What Are They All About? Indy Eleven Preview
The Return of the Cup! The Chicago Fire drew 1-1 against the Portland Timbers in their last MLS outing before a league wide break for COPA America Centenario but will find themselves back in action for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday against Indy Eleven (7:30 at Chicago-Fire.com).
Fire supporters, players and front office staff will be very familiar with the history of this competition. The Open Cup dates all the way back to 1914 and Chicago has lifted the coveted trophy four times in its history (98, 00, 03, 06). A 1-0 semifinal loss to Philly in 2015, a 6-0 semifinal loss to Seattle in 2014, a 2-0 semifinal loss to DC United in 2013 , and a bizarre early exit to PDL club Michigan Bucks in 2012 have highlighted recent failures to live up to expectations and precedent. General Manager Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic will see this competition as an opportunity to etch their names in Fire lore as Chicago look to begin a path towards their first piece of silverware since 2006.
To add a bit of spice to the situation Chicago’s opponent in the match is the brain child of the first ever Chicago Fire President and GM, Peter Wilt. Wilt parted ways with Chicago in 2005 and his exploits have taken him many places including Indy Eleven and a future Chicago NASL club. While our coverage of upcoming opponents usually focuses on players and occasionally mentions the coaching staff, we would be amiss to not to bring up a man who has four US Open Cup rings on his fingers. His experience and passion for the competition could come through for Chicago’s opponents.
Can the new guard of Rodriguez and Paunovic put the past to rest, or will Chicago be presented with some new learning experiences courtesy of familiar faces?
Indy Form Guide (Last 5 Competitive Matches): W-D-W-D-W
Previous match: A 4-1 home win against Carolina Rail Hawks.
Formation in the last match: 4-4-2: Busch; Vukovic, Janicki, Falvey, Franco; Gordon, Larrea, Paterson, Mares; Braun, Zayed
Interesting Storylines That Could Have Been: When the draw was made for this round of the Cup there were a few storylines outside of the Peter Wilt saga that had supporters salivating. The possible return of two former Fire players deemed excess to the Fire’s needs (Lovel Palmer and Jon Busch), the presence of former Fire Draft pick Marco Franco, and the possibility of seeing AAC Eagles and Fire PDL product Wojciech Wojcik highlighted the list. However, Palmer has a leg fracture, Wojcik has been loaned to Energy OKC (he is cup tied even if he had been recalled) and Head Coach Tim Hankinson gave backup goalie Keith Cardona a run out in the last Open Cup match while hinting he could reward that performance with another one against Chicago. Either way this will certainly be a memorable night.
Strengths: Indy comes into this fixture knowing that they have sewn up a playoff spot as leaders in the NASL before the midseason break. Momentum is on their side after a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Rail Hawks this past Saturday clinched their place in the table. A come from behind win against Louisville City in the third round of the Open Cup the previous week brings them in on a bit of a hot streak. In fact, the Eleven will come to Chicago undefeated in all competitions this year (11 matches: 5 wins, 6 draws). Let’s take a look at how they got there.
Eamon Zayed, Clinical Finishing: Indy’s Libyan international striker has proven his scoring prowess across various leagues. You may remember him from the viral video when he scored a hat trick in 10 minutes for Persepolis during a derby match in Tehran. After learning his craft in the Leicester City Youth Academy he has played in Ireland (the nation of his birth), England, Norway, Iran and most recently played in Malaysia.
He has played in all 10 matches of the NASL Spring Season and in that time has notched six goals from twelve shots on target. He can play with either foot and his heading ability has allowed him to be utilized as a target forward to great effect this season. Zayed notched a hat trick against Carolina to secure the Spring Title over the weekend and has been Indy’s standout attacking player of the season. However, upon closer examination many of his tallies have come on the back of some more than questionable defending. The likes of Johan Kappelhoff and Jonathan Campbell will certainly provide a sterner test than what he has become accustomed to.
Style of Play: Indy is a prime example of combatting the preconceived notions that NASL teams bomb the ball forward, shoot on sight and are sloppy on the ball. While Indy highly relies on Omar Gordon and Dylan Mares for providing crosses to Zayed or thru balls to Justin Braun, their buildup is often precise. Their outfield players have a passing completion average of 70% and when you reduce that to just midfield players it increases to 92% completion. That is impressive no matter what league a team plays in.
Once the ball makes it out wide and into the final third Mares and Gordon have both consistently shown an ability to find Zayed and Braun. Their crosses cannot be boiled down to accident at this point and they clearly have a great connection with the goal scorers from both set pieces and open play. 8 of Indy’s last 11 goals have come from the connection between the wingers and that front two, not to mention there have been quite a few near misses in that time as well. It’s no secret how Indy will set up and look to play but stopping it is another matter entirely. If Paunovic lines up with inexperienced wingbacks Rodrigo Ramos and Brandon Vincent, the Fire might be punished tactically.
Stingy Centerbacks: Colin Falvey and Greg Janicki have partnered together in most of Indy’s matches this season. Nemanja Vukovic, Marco Franco, and Lovel Palmer have been utilized as outside backs that are urged to get forward so the stalwart pairing of Janicki and Falvey, along with veteran keeper Jon Busch, must be applauded for the league’s second lowest goals against tally (8). They have only conceded more than one goal on one occasion this season (against Minnesota United) and have three clean sheets. The Fire’s lack of goal scoring could prove to be burdensome in this match. But then again Falvey and Janicki don’t have David Accam running at them every day.
Freedom to Play: Indy finds itself in a position where they have less expectation to succeed than the Fire. Yes, BYB and SH19 might think differently but overall most agree that even the Fire should be able to see off NASL opposition. While we will discuss the weaknesses of being touted as an underdog in the section below, the strength of that situation is that the Indy players will truly have nothing to lose. That is the beauty of a competition that pits “lower division” clubs against MLS teams. A loss in the first round of a cup competition after overhauling a team and bringing in a “cup specialist” as the leader of the rebuild would swiftly become the picture next to “egg on face” in the dictionary. Chicago will grow increasingly nervous the longer it remains 0-0.
Weaknesses: There’s no denying that Indy will come into this match on a high note. However, there are many reasons to think they could come crashing back to the ground in this matchup. There have been areas of struggle throughout the NASL season and interestingly those struggles play into the hands of Chicago. Let’s take a look at where Indy has fallen short.
Quality: Again, we cannot say that we have ultimate authority in determining whether the quality of Indy is on par with Chicago or not but historically speaking MLS teams have consistently progressed further than NASL teams have in this competition. For example, only one NASL team made it out of the 4th Round in 2015, the NY Cosmos, and they were ousted in the very next round. USL clubs went 7-0 against the NASL in last year’s third round contests. In 2014 the Silverbacks and Rail Hawks made it to the quarter finals but lost to MLS opposition by a wide margin. Since its inception in 2009 no NASL team has gotten past the quarter final. History seems to be on MLS’ side. Given the above information, the single elimination style of the Open Cup has suggested that the quality of NASL is not on par with MLS although there have been some victories from the “second division” of US soccer.
Ex-MLSers: If the above is to be accepted as true then Chicago will take hope in the fact that many of Indy’s players found themselves in the NASL after having their options declined by MLS teams. Jon Busch, Marco Franco, Lovel Palmer, Greg Janicki, Nemanja Vukovic, Daniel Keller, Gorka Larea, Brad Ring and Justin Braun have all plied their trade in MLS at one point in their career. Let’s just say that their transition to the NASL isn’t seen as an upgrade by many. The underdog tag may inspire but it could also stick.
Style of Play: The previously discussed formation and tactical approach of Indy has a flipside to the coin. They aren’t very dynamic.
The central midfielder pairing of Nicki Paterson and Gorka Larrea started their last match and neither is particularly mobile or creative. They have a much lower passing accuracy than their winger counterparts and have combined for just one successful cross, one assist, one shot and one goal between them. Before you jump to the conclusion that they are more defensive minded, together their duel winning percentage is 44% and they only win 60% of attempted tackles. The truth is that they aren’t very good in central midfield. If Chicago can stifle Indy on the wings then the Eleven will be truly frustrated in creation. Driving the wingers centrally or forcing the likes of Larrea and Paterson to try creating from the middle of the pitch could lead to a comfortable position for the Fire. Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Dylan Mares can also figure in here but Razvan Cocis, Matt Polster, and Khaly Thiam are tactically aware and have proven they can stifle opposition with more creative prowess than Indy.
Indy seems to struggle on the defensive side of dynamism as well. They are fairly organized if play is in front of them but all of the plaudits given to their center back pairing and Jon Busch seem to go away when it comes to counter attacks and closing down quickly. Shots from distance have troubled Busch recently while mismarking, being slow to step towards a breaking forward and second guessing themselves in the box have been blemishes on Falvey and Janicki’s season.
Prediction: Chicago finished in last place at the end of the 2015 MLS season and they currently find themselves at the bottom of the table again. Indy Eleven on the other hand just secured the NASL Spring Title. If there ever was a test of NASL v MLS quality, this is it. All of the other storylines will go out the window for 90(+) minutes on Wednesday and the talking will move onto the field. Despite discussions of progress and learning curves the Fire cannot lose this one and the word regret will certainly creep into the vocabulary of the front office if they do. We’ll leave it at that.