The stakes were immense. Bethlehem Steel (6th – 46 pts) and Indy Eleven (5th – 48 pts) were sitting neck and neck on the table and coming into Lucas Oil to clash on the field. A loss here would put either team in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. Several of the teams below them, North Carolina (8th – 44 pts), Nashville SC (9th – 44 pts), and New York Red Bulls II (10th – 43 pts), had a game in hand and were ready to capitalize on any dropped points. And so, the ref’s whistle began a game whose implications were much broader than a straightforward win, loss, or draw.
The Steel came out hot and controlled the majority of possession for the first couple minutes of the match. Indiana’s Team eventually got themselves into the match and possession equalized to a degree. The first good chance for either team came in the 16th minute. The Bethlehem defense played the ball up from the back to James Chambers, who was just across midfield. He turned into space and started driving towards the Indy goal. He played a clever pass out give and go with Santi Moar that tore the Eleven defense open. The center defenders had to step on him and a streaking Faris Pemi Moumbagna slid through the gap that opened. Chambers played a perfect ball up and Moumbagna was through to goal. Owain Fon Williams recognized the 1-on-1 and started to come out of the goalmouth. Then, Moumbagna’s touch failed him. The ball slipped a touch too far on the Lucas Oil turf and Williams pounced. He smothered the threat just inside of the penalty spot, but the ball rebounded back and fell to the feet of Brenden Aaronson. Aaronson placed a shot to the left of the scrambling Williams and had him beat, but Carlyle Mitchell had followed the play and blocked the shot away from goal, ending the attack. The failed attempt did not deter Bethlehem and soon they had a chance to capitalized on another.
Bethlehem played a poor ball forward and Nico Matern intercepted it; however, he sloppily gave the ball away to a Steel midfielder. He sent a through-ball forward to a sprinting Moumbagna. Mitchell had good enough inside positioning on him to keep the threat to a minimum, but he pulled up with a hamstring injury that stopped him dead in his tracks. Moumbagna did not squander his second 1-on-1 with Williams and slid the ball over to the far post for the easy goal. 1-0, Steel.
The rest of the half played out uneventfully, The Eleven tried to maintain their starting formation with a back three, but, as had been happening up until the goal, they were often forced into a back five to deal with the aggressive attack of the Steel. This significantly cut into their attacking momentum and they were not able to get any quality looks in the first half. The halftime whistle came with the scoreline unchanged.
The second half seemed to be more of the same early on with the Steel getting a free kick inside of the 18’s arc in the 46th minute, but the wall did its job and blocked the attempt. Then, in the 49th minute, the surprising storyline of the second half emerged. The ref watched a Steel player shove a Boy in Blue and did nothing about it. It could have easily been a yellow card, but the ref decided to show restraint. Only a few minutes later, in the 52nd minute, the ref again kept his cards in his pocket in spite of a cynical tackle from behind on an Indy midfielder who was opening up a counterattack opportunity for Indiana’s team. The ensuing run of play saw one of Indy’s best looks at goal when Matt Watson had a clear run across the top of the Steel box and nearly curled one inside the right post. Unfortunately, the ref did not seem content with only missing yellow cards for Bethlehem; he also wanted to give Indiana’s Team some undeserved ones. In the 58th minute, he handed Seth Moses a yellow because he fell for one of Moumbagna’s many, many second-half gaudy embellishments. Then, the tenor of the match changed.
The halftime adjustments of Eleven manager, Martin Rennie, were fairly simple. He wanted his forwards to push more up the pitch, rather than staying compact, so that the midfield could have a little more space to operate. Aside from the dodgy first few minutes, the plan worked. The Boys in blue were able to keep more possession and make better moves forward; however, in the 61st minute, the adage was affirmed once again: “Even the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, especially when there’s a great ball over the top.” The Eleven’s Ayoze Garcia Perez took possession of the ball well within his half, specifically the 37-yard line, and on the left side of the pitch, almost on the football sideline. He picked his head up, saw something, and blasted a ball fifty yards up the field and across, almost to the numbers on the opposite side. The ball bounced once, at the 14-yard line with Evgenij Starikov in hot pursuit. As the ball descended, Starikov had beaten his man to the spot and struck the falling ball towards the goal. His looping shot floated towards the goal and caught the Bethlehem keeper flat-footed. He retreated quickly and leaped backward, trying to slap the ball off its trajectory, but he whiffed, allowing the ball to comfortably nestle in the back of the net. Tie game, 1-1.
Missed opportunities highlighted the rest of the match. Moumbagna should have had another one in the 69th minute, when he beat his man to the back post on a corner kick and the ball found its way all the way through; both Indy and the Steel squandered some tantalizing free kick opportunities; Bethlehem had a ball dancing in front of an open goal on the penalty spot, but no one was on the back side of the play; Indy had a burst of good looks off of a throw-in in the 86th minute. In the end, Indy was able to secure a draw from a match in which they were outplayed.
Regardless of who should have won or taken away full points, the point proved vital for both sides. Nashville and NY Red Bulls II both won and lept into playoff position. The Steel maintained their 6th position based solely on Goal Differential, but with both of the winning sides having two games to play, as opposed to Bethlehem and Indy’s single game, things are very much undecided. Nashville and RBII both play bottom half teams who are already eliminated from the playoffs tomorrow, Toronto FC II (16th – 16 pts), and Penn FC (13th – 36 pts) respectively. North Carolina, who is not out of contention yet, also has a game to play on Tuesday, but their task against Louisville (2nd – 60 pts) is much more onerous. After those matches, all the teams still in contention will have their playoff lives to fight for during the weekend.
The Eleven will face off against Louisville in Louisville. All the Boys in Blue need are a point and they will be in the playoffs, barring two wins from North Carolina, who face off against Charlotte (11th – 42) on Saturday, a much easier task than midweek. The Steel will want all three from their clash against the Tampa Bay Rowdies (12th – 41 pts), but, also depending on Carolina’s results, may be safe with a point. If Nashville and NYRB II win tomorrow, they will be all but safe; however, if they slip up, their task will be significantly more difficult. Other than the obvious missing point problem, their competition over the weekend is of a much higher caliber than the midweek. Nashville has a home match against the overwhelming number 1 team in the east, Cincinnati (76 pts) and NYRB II host the Pittsburgh Riverdogs (3rd – 58), who are no slouches. All Nashville needs from the two games are four points, and they will have secured their spot. To be fully secure, the Red Bulls need a win in both. The two squads on the outside, looking in, the Ottowa Fury (9th – 45 pts) and North Carolina FC, have tough routes. They will need a win against Charleston Battery (4th – 53 pts) and some dropped points from the Steel, Nashville, or NYRB II to have a shot. Even then, their goal differential of -10 could easily keep them out of the postseason. All of this is to say that the eastern conference has a lot to be decided in the final week of the season. Get ready for some nerves.