A tough 0-0 draw with Jacksonville Armada on Wednesday night drew the Indy Eleven closer to the playoffs. With two home and two road games left to play, it’s still technically unclear if the Eleven have cost themselves home turf in a potential Championship match with the New York Cosmos. For our purposes here, we’ll just assume that’s no longer the primary goal.
So now it’s all about refining on-field presence through these final matches and carrying momentum into the first playoff match on November 5th.
Let’s take a look at the state of the team moving into these final weeks.
Jon Busch looks solid again. After a few shaky games and conceded goals last month, the clouds seem to have parted for the veteran net-minder as he has begun racking up clean sheets again. No single player’s form is more critical when shooting for a potential bout with New York in November’s final. The Cosmos have had more success than most against Busch and our back four, though results have varied wildly when at home or away.
Secondly, The tactical switch to have Lovell Palmer play under center was brilliant. A mediocre passer at best, his strengths revolve around physicality and clearance. In Hankinson’s offense, wing backs are routinely encouraged to get up the field and make the initial pass into the attack, something Palmer has never looked comfortable doing. Last night’s positional tryout saw a much more confident Palmer playing to his strengths and allowing defenders like Vukovich and Franco to get forward on the wings instead. It was great.
The Things We’re A Little Concerned About
Janicki may be available again but he’s not at 100%. His return may limit how much more we see of Palmer at center-back, but Janicki’s injury does look like it will be a persistent nag for the rest of the season. Hankinson may therefore be inclined to use him more sparingly if he likes what he saw out of the formation last night.
Speaking of injuries, they’ve never really let up for the team this fall season. Torrado, for instance, had been been fitting in spectacularly until he went down in last week’s loss to FC Edmonton. Yes, having Falvey and Braun back should pay huge dividends down this final stretch, but if trends continue then depth and health may still be issues come November.
Hankinson selected a conservative game plan against Jacksonville, perhaps to mitigate the injury concern. An understandable objective, but the team won’t win any playoff matches with the level of play they showed last night. Will they be able to just flip a switch on the 5th or will there come a point when Hankinson says, “Alright, go for it,” in the next four games?
It’s worth considering that they may need a few games off the leash to rekindle the chemistry that won them the Spring Championship.
Hankinson probably won’t loosen the reins as early as tomorrow, but after only a couple days rest Indy Eleven and the BYB will be welcoming the Carolina RailHawks to Michael Carroll. This game, and every game after, will be critical for the RailHawks who are in a close, yet large chase group for the 4th playoff spot. Regardless of Indy’s game plan, Carolina will be gunning for nothing less than the win. The fact that Indy embarrassed them in order to capture the Spring Championship a few months ago probably provides some additional incentive, too.
Carolina will come to Indy after suffering a disappointing loss to Rayo OKC on a penalty kick. The RailHawks now have to make the absolute most of their three remaining games while hoping that teams ahead of them falter. Minnesota has been doing just that for the past month, but Rayo now has the upper hand and a hot one at that.
Indy Eleven has been undefeated at home for a full year, but with everything that’s on the table for Carolina this could prove the toughest test at home in a long time.