; Soderstrom, K. - 6+1; Whitsett - 6, Williams - 7+2), had 13 different goal scorers, and had a combined 10 shutouts in 14 games (Reason - 5+2; Edwards - 3). There were 6 players that scored at least two goals in a single game (Chester, Dewey, Kugler, Soderstrom, Whitsett (x2), Williams) and one hat trick (Dewey). Seven different players were credited with the game-winning goal. All that to say that this team thrived by being a team. It didn't matter who scored the goals or who saved the shots, but somebody was going to score the goal and somebody was going to save the shots. 

This was a true team and had success because they bought in to being a team and played for each other. Coach Dolinsky made some tactical adjustments throughout the season to put the team in a successful position, and the team had the talent and the desire to carry out those adjustments. Most notably, last year's leading scorer in Katie Soderstrom was asked to play a more defensive role in the game against San Francisco to help neutralize what the coaches had seen on video of Nadia Gomes, the league's player of the year. That takes a special player that is completely bought into the team-first aspect to play that role and a special coach to have faith in his players that they can carry out those tactics despite them not being their normal playing positions.

It's not difficult to be a fan of this team. They are talented, exciting to watch, and clearly played for each other and the City of Indianapolis. Obviously winning helps, but they're just fun to watch. There are times when my coverage of the men's team feels like a grind, but I never have that with this women's team. The St. Charles loss just proved that they are human and can have an off game. It was sad to watch, but I also think that this group of women used that down game as motivation for the rest of the season and helped propel them to the League Final victory.

Photo Credit: Don Thompson Photography
Indy made their run through the playoffs without players that had helped get them there. When the playoffs started, Indy was without Trinity Watson, who had played in 9 of the 10 regular season games, playing both defense and offense, because she had signed a pro contract in the Cyprus First Division. Hal Hershfelt had to return to Clemson before the playoffs started, and she had helped hold down the midfield for 8 games. Kanna Matsuhisa had been an exciting and dynamic sub off the bench before being injured with two games remaining in the regular season. Players like Rachel Dewey, Karsyn Cherry, Cassidy Lindley, and Kristina Lynch looked like they would have significant roles when the roster was announced, but played very few games due to injuries. That's how deep this team was that they could still make their way through the playoffs without so many key and talented players unavailable. 

Photo Credit: Don Thompson Photography
This year, Indy announced that they would be joining the USL Super League, which is slated to begin next year. The anticipated first division league is set to directly compete against the NWSL for talent, fans, and money. Once Eleven Park is completed, hopefully in the summer of 2025, Indy will begin playing in that league. It wouldn't surprise me if Coach Dolinsky isn't already in the ear of some of the players we watched this year, or both years. I think the midfield duo of Ella Rogers and Greta Kraszula are both juniors this year at Xavier and VCU, respectively, meaning that they should be scheduled to graduate in 2025. That's fortunate timing if they're interested in trying to play at the next level and like the idea of having the BYB behind them. We can only hope that they, and others, are interested in returning in the summer of 2024 to try and repeat as W League champions.

So we know that the play on the field was good. What about off-the-field? Last year, I had some complaints about how the club handled the team as it related to the gameday experience. Obviously, Indy has one of the best television/streaming productions of any team I watched this year. Greg Rakestraw, Angela Berry-White, Brad Hauter, Ian Gilmore, and the ISC Sports crew are on a drastically different level than the other productions around the division, conference, and league. I didn't have any issues with that last year, and they didn't disappoint this year. I appreciate that the club has treated the games they way they have and use a professional production crew for the streams. Other teams (*ahem* Louisville) have a long way to go to get even close.

Last year, though, I had some complaints about gameday posters and programs, and spelled out my reasons for my, and my female family and friends', complaints. In essence, I felt that the team could do a better job of being equitable in their treatment, even when they couldn't be equal in their treatment. The club still only created a single two posters for the team for the regular season, plus one poster for the League Final. Not great, but I'm probably yelling into the wind on that one. I assume the USL Super League team will be afforded the same poster tradition as the men's team.

One of my other complaints was about the lack of a program for the women's games. I even spelled out how a program could work, even at its most basic level, including the idea of getting a sponsor to help defray costs. To the club's credit, the team did a much improved effort on this front. There were programs this year that very similarly matched my idea, including having a sponsor for the programs. They were double-sided 8.5x11 sheets of paper folded in half to create a four-page program, but they were in color, listed the players for the game, included the division standings and a schedule for the rest of the games, and listed upcoming men's games or club camps. The one for the Final was even printed on fancy paper. Overall, it wasn't "equal" to the men's team, but I'm going to give a good solid "A" for being an attempt at "equitable," and was a marked improvement from the first season. I don't know if my article last year helped, but I would like to think that it did.

Attendance felt slightly down from last year, but there were still good crowds for all the game. Obviously the Final at Carroll Stadium was heavily attended due to the fact it was a final and that the club made it a doubleheader with the men's team's game later in the day, but the semi-final game was a packed house in the Grand Park Event Center, rivaling the attendance of the team's first game of last year. I hope that winning a league championship translates to a bump back up in attendance next year, but I don't foresee the team losing the core group of fans that have been supporting this team from the beginning.

Emma Thompson
Photo Credit: Don Thompson Photography (no relation)
I look forward to next year to see what that iteration of this team will accomplish. I suspect Coach Dolinsky will try, once again, to bring back a core group of players that were on this year's squad to help facilitate the continuation of the culture that surrounds this team now. We saw flashes of what is to come from Susie Soderstrom (I believe who is also graduating in 2025 at the same time as Rogers and Kraszula so could likely be persuaded to return next year) and Emma Johnson, who is still in high school. Susie may continue the streak of having a Soderstrom on the roster since her big sister Katie signed a pro contract in the Danish Superliga. 

I hope Bahr recovers from her injury and can play again. 

I hope Alia Martin and Maddy Williams can squeeze in another season in between their day jobs. 

I can't wait to see what other players Coach Dolinsky finds to add to the players that will be returning and replace the players that have moved onto other things.

2023 was an amazing season, and will be difficult to top, but I look forward to seeing what 2024 brings.

Photo Credit: USL W League Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said; looking forward to next year!!