As the USL playoffs draw near, Indy Eleven take another step in the right direction.
The march to the USL Cup couldn’t be hotter as teams across USL are battling to get into playoff positions. As teams below them have gotten stronger, Indy Eleven have seen their position on the table get closer and closer to the cut-off line. After struggling on the road and facing road matches against FC Cincinnati and Louisville City, the Eleven needed a victory. Indy delivered on that need in convincing fashion. A controversial call masked a strong effort on attack and defense while all fans in the USL were reminded of just how good Owain Fon Williams can be.
Let’s dive into the 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies and see what that means for Indy’s playoff prospects.
Counter-Attack is Not the Only Option
For a large part of this season, Indy Eleven have been their most effective as a counter-attacking team. The lack of a strong creative influence in midfield has led the team to find difficulty in building attacking moves and capitalizing on the chances that are created. Against Tampa, however, Indy displayed a new philosophy.
The team was patient in the final third, and despite a few poor choices from outside the box, it paid off. The Eleven had twelve total shots on the night, with seven of those finding their way on-target. Indy were also patient in possession, choosing to retain the ball instead of allowing Tampa to utilize their team’s strength in offense.
The Eleven didn’t play the pressing, free-flowing, beautiful soccer they have been trying to implement. Rather, Martin Rennie chose a team, and a system, that suited the strengths of the players on the field. He didn’t force a style onto his players, and allowed them to showcase their natural abilities. Indy looked comfortable, confident, and as a result, like a team heading straight for the playoffs.
Defense Makes a Comeback
Early in the season, Indy Eleven relied on strong defensive performances to deliver results. The team counted on a mix of highly athletic fullbacks, steady and in-sync center-backs, and Golden Glove level goalkeeping to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference. Against Tampa on Wednesday, all of those components aligned once again and delivered a strong result.
The center-back pairing of Carlyle Mitchell and Renier Ferreria is a recent addition to the Indy lineup, as Ferreria rehabbed an injury at the beginning of the year. The two have begun to develop strong chemistry with one another over recent weeks and their effort against the Rowdies was their best yet. Tampa was consistently pushed away from the wide positions and forced into a crowded center of defense. When they were able to get crosses into the box, Mitchell and Ferreria were both there to win headers and neutralize the Rowdies’ strongest unit. Finally, Tampa Bay tried long shots outside of the box, which were met by fearless blocks and clearances from the pair. Indy Eleven dictated the terms of engagement to the Rowdies, and it started with the performance of the men in the middle.
Owain Fon Williams demonstrated his worth once again, as the Welshman had four incredible saves to cap off his eleventh (!!!) clean sheet of the year. In the 26th minute of play, Tampa took a clearance from the Eleven defense and Afrim Taku put a rocket on target. Fon Williams reacted brilliantly, got just enough on the ball to push it off the post, and kept the Rowdies from gaining momentum with a corner-kick in the process. Two saves from shots outside the box, along with another in the dying minutes from close range, preserved his place among the top-five in the league in shutouts.
These positions were concerning coming into the season, as Indy Eleven had a historically bad defensive year in 2017. Thanks to the efforts of Fon Williams and the players protecting him on the backline, Indy look poised to stand strong and give headaches to the teams above them in the playoffs.
Current Standings Bode Well
Thanks to the win against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and losses by North Carolina FC and Penn FC, Indy Eleven are in a much better position to clinch a playoff berth. A tough couple of road matches against regular-season champions FC Cincinnati and Louisville City FC will be hard to gain points from. Bethlehem Steel will be in Indianapolis on October 6th but have been a hard team for everyone in USL to break down. Indy can take encouragement, though, as they have been very competitive against all three teams remaining on the schedule. Wins against Louisville and Bethlehem earlier in the year, combined with very close matches against Cincinnati, mean that points should be available for the Eleven to take, if they play like they did on Wednesday.
The current table right now looks like this (courtesy of uslsoccer.com):
||Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC||30||15||4||11||22||56||
||Louisville City FC||30||15||6||9||26||54||
||Bethlehem Steel FC||31||13||12||6||14||45||
||Ottawa Fury FC||32||13||14||5||-10||44||
||New York Red Bulls II||30||10||8||12||8||42||
||North Carolina FC||30||11||11||8||9||41||
||Tampa Bay Rowdies||31||11||13||7||2||40||
||Atlanta United 2||29||5||16||8||-34||23||
||Toronto FC II||30||3||23||4||-34||13||
To clinch a playoff spot, the Eleven’s focus should be simple. A win, though not mathematically guaranteed to get them in, will give them a significant cushion over Nashville and New York at the bottom end of the table. Add in a draw, most likely against either Louisville or Cincinnati, and the Eleven will be competing for USL Cup in their first season of league play. The talent is there and past results say that it’s probable. As long as Indy continues to come together and play the soccer that got them here, they can make some noise this fall.