Coming in to this past Saturday’s match against North Carolina FC (formerly Carolina Railhawks), Indy Eleven were without a doubt on a downward spiral.  With no end in sight, Indy was amidst a 0-1-5 record over the last 6 games in all competitions.  That’s an unfathomable record for a team that made it to the 2016 NASL Championship match.  Sitting at the bottom of the NASL table, Indy was in need of a positive result.  Anything less than 3 points would have fans and players questioning this season.

For a side looking to rebound out of their current slump, Indy’s opponent was probably the best team they could face.  NCFC are also coming off of a similar streak.  They have doubled Indy’s point production so far in the spring season, but that is mainly off the back of their early games.   With a similar record over the last half dozen games, and a Wednesday Open Cup match that saw NCFC take the MLS’s Houston Dynamo to 120 minutes only to lose 2-3, NCFC were coming in to the match with tired legs and possibly less confidence.

On the other hand, Indy’s lineup was seeing a return to what many thought would be the preferred lineup prior to the start of this year’s NASL season.  For the first time in quite some time, fans saw the offensive group of Justin Braun, Eamon Zayed, Ben Speas, and Don Smart all on the pitch at the same time.  Look for this group, if they can stay healthy, to score multiple goals a game.  Defensively, Indy is still hurting with Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Lovel Palmer, and Gerardo Torrado all on the injured list for this game.

Here is how the two sides would line up

**Of note, NCFC’s Brian Shriver played in the midfield under Matt Fondy and not beside him up top unlike what is pictured.

Also, it appears that Coach Hankinson has been playing formation games lately with the pre-match release of the lineup.  With the pairing of Braun and Zayed back on the pitch, and the inclusion of Sinisa Ubiparipovic back in to the lineup up top, Hank’s formation of the diamond could be easily predicted.  What wasn’t predictable was the play and position of Ubi.  As the game started, it was clear that the diamond was not the only formation at play.  Indy’s formation often turned in to a flat 4-4-2 or a somewhat every-changing 4-2-3-1.  Ubi often found himself falling back in a defensive mid role alongside Brad Ring in hopes to disrupt the play of some of the best midfielders in the NASL in Nazmi Albadawi, Austin Da Luz, Brian Shriver, and of course Lance Laing. Looking at his heat map, he was all over the defensive side of the pitch providing support to our midfield and backs.  In fact, this may have been one of Ubi’s best games yet for the Indy Eleven.  Looking at his passing rate, he was 39/45 for 81 minutes of play.  That’s a healthy bit of accurate distribution.

How it played out

The first half was defined by quick midfield play by NCFC, great goalkeeping by Jon Busch, and a score line that should have been 2 or 3-0 at the half in favor of Indy.  In the 13’ Zayed’s header to the far left side of the net past Brian Sylvestre, from a Marco Franco cross to the 6 yard box, was called offside.  That call, which the replay appeared to show was incorrect, denied a much needed goal for the resurging striker.  Along with that goal, a missed handball off of a NCFC defender in the box in the 32’, that denied Braun of a scoring header opportunity, could have given Indy a penalty and a shot at another goal.  Could that have been 2-0?  And a few moments later, a long outlet from Ubi to Braun was chested down in stride and put just wide of the net from point blank range.  I’ll call that 2.5-0.  Instead, both teams went in to the half tied 0-0.

In second half, all of that running and play through the midfield began to wear down the legs of the visitors.  The Wednesday all night session with the MLS side, and the defensive efforts down the middle by backs Colin Falvey and Daniel Keller, along with both defensive mids “Legend” and Ubi, started to take a toll on shot selection for NCFC.  The majority of their shots were taken outside of the 18 yard box, as opposed to 75% of Indy’s shots coming from inside the box.

The best opportunity for NCFC came in the 52’ in which a curling shot by Albadawi from outside the box to the upper right hand side of the goal was saved by the diving Busch.  Most goalies in division 2 would not have saved a shot like that.

Indy, on the other hand, took full advantage of their opportunities.  In the 59’ NCFC failed in epic style.  The ball found its way inside the 6 yard box from a dribbler of a cross sent in by Speas.  It sat in front of the goal with multiple NCFC players failing to clear the ball, which allowed Braun to run in and push the ball across the line with his body.  1-0 Indy.  The second goal came in after the 83’ that was put in by Speas.  Speas was the recipient of a ball that was beautifully crossed across the face of the goal by the rookie sub David Goldsmith.  2-0 Indy.

That cross by Goldsmith had me reminiscing of many of the crosses that we saw with frequency last year.  Was that a turning point for team?  Is the team of last year on its way back?  With a balanced team defensively and offensively, are we now looking at a team that has a chance to start climbing up the standings?  Is that 3rd or 4th playoff spot reachable?  Miami will have the automatic playoff spot by winning the spring season, and you have to believe that the Cosmos will begin to get it together and be there as well, leaving the rest of the spots up for grabs.

Next week is the back half of the home and away against NCFC.  A win away at WakeMed would go a long way for a team looking to turn the corner.  Even though Indy hasn’t won there in 3 years, this team has us believing again.  Go Indy!

PHOTO BY: TREVOR RUSZKOWSKI

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