Heading into this match, Indy Eleven fans could have been forgiven for being nervous. The team has battled through a difficult stretch of matches recently, maintaining an eight-game unbeaten streak through a series of late winners and dramatic draws. Considering New York Red Bulls II gave the Eleven their worst defeat of the year, the match was expected to be hard-fought and another draw loomed in the horizon.
Instead, Indy delivered when they needed to most and had their most complete and dominant performance in USL play. They controlled the match from the first whistle and didn’t delay in putting goals on the board. Instead of allowing New York back into the match, the midfield and attack disrupted the Red Bulls’ rhythm and kept the pressure off of the defense. It resulted in the Eleven’s ninth straight unbeaten result, a tenth clean sheet of the year, and a spot in the driver’s seat for a home playoff match.
Let’s take a dive into a bright end to a bright stretch as Indy Eleven beat New York Red Bulls II 3-0.
That’s Why He’s Here
Eugene Starikov had been a thorn in Indy’s side last season, as a member of the New York Cosmos. His passing, ball-handling, and work rate were welcome additions to a sluggish Eleven side, and early signs pointed to him becoming a star in the league. He’s missed some time with injury and suffered when the entire team struggled to put the ball into the net early on. In these last few matches, however, Starikov finally showed that he’s ready to live up to the hype. With two goals against one of the toughest matchups in the Eastern Conference, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Early on in this match, Indy Eleven looked to control the tempo and force New York to defend. As the Red Bulls attempted to cross midfield, Carlyle Mitchell stopped them dead in their tracks and launched a swift counter-attack. The newly acquired Dylan Mares took the ball and launched a picture-perfect cross to the center of the box, where a streaking Starikov was heading. Eugene beat his defender, beat the goalkeeper, and put the Eleven on the board after only two minutes of play.
As play went on, Indy continued to stifle the efforts of New York. Time and time again, the Red Bulls struggled to get anything on the Eleven goal, and were forced to defend for long periods of time. Indy broke through again in the 21st minute, after taking the ball from the Red Bulls in their own half. Matt Watson made another incredible cross and Starikov placed it past the goalkeeper on a one-time finish.
There were many plays that he made off the ball, as well. In typical Starikov fashion, he fought for possession, pressured defenders, and had the backline under duress the entire time he was on the field. He was the brightest star in a clinical team performance, and finally showed what he’s capable of doing for the Eleven.
Defensive Strength from Both Ends
Owain Fon Williams has struggled during the past few matches, with some signs of fatigue showing. While he has been making the routine saves consistently, he has been plagued with blunders that have cost Indy points. Fon Williams found his footing, however, and delivered in key moments. New York’s best chance on goal came off of a free kick at the edge of the box, which has been an Achilles’ heel for the Eleven recently. This time, though, Owain was in perfect position to pull off one of the saves of the week in USL play. He appeared confident, relaxed, and in control of Indy’s defensive efforts. As long as that version of Fon Williams shows up for the playoffs, Indy Eleven should be able to make some noise.
In midfield and the attacking third, the defensive work rate was incredibly high. Recent additions Elliot Collier and Dylan Mares pressed from the front and turned those efforts into a lethal early attack. Nico Matern’s tackle and ball-handling enabled the final goal of the match for Indy, while Seth Moses continued his trend of bullying fullbacks into making mistakes on the touchline. All of Indy’s front six were invested in both ends of the field and showed commitment to the defensive cause. That effort relieved the tension the team felt at kickoff and gave Indy an easy win to finish off 7 games in 22 days.
Winning possession, capitalizing on mistakes, and forcing the other team to play from the back foot are all aspects that were missing from Indy’s early season games. This match saw them rewarded for their hidden work in midfield scrums and finally gave a beleaguered defensive unit some much-needed rest. It was a comprehensive performance that boosted the team back into the top four for the first time in a while. Whether Indy gets to remain in those positions will depend on how long they stick with this blueprint and avoid falling into the traps they found early on in the year.