Nashville SC’s trip to Lucas Oil Stadium. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country
It’s been a while since we’ve taken a look at Indy Eleven – and a lot has changed for both of these teams in the itnerim. I caught up with Soc Takes’ Kevin Johnston for the latest on Nashville SC’s conference semi opponent. You can see my answers to Kevin’s questions here.
For Club and Country: What happened during Indy’s late-season swoon that saw the Eleven drop from a strong grip on first place to giving up the games in-hand to fall to third? Have those problems been eliminated with the strong three-game regular-season finish and a win against NYRB2 in the first playoff game?
Kevin Johnston: A string of road games and congested schedule were the two main root causes of the late-season swoon. Indy was a decent road team for the first month or two of the season, then really struggled away from Lucas Oil the rest of the way. The Eleven seemingly had a game or more in hand on nearly the entire Eastern Conference until fall rolled around, when the schedule finally caught up to them and the lack of adequate rest affected their performances. Red cards also played a factor, as the team earned three across a four-match stretch in September, all on the road. Besides the sending offs themselves, having key players unavailable for the next game during the grueling part of the schedule certainly didn’t help either.
FCAC: Martin Rennie’s team has been strong defensively all year, but has struggled to consistently create offense. What needs to go right for the Eleven to put together a solid performance on O?
KJ: For Indy to produce offensively, its two best players, Tyler Pasher and Ayoze, need to show up. Indy also gets a spark when Dane Kelly turns in a quality shift. When Pasher and Ayoze both bring it, Indy can be extremely dangerous going forward. When those guys aren’t scoring and creating, the rest of the offense struggles to pick up the slack. Kelly has been streaky all season, but seems to have found his form in the fall. All three will need to be at their best Saturday if Indy hopes to advance.
FCAC: I expected a huge year for Thomas Enevoldsen, and that obviously didn’t happen. What went wrong to prevent such a solid player from finding success in Indy? Who has stepped up since he left?
KJ: Rennie’s system isn’t conducive to central playmakers flourishing. Enevoldsen doesn’t have the speed of a winger. He isn’t a true No. 9 either. He also isn’t true No. 10. So, what exactly is he? He’s really a prototypical second striker in my opinion, a guy who’s mostly a forward but also possesses some of the playmaking qualities of a No. 10. Rennie never uses a traditional No. 10 — a primary chance creator stationed high up the pitch centrally — ever. The same thing happened with Zach Steinberger last season, a player with similar abilities to Enevoldsen. Steinberger struggled to crack the rotation and was eventually loaned out. It’s the exact same story with Enevoldsen. Rennie has an obsession with central defensive midfielders; you’ll likely see three of them in Indy’s starting XI Saturday. It’s also kind of the reason that Ilija Ilic hasn’t really flourished this season and didn’t even see the pitch in Indy’s win over Red Bulls II. Ilic’s skill set kind of puts him in the same boat with Enevoldsen and Steinberger. Unfortunately for those guys, being that type of player is not a good thing on a Martin Rennie roster.
FCAC: Lucas Oil was a fortress this year, but Indy was mediocre on the road. What was behind that difference? Is it something that could play to Nashville’s advantage in this one?
KJ: The environment at Lucas Oil can be hard for visiting sides to navigate. The turf, while high quality by NFL standards, isn’t ideal for soccer. The football lines that Indianapolis’ Capital Improvement Board refuses to “green out” can also cause problems with spacial awareness. Of course, Indy’s solid attendance creates a raucous atmosphere as well, and the team just doesn’t seem to get up as much for away matches. It’s a factor that absolutely could come into play Saturday; the Eleven simply haven’t been very competitive on the road since the spring.
FCAC: How is Indy’s 3-4-3 shape going to defend Nashville?
KJ: Over the course of the season, Rennie evolved from a 3-4-2-1 to what is now a 3-5-2. It’s very stout in the middle of the park with big bodies like Paddy Barrett and Karl Ouimette in the back line, and essentially three CMs sitting in front of the back three shielding them. My guess is that Nashville will try to attack from the outside in, which’ll require wingbacks Ayoze and Macauley King to strongly commit to playing both sides of the ball. I think Indy will attempt to kind of lull Nashville to sleep with possession, and obviously the longer Indy keeps the ball, the less time Nashville attackers will get on it. Look for Indy to come out with a very conservative game plan.
FCAC: What do you expect from the game, including a prediction?
KJ: I think an early Nashville goal could spell doom for Indy, as Rennie’s system really isn’t designed to come from behind. While the Eleven’s defense is their strong suit, they might also be without starting goalkeeper Evan Newton, who’s listed as questionable. Jordan Farr has been quite magnificent in his absence, but I just don’t see him recording a clean sheet against such a difficult, in-form squad on the road. I think Nashville will sneak in a first-half goal and Indy’s system will struggle to find an equalizer. Once the Eleven are forced to divert course tactically, I think they’ll concede another in the second stanza. I’m going with a 2-0 Nashville SC win.
Thanks again to Kevin for taking the time to answer my questions. Follow him on Twitter @KJBoxing, and follow Soc Takes for everything Indy Eleven (and a heck of a lot of things lower-division US Soccer).