Rayo OKC were defeated on Saturday night by the visiting Indy Eleven. The final score was 2-1 to the boys in white as Indy remains undefeated through their first four matches in 2016. Two consecutive wins showed similarities in the scoreline, but this game was very different.
Winning on the road is never easy and this team cannot receive enough credit for a number of reasons. The coaching staff will deserve a massive amount of credit here too. Head Coach Tim Hankinson and Assistant Tim Regan are getting the most out of their players. Their assessments and adjustments have been making an impact and that might be the difference maker for Indy so far this year.
Lets start with the formation and why it was important to go back to the 4-4-2 yet again. After 36 years of professional coaching, Hankinson is still learning. He is getting to know his players, their strengths and their weakness and he is applying that information on a constant basis with the ultimate goal of improving and getting the job done. Hankinson made no secret about coming in to town and implementing a very specific style of play. That hasn't panned out and that's not to say that we wont see it again, but it isn't working or it isn't ready right now. So lets try something else.
Experience has been lacking over the first two seasons in Indianapolis and that fact has been represented well in the league standings. In comes the white haired wonder with over three decades at the helm and my first hesitation stems from the possibility that Hankinson will be too set in his ways and too resistant to change. You can throw that out the window and you shouldn't be surprised that a man with that much knowledge has outsmarted me yet again.
This roster and these lineups are still a work in progress as evidenced by two first-time starters in Saturday's match. The two newest faces in town have broken into the starting 11 and I expect to see more of them. During preseason (which only matters to me I guess) Hankinson had seen enough to know that his roster was incomplete. Injuries combined with roster rules had hampered this squad so a change was needed. In an unpopular and somewhat radical move, the Indy sideline boss immediately made moves to plug the gaps and to increase the level of play on the field.
That tradition of constantly adding players may look familiar to fans of Indy Eleven, but this is different for two reasons. The first is that, in years past, it seemed to be just grabbing players from everywhere and throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it stuck. The other reason this is different is because there is a very specific player/skill set that the coach is after and he wont stop until he gets it. He was looking for more attack.
Enter Jair Reinoso and Omar Gordon.
Reinoso still isn't 100% match fit, but Hankinson has shifted gears with the players minutes and deployment. We have seen him come in a substitute for Justin Braun on the right however it seems that his new home may be up top and paired with Eamon Zayed when the formation transforms to accommodate two strikers. Reinoso is the best kind of pest. A pesky player that buzzes around challenging the backfield possession. His first touch half-volley to bury the games first goal looked professional enough.
Gordon has had the least amount of time with the team, but the bye week benefited him and afforded Hankinson the time needed to get Gordon up to speed with the rest of the Eleven. I will be patient in the short term, but Gordon has been billed very highly as a skilled goal scorer. He stayed wide in Saturday's match and provided a few crosses, but he didn't really threaten unless you count a very ambitious and perhaps selfish shot from 30 yards that never had a chance. Gordon had told me his best position is on the left, but he is right footed so he isn't really out of place on the right either. I am sure Hank took that into consideration and he has been known to flip flop the outside mids during gameplay to vary the angles of attack and to keep opponents guessing.
With all of those changes and all of the positive energy moving forward into third place, it will be important to keep improving and to keep build the team. I don't think the coaching staff is letting off the throttle to sit back and enjoy all that they have so accomplished so far. The ultimate goal is the post-season tournament and championship hardware is on the agenda.
The Indy Eleven had a bye week and and extra day of rest last weekend, but the practice on the Friday before felt like it had urgency to it. Hankinson patrolled the midfield as he does playing part coach and part referee with a whistle at the ready. The 61 year old still wears his old school Copa Mundials with the tongue folded way down to his toes so you know he is always ready to work. He was giving his team an earful for lacking sharpness and precision and he was more excited than I have ever heard him in practice. That was before a day off.
Possession is still an area of concern and precision in passing could be much better. On Saturday, Rayo OKC was allowed over 64% of the clock. Defense is a point of emphasis on this team and great source of pride but I can guarantee it wont be enough to impress Hankinson on Monday. We saw the 4-4-2 for the second straight week and it worked, but it wasn't as sharp as it had been at home against the New York Cosmos. Rayo never really looked overwhelmed as New York had been. Reinoso's goal was great and the pass from Sinisa Ubiparipovic was superb, but where was he the rest of the game?
After Ubiparipovic's assist, he had a solid spell of 12 minutes without a successful pass. That pass in the 20th minute followed by another successful pass in the 38th. I think that's one of the differences between NYC and OKC. I am not always one for specific stats, but the aggressive pressing and swarming attack that disrupted the defending champions was changed dramatically with the re-introduction of Ubiparipovic. He was tasked to start out wide on Saturday, but he was moved back inside to a more natural role when Brad Ring went down early with an apparent ankle injury. That could explain some of the absence, but it doesn't explain a similar disappearing act in Indianapolis versus Ottawa three weeks ago.
There have been great results and Indy deserve to be where they are right now, but deficiencies are still present and Indy have yet to put anyone away. Billy Forbes didn't look frustrated. He looked free to attack as he pleased even though his final ball never came through for him.
At the end of the day, two goals were all that was needed and I think there is something to learn from that too. I said before that this was a "defend first" team and that counter-punching comes naturally to them. Vukovic took another bow in front of Indy Eleven supporters for his encore effort. A defender with the game winner is fitting for this team.
FC Edmonton will come to Michael Carroll Stadium next week to take on the Indy Eleven at home. I wonder what Hankinson has in store for the faithful fans and the Brickyard Battalion. Formation and lineup changes are always possible now so it really is anyone's guess. For now, I just want to dance in the locker room with the team.
They said What?!?!