- Indy Eleven/Trevor Ruszkowski
You know what they say: The third time's the charm.
That saying couldn't be more true for the Indy Eleven. In its third season of existence, the Indy men's pro soccer team The Eleven have reached new heights, including winning the North American Soccer League's (NASL) Spring Season title and the first trophy in club history. That title also earned them a spot in The Championship, the club's first appearance in NASL's postseason competition.
On Nov. 5, Indy Eleven will take the field against FC Edmonton in the championship semifinal, a team they've faced three times in 2016, splitting the fall season home and home matches while playing to a draw in the spring match. When the Eleven step onto the pitch for the club's first postseason match, they'll know exactly the kind of team they're facing.
"They've established — stylistically — what the priority of their game is, which is to not give up goals and then look for that one opportunity to get one themselves," Indy Eleven head coach Tim Hankinson said.
With only 21 goals allowed in 32 matches, Edmonton has conceded the fewest goals in the NASL this season. And Hankinson said they expect Edmonton to play like they have throughout the entire 2016 season — extremely defensive.RELATED: 11 with the Eleven: Éamon Zayed
"The reason they've given up so few goals is because they get all 11 players into their own half and it makes it very difficult for you to break that down. They're a team whose coach expressed a few weeks ago that if you don't play hard defense and work hard you'll never play for Edmonton."
While Edmonton puts most of their focus on defense, Indy has a more balanced attack. The Eleven slotted away 51 goals during the regular season while only allowing 33; that 18 goal differential was second-best to league-leading New York.
Edmonton's defensive strategy, known as "parking the bus," makes scoring the first goal of the match even more important than usual.
"It's vital. It dictates the entire match. It takes a defensive team out of their game plan," said Hankinson.
- Indy Eleven/Trevor Ruszkowski
If Edmonton strikes first, it makes it all but impossible to break down their stiff defensive squad. The field shortens, passing is tougher and openings inside the 18 yard box become few and far between. But, if the Eleven can record the first goal, it forces Edmonton to break from their game plan, attack often and look to equalize — a way of playing they're not accustomed to. This openness makes their defense susceptible to counter attacks, which Hankinson said will be the key if they get an early lead.
Hankinson said the squad has talked about how to start big games. Their game plan is to focus on clean passing, making sure not to give the ball away in risky spots and to win 50/50 balls. They'll use that foundation to set the tone for the match, putting the right pieces into place quickly so that they can take advantage of opportunities for bigger plays later on.
"It's about playmaking at the attacking side but also the defensive side. Players have got to be ready to step up and make the right plays," Hankinson said.
The Eleven have definitely made the key plays at home this year. In fact, they've been unbeatable at home, finishing the regular season campaign with a 13-3-0 record at The Mike.
"I think the home record looks great because our guys get excited to play there. It's an energized, fun atmosphere that is created with the fanfare in combination with grit that our team shows when they play there."RELATED: 11 with the Eleven: Don Smart
Chalk one up for the Brickyard Battalion. The Eleven supporters group has been monumental in creating a raucous atmosphere.
"[The Brickyard Battalion] has been massive for the team. I think those fans keep the players going for 90 minutes. Even if we're down the Brickyard Battalion help us get back into the game," Indy Eleven midfielder Don Smart said in a conversation with NUVO.
While both teams hope to advance in regular time, there's always the possibility that a penalty shootout will determine who advances in a winner-take-all format. Indy has some experience in that department, losing 4-3 in penalties against MLS side Chicago Fire in the U.S Open Cup back in June. Coach Hankinson said the team has been working on penalty kicks during practice for the past two weeks to make sure players are prepared if the situation is to arise. He's even had each captain choose their ideal five penalty takers and put them in the order they would take them. The close connection between coaching staff and players is something the Eleven have prided themselves on this season.
But Hankinson's key to advancing to the championship final is simple.