A win for Indy Eleven would have been great, but a draw was not the worst thing.
USL Playoffs are right around the corner as we enter the final week of the regular season. While the top four spots have been secured in the Eastern Conference, a mad scramble at the bottom of the table has left Indy’s playoff hopes up in the air. A hard-fought draw against Bethlehem Steel did the Eleven no favors, as player injuries and an upstart former NASL rival look to sink their ship. It was a hard weekend, and a stressful week, but Indy are counting on some help from an unlikely ally to secure their spot in the March to USL Cup.
Fluke Goals Rule the Night
Bethlehem and Indy struggled offensively, as neither team were able to sustain attacking moves. Despite some clear chances for both sides, the defensive/goalkeeping displays were top-class. Owain Fon Williams came up with multiple saves in both halves, including an incredible double-save early on. He covered for a back line that seemed, once again, to be a step slower than the opposition and the goalkeeper kept the Eleven competitive.
Steel managed to keep Indy attackers at bay, especially in the first half. The Eleven struggled to generate any chances, as the Bethlehem backline played a hard, organized press. Steel were particularly aggressive in their challenges, frustrating Indy at almost every turn. Despite a respectable 73% passing accuracy, passes into the final third were nearly impossible to complete, and their young goalkeeper was well-protected.
Both teams ended up sharing the points from unique goals that went against the run of play. Bethlehem struck first, as Feris took advantage of space up the right edge of the penalty box on a counter-attack. Carlyle Mitchell was closing down on the Steel threat, when an apparent leg injury brought him to the turf. Feris suddenly had a clear shot on goal, and didn’t waste his opportunity, putting Bethlehem ahead 1-0. Indy would continue to struggle to produce chances, until Eugene Starikov finally broke free of the Steel pressure mid-way through the second half. Ayoze led the charge in taking possession away from Steel and struck a beautiful ball to switch the play. His strike met with a streaking Starikov on the right side, who continued his run and baited Tomas Romero off his line. Starikov waited, chipped, and watched Romero try in vain to reach the perfectly placed ball, tying the match at 1-1.
Despite the flukiness of chip shots and injuries, both teams deserved to leave Indianapolis with a point. These are two evenly matched sides, who fought hard to remain in their playoff positions. While neither looked capable of winning USL Cup on this night, expect both teams to come into the playoffs confident that they won’t be pushovers either.
With the draw against Bethlehem Steel, the current Eastern Conference standings look like this (courtesy of uslsoccer.com):
||Louisville City FC||32||17||6||9||31||60||
||Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC||32||15||4||13||22||58||
||Bethlehem Steel FC||33||13||12||8||14||47||
||New York Red Bulls II||32||11||8||13||9||46||
||Ottawa Fury FC||33||13||14||6||-10||45||
||North Carolina FC||32||12||12||8||9||44||
||Tampa Bay Rowdies||33||11||14||8||1||41||
||Atlanta United 2||32||6||17||9||-36||27||
||Toronto FC II||32||4||24||4||-35||16||
With the top eight teams making the playoffs, Indy is in an excellent position to secure a berth in their first season in USL play. The only thing standing between them and guaranteed playoff soccer is North Carolina FC. The spunky outfit have been on a resurgence, thanks in large part to the arrival of Indy-loanee Zach Steinberger. The former Butler standout has been instrumental in connecting the NCFC attack, and has raised his game from after-thought to consistent player-of-the-week. NCFC have reaped the benefits of this change in form and are in position to make some noise in their playoff push.
If NCFC loses or draws their match to Louisville City tonight, Indy Eleven will secure a playoff berth. Should North Carolina pull off the upset, Indy will have some work to do on Saturday. They would need to go on the road to Louisville and either win or draw to secure it. If the Eleven fail to do that, they would have to rely on a series of other matches to end favorably, and the unpredictable nature of USL makes that a terrifying prospect. However, considering how far ahead the Eleven are from everyone else still in contention (only NCFC and Ottawa Fury are still alive outside the current top eight), there is a very small chance that Indy will miss out on the playoff race. Still, they will hope for some help from their southern rivals, to help make the upcoming edition of the Louisville-Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest the most relaxed one yet.
Top photo courtesy of @Indy11SouthEnd