It might have been difficult at the outset of the season to differentiate the top from the bottom in the USL’s Eastern Conference. A large degree of roster turnover for many teams, the addition of North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven from the nearly-defunct NASL, and the hiatus of Rochester and Orlando City B meant that there was a lot of shifting sand obscuring how good or bad everyone was. We knew that defending champs Louisville City SC were probably going to be good again, but all of the changes made the rest of the conference a confused blur.
I don’t think that is the case with Indianapolis: one look at their roster and you knew they were going to be good. And so far with a 4-2-1 record, they’ve demonstrated this to be so.
Formation and Tactics
In their last match against Louisville City, Indy came out in an old-school flat 4-4-2. They used the formation to its greatest advantage, stretching the wide midfielders all the way from sideline to sideline. The other notable tactic of Indy Eleven was an aggressive high press. Indy presses with their strikers and wings in the final third, uses their two central midfielders to look for errant passes made under pressure, and relies on their back four to clean up any long balls that are launched in a panic. To date, it’s been pretty effective, as Indy have ceded only 5 goals this year. Only Louisville and our beloved Riverhounds have been better at keeping the ball out of their own net.
In the attack, Indy are comfortable letting their players switch positions; overlapping, dropping, swapping, etc in a midwestern version of the ‘Total Football’ invented by the the Dutch in the 1970’s. They also like to play tiki-taka – short one-touch passes in triangles that move up the field in attack – about as much as any team I’ve seen in USL, or even MLS for that matter. They like to bunch three or four players in triangles and trapezoids on the wing, playing short passes, cutting out defenders, and drawing in more players. If they break free, they’ll run to the attacking third and center the ball or play a cross. If they can’t get by the crush of defenders, they take advantage of the overload of defenders to one side and like to hit a long diagonal to the other side, where they typically have a one-on-one for one of their wide midfielders, Nathan Lewis or Zach Steinberger. It is an impressive and up-tempo show on both ends of the ball.
Add to all this the fact that the team was comfortable playing under a high press themselves and out of the back on the ground, and that almost every player showed excellent technical on-the-ball proficiency, and it adds up to a team that looks like one of the most impressive and talented teams in USL this year.
It takes one look at the roster to see why Indy is so good: their team is loaded with MLS-level talent. Soony Saad, Jack McInerney, Zach Steinberger, Karl Ouimette, and Kevin Venegas were all getting minutes with MLS teams in 2016 and 2017. Striker tandem Saad and McInerney have 51 MLS goals between them: 8 for Saad, and 43 for McInerney. Kevin Venegas played right back for the newly-promoted Minnesota United last year, and although their defense was one of the worst in MLS history, I thought Venegas was just fine on that back line. Karl Ouimette was in the rotation at center back for NYRB in 2015 and 2016, and with Montreal Impact before that. Riverhounds fans probably don’t need to be told this, but if you’re new to the team, you might want to know that Ouimette and Hounds striker Romeo Parkes are quite familiar with each other.
A couple other notable talents on this team are found at the wings. Right midfielder Nathan Lewis is incredibly dangerous in the attack. The Trinidad and Tobago international played all ninety minutes last year in Port Spain on October 10 as the Reggae Boyz knocked the US Men’s National Team out of the 2018 World Cup. I know it still hurts, but I figure that if you don’t already dislike Indy as the Riverhounds opposition, perhaps you need a little more anger-based motivation. And 32-year-old left back Ayoze Garcia played three years with midtable La Liga club Sporting Gijon from 2010 to 2012. He’s as clear and precise on the ball as you’ll see in USL. He scored the winning goal last week for Indy on a PK in the 79th minute – think about the last time you saw a left back serve as a team’s best penalty-kick taker. I’ve watched over a thousand soccer games over the past decade, and I can’t think of another instance of that happening.
Indy’s last three matches have been a win, a loss, and a draw. Both of their two losses have come to FC Cincinnati, who currently sit top of the table in USL. While their defense is third-best in the Eastern Conference, they offense has yet to start clicking – Indy has just 7 goals to date this year, putting them 12th-best out of the 16 teams in the east.