By Rebecca Townsend
FC Edmonton arrived Saturday at the Michael Carroll Stadium in Downtown Indianapolis looking for revenge.
Indy Eleven, now in the second half of its inaugural season in the North American Soccer League and still winless at its home stadium, had managed to wrest a 1-0 victory from Edmonton on its July 27 visit to the Eddies’ home field. Many of Indy’s supporters observed throughout the crisp but sunny day leading up to the match that the 11th game of the fall season (and the 11th home game sellout) seemed to indicate that the time had come to reward the blood, sweat and tears those involved with the new team have shed with victory — especially for the fans. Despite the team’s spot at the bottom of NASL’s combined spring and fall standings (three wins, six ties and 10 losses) the team leads the league in attendance with crowds averaging over 10,000.
Ultimately, each team’s goals for the evening were frustrated: the match ended in a tie.
Seventeen minutes into the game, Indy outside midfielder Victor Pineda put the first point on the board, crashing the box with a clean-up strike after Edmonton’s goalie John Smits denied an initial shot from center-mid Sergio Pena. The setup was enabled by the blazing speed of forward JJ Johnson, who drove the ball down the flank before dishing off a perfect pass to Pena’s feet.
Indy’s pressure remained steady, but a foul against Edmonton in the 24th minutes gave the visitors a free kick from just outside the upper left corner of Indy’s penalty box and midfielder Neil Hlavaty struck it with textbook precision just over the defensive wall and just inches beyond a diving Kristian Nicht’s finger tips.
The score was 1-1 heading into the half and stayed that way through the rest of the game.
“We’ve been working so hard for that first home win, to give the fans that come out the first home win … For some reason it hasn’t happened,” Pineda said following the game. “The team’s been working extremely hard during training and during games. We haven’t lost in our last three games, so that says a lot about the energy and the hard work …”
Second-half highlights of the match included an amazing save by Kristian Nicht. Bombarded by two Edmonton attackers who managed to elude the rest of defense and set up 2-v-1 situation against the Indy goalie in which a close-range shot was fired, the 6-foot-4-inch Nicht stretched his whole frame across the grass and managed to stop what appeared to be an all-but-given goal by intercepting the ball’s trajectory with the tips of his gloves.
Also notable: Jhulliam, Indy’s latest Brazilian addition, who just began training with the squad this week, made his first appearance for the team on Saturday, subbing in for the Eleven along side Don Smart in the 77th minute. Another new addition, Cory Miller (a graduate of Zionsville High School) proved to be a solid member of Indy’s defensive line with a presence both intelligent and physical.
“To be fair to Edmonton, they did very well defensively,” said Indy’s Head Coach Juergen Sommer. “They stayed very compact and very deep — they did a good job and made it difficult for us to play over them or around them.”
Goalkeeper Nicht agreed: “Those guys came out strong to Indianapolis — they had a good run. That’s not a bad team and I think we kept them well. They weren’t too dangerous; we blocked most of their attacks.”
Other notes on defense: Defender Fejiro Okiomah, just named to NASL’s team of the week (alongside JJ Johnson, who received the honor for the second consecutive week), demonstrated on Saturday his capacity to push beyond the area surrounding the home goal. When a pass did not present itself in the first half, Okiomah personally delivered the ball to one of the opposition corners before having it kicked out by Edmonton’s defense for an Indy throw in just yards from the Eddies’ goal.
The defensive line this week did not feature the talents of its Honduran star Erick Norales, who is wrapping up Honduran National Team duty in the Copa Centroamericana tournament.
Many other defenders upon which the team has historically depended upon are currently out of the action at this point in the season: Brad Ring is nursing a fractured foot; Chris Estridge, an ankle impingement, Kyle Hyland, an aductor strain and Andrew Stone, a hip impingement.
Meanwhile, an exciting reinforcement sat the bench Saturday; Marco Franco, on loan from the Chicago Fire (as in Pineda, by the way) trained for the first time with the Eleven on Friday. Named the 213 Big West Defender of the Year for his play at UC-Irvine, Franco is sure to be game tested soon.
Even without a second goal to win the game, Sommer said he was pleased with his team’s performance on Saturday, contending that his squad’s attack was more potent overall than Edmonton’s.
” Collectively, I think the group’s gotten head shoulders above where we started.
We’re pleased with what we’re seeing and the growth of our young players, so we’ll keep working, keep soldiering on.”
Nicht also sounded an optimistic tone: “The most exciting thing is that we act very good as a team. We made some quality changes; got some quality payers in … it’s getting there.”
Seven games remain in the fall season, three of them at home. The Eleven is currently tied with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers for eighth place in the NASL Fall Season standings. The Eleven and the Strikers will faceoff at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale at 7 :30 p.m. Sept. 20. The subscription-based NASLLive.com streaming video package will broadcast the match. Several local supporters clubs will hold watch parties.
Much of the squad’s focus in these concluding weeks will involve player evaluation, Sommer said: “It’s the first year of the club. We’re still building, looking at players, so these are important moments for us both in training and in games — we have to give guys a look to see what they’re capable of, to see if they can help the club, and are folks we want to commit to for next year.”