In their USL Championship opener, Indy Eleven dropped a 2-1 result on the road vs. Saint Louis FC.
While the snow is still falling and the sidewalks are still icy, there is a sense that spring is in the air. And as the flowers begin to bloom and birds begin to sing, another seasonal institution is also returning: USL Championship soccer.
This off-season saw new expansion sides, roster overhauls, the departure of a giant to MLS, and even more MLS-related roster nonsense. For Indy Eleven, expectations were ratcheted up. A new ownership group joined the ranks and flashed the cash on an almost entirely new roster. These players come highly touted as the best Eleven roster to date, and carry the weight of many choosing them to lift USL Cup in October. But as has been stated many times, matches are not won on reputation or on paper, and the opening match of the year served as an important reminder of this fact.
The season is young, and there are 35 matches yet to play in the regular season. But despite the date, there were still three things we learned from Indy’s 2-1 loss to Saint Louis FC.
In any team sport, the addition of a superstar player is a signal of better times ahead for that team. Immediately, diehard fans have dreams of lifting trophies on national television and pundits of all stripes are declaring that “(insert team name) has the potential to be the best of all time” before a puck is dropped, pitch is thrown, or ball is kicked.
For Indy, these expectations have been similar in nature. The additions of Dane Kelly, Thomas Enevoldsen, and Ilija Ilic brought a wealth of historical success to the Eleven. Kelly is the all-time leading Championship goalscorer, while Enevoldsen scored 20 goals just last year. Ilic is a two-time USL champion with Louisville City, and the three of them together should be something to behold. But just as stars in other leagues have learned, going from the best player on your team to playing alongside teammates who are just as good is difficult and will take time.
Not only are they having to learn new roles and play more selfless soccer, but they haven’t really played any minutes together. The preseason saw many trialists in the side and the strongest starting eleven didn’t get much, if any, time together on the field. But during this match, there was the beginning signs of what may be yet to come later on in the year. Enevoldsen had some key passes and looked, at times, like the missing connection between the midfield and attack that Indy needed. Kelly had a penalty saved, header go off of the post, and cleared a shot off of the line defensively in a comprehensive performance, while Ilic had a quiet but solid performance.
The signs for success are there and Martin Rennie will soon have his strongest starting unit figured out. Until then, expect a few growing pains from this unit and, potentially, some more frustrating results.
Welcome to the Penn Show
For all the flashy signings that Indy made over the winter months, the Eleven were also active in the academy market. These players were seen as depth signings, brought in to cover the first team in the event of injury or exhaustion, and most are not expected to contribute much to Indy’s cause this season. That attitude changed towards one of these players, as Joshua Penn made his Championship debut in memorable fashion.
With Ayoze out for the opening match, Martin Rennie experimented with a 3-4-3 formation that was not in his repertoire last season. This opened up a spot on the left for the 18 year-old winger to make his debut and he didn’t disappoint, as the US Soccer Development Academy standout glided past Saint Louis’ defense. His cross into Dane Kelly was picture-perfect, as the Jamaican only barely missed out on the opening goal of the match. He put one Saint Louis defender on the ground with his on-the-ball movements, making for an incredible highlight from Week 1 action.
Penn is still very young and the Eleven won’t be looking to make him a permanent fixture on the team sheet just yet. But if he can continue these types of performances, at this level of play, the future is very bright for Joshua Penn in Indianapolis.
Defensive Depth May Haunt Indy
For all the acclaim that the new attacking corps has received, the Eleven’s defensive unit has received an equal amount of worry. Indy fans have noticed that while the defensive midfielder position is well-stocked, the team has very few players that can hold their own at the center back position against top competition. And in this match, those defensive worries came to life.
Martin Rennie has been known as a manager that likes to change his formations. For Indy, this has meant a wide variety of midfield arrangements and attacking options. But, until Saturday, it has never resulted in a 3 center back system, and we may have seen the reason why. The Eleven were exhausted defensively, especially the players in the back line. Saint Louis kept the pressure on Indy with quick, well-executed counter attacks, and the Indy defenders looked overmatched by the final whistle.
On the first Saint Louis goal, the Eleven failed to properly mark a set piece, with all players in the box looking as though they were trying to catch their breath. Saint Louis players were attacking the ball, chasing down the loose target in the box and not giving up on the play. The persistence paid off as Phanuel Kavita smashed the ball home. Less than ten minutes later, Indy again appeared to be asleep on defense and would give up the winning goal. The team thought the ball would go out of bounds, but the Saint Louis players kept it in play. After a magnificent block happened in the box, no other Indy player made an attempt to clear the ball, and Russell Cicerone put the match away for the home side.
Hackshaw looked competent in the center of defense but is a natural midfield player. Barrett looked overmatched at times, mostly due to the exhaustion of Ouimette on the right side. The Eleven will experiment with formations throughout the year, or at least until they begin to hit their stride. And while not too much stock should be taken from the opening match of the season, one lesson was clearly demonstrated: Indy does not have the personnel for a three-center back system in 2019. As long as they stick with a 4 or 5 defender setup, tired legs shouldn’t be as big of a factor as they were in this matchup.
Next Match: Friday, March 15th at Charlotte Independence
Charlotte will be opening their campaign at home this season and will hope to bounce back from an atrocious year last season. Indy won and drew against the Independence last season, with both matches being closely contested. Expect another close game as the Eleven will have a short week and Charlotte will want to have a statement win at home to start the year.