Time was running out in the USL season and a pivotal match between the sixth-seeded Indy Eleven and the tenth-seeded Tampa Bay Rowdies, teams only separated by five points on the table, was slotted to begin. Once the night was over, there would be only three games left to be played and last few playoff positions were quite unsettled. Tampa Bay, a team who a month ago seemed to be out of the conversation, rolled into Indianapolis riding a fantastic run of play. They had won 4 out of their last 5 matches and were sitting only one point out of playoff position. Conversely, the Eleven were coming off a disappointing two-game losing streak and were looking to bounce back to their recent form, having recently rattled off a nine-game unbeaten streak. The Boys in Blue came into the night with the dual task of fighting for position and fighting to stay in the playoffs in mind. A loss here, against the Rowdies, would mean Indy would be only four points clear of ninth with three matches remaining in their season, all against playoff sides. All of this set the match up to be a high energy, high stakes affair.
Indy came out sporting an aggressive looking side with a back three, matching Tampa’s; however, once the game started, Indiana’s Team looked to be the better of the two. The Eleven controlled the majority of possession during the opening twenty minutes of the half, pinging the ball back and forth. They stretched the width of the field and made probing runs into the gaps that formed, keeping the Tampa backline from getting too comfortable. The Boys in Blue had only one notable slip up in early goings when, in the 6’, some sloppy play led to a half-chance for the Rowdies, but the threat was well managed. A 21’ corner afforded Indy their first good look at scoring, but it was deftly cleared off the line at the last second by a Tampa defender, covering for his keeper at the far post. The momentum quickly flipped as the Rowdies had a burst of good chances during the next few minutes of action. A free kick in a dangerous area was well handled by the Indy back three and Owain Fon Williams made a fantastic diving save in his first call to action when a Rowdie attacker caught a half-volley clean, driving it powerfully towards goal. The Williams save reset the momentum and the Boys in Blue retained control of the match.
They earned their breakthrough in the 37’. The run of play started with Kevin Venegas driving forward from the midfield. He put a slick move on one of the Tampa defenders and opened up enough space to get off a good shot that forced Rowdies’ goalkeeper, Daniel Vega, to push the ball wide. Ayoze Garcia Perez stepped up to the flag and struck the ensuing corner well, placing it near post at the six-yard box. Defender Karl Ouimette made outmuscled the opposing defender and guided the ball past the Tampa defense to the far post with a glancing header. 1-0, Indy Eleven. Once play resumed, there was not much left in the 1st half, but Tampa did manage another fantastic strike which elicited another stupendous save by Williams. The halftime whistle halted the match at 1-0.
Coming out for the second half, Tampa knew that they were going to have to ramp up the pressure. The Eleven had thoroughly outplayed them in the first half and they sorely needed a point to keep their playoff hopes alive. To that end, they trotted out a revamped lineup with three forwards up top and got immediate results. The Rowdies enjoyed much more possession in a much higher position on the pitch and the Boys in Blue were put to work trying to stifle the attack. The Eleven has moments of counterattack in the early goings, but the connections never materialized. Then, in the 56′, the game was upended.
Tampa was pressing up the right side of the pitch and drove forward into the box. The attacker tried to play a ball in, but an Indy defender stepped in and completely blocked the cross. Then, the ref blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. He had called a penalty for handball. The Eleven were furious. The defender had clearly pulled his arms behind himself to ensure that there was no handball. Replay made this all exceedingly clear. The ball did strike the shoulder of the defender, but his arms were pulled entirely out of the way. After a few more minutes of protestation and vitriol, the AR stepped forward and talked to the head official. Luckily, the AR had seen the play correctly and now it was the Rowdies who were enraged. Play was eventually restarted with a drop ball on the right corner of the 18 where the supposed infraction had occurred.
Tampa did not let the correct call dissuade them. They maintained their high pressure but were unable to find the right connections in the final third. There was an odd and quick yellow card shown to Williams in the 74′ for time wasting on a goal kick, but it was worth it in the end because the Boys in Blue put the match to be in the following minute of action. The ball was worked methodically up from the goal kick and found itself on the right wing at the feet of Midfielder, Matt Watson. He played it up to recently acquired forward, Elliot Collier, who was retreating to back to the top of the 18. That movement opened up space for Seth Morris to make a diagonal run behind the Rowdies back line. Collier slid the ball forward, past the approaching defenders, to the sprinting Morris, who found himself in behind the Tampa line on the right side of the box. He picked his head up and slotted the ball across towards Jack McInerney who was crashing into the middle of the 6-yard box. The Rowdies responded and weeded out the cross, but the clearance was mishit and only trickled toward the penalty spot. Collier had been following the play across the box and found himself alone with the ball gently rolling towards himself and the spot. He hit it first time and opened his Indy Eleven account with a goal to the far post. 2-0, Indy Eleven. As crucial as a second goal is to a lead, the Eleven could not relax.
The game was not over and Tampa was going to throw everything they had at Indiana’s Team for the sake of their season. They were almost able to put one in the back of the net only a few minutes after Collier’s goal, but Indy’s Reiner Ferreira smothered the opportunity. The Rowdies did keep up the pressure and almost pulled one back in stoppage time, but Williams was determined to keep his clean sheet and made another tremendous save. Thanks to his efforts, the Eleven have reached 11 clean sheets, equaling the team season record.
After the dust settled on the evening of USL action, the playoff picture looked much different. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds leaped into second over the inactive Louisville City FC; thanks to their win, the Eleven moved into fifth; and Ottowa Fury FC and Nashville SC moved into seventh and eighth, respectively. The Rowdies fell down to eleventh, but they are no out of contention yet, considering they are only three points out of eighth; however, the three teams directly above them, North Carolina FC, NY Red Bulls II, and Nashville SC, all have a game in hand. The good new for Tampa is that two of their final three are against teams that sit below them on the table.