(if you haven't had a chance yet, check out the new episode of the podcast where Andy and Chris welcomed Omar Gordon and Lovel Palmer. Available for download on iTunes and a direct stream here)
The 4th place Indy Eleven (3-4-0) travel to Jacksonville to take on the 10th place Armada (1-1-5) on Saturday. The game has little relevance to Jacksonville in the Spring Season, but a convincing win would mean quite a bit to the visitors escaping the record crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
9 possible points remain for Indy as spring winds down and that puts the Eleven in control of their own destiny. Winning their final 3 games makes a strong case for NASL's spring trophy. However, winning out does not automatically result in hardware or the more coveted playoff spot.
Minnesota United find themselves in a very similar position to Indy Eleven. Both teams are level on points and both teams have an equal number of matches remaining. Both teams could earn a maximum of 22 points if they get the job done from here on out. The advantage for Minnesota is that they have 2 home matches. The advantage for Indy is that their two away matches are against the two worst teams in the league.
Tiebreakers may play a big role in deciding the Spring Champions and that means Indy will need goals. A 1-0 victory will be nice points on the road for the boys but being a champion will require more. Goal differential is the first tiebreaker and Minn United currently have that advantage. If both teams win with 1-0 scorelines there will be no change in the standings.
Miami FC has turned into some kind of wild card and that is who Indy will face next, but lets not get ahead of ourselves again. Indy Eleven will want to go down to Jacksonville on Memorial Weekend and earn 3 points in convincing fashion to find any kind of separation from Minnesota.
Wins are always hard to come by and the boys in blue will surely attest to that, but the Armada are taking on water and simply have no way to right the ship. Jacksonville has the second worst goal differential in the league at -6 having only produced 3 goals in league play. They have not scored a goal in four games and they have only one win. That 2-1 win was against Miami FC on April 15th.
Indy Eleven will be heavy favorites in this match coming off of the emotional high and the momentum of one of the most important wins in their history. A 4-2 defeat of Minnesota United earns them the right to be included in the championship conversation for the first time.
To be the the champs you have to beat the champs.
But you also have to beat the worst and you have to do it consistently. That is the task on Saturday. Sink the fleet with a broadside barrage. Attacking options are finding their sea legs for Indy. Four different scorers found the net last week. Three of them earning bricks for the first time wearing checkers.
We will see a 4-4-2 again and I have to think that Indy head coach Tim Hankinson will start the same group that fared so well last week. Dylan Mares has earned a starting role and so has Don Smart. The latter had found himself outside of the 18 man roster a few weeks ago but is back in the good graces of the 61 year old skipper who has a new respect for Smart's work ethic and determination.
Justin Braun was awarded the NASL Team of the Week for his performance against the Loons and he should take his place up top paired alongside "Iron" Eamon Zayed. The unknowns remain in central midfield. Gorka Larrea was subbed off due to an apparent injury last week and that might open the door again for Nicki Paterson. The second half substitute proved his class with set pieces and his desire to help the team in whatever way possible.
Brad Ring's mcl sprain was projected to put him out of the lineups for a few weeks so it's hard to imagine he would start even if he was 100%. Sinisa Ubiparipovic has also been recovering from injury, but he hasn't done enough to earn a role in the starting 11 to this point. His nagging injuries have seemingly prevented him from getting back to his 2015 form. A knee issue in preseason to a calf strain in week 2 and now to a non-specific hip issue are slowing his progress.
Jacksonville will likely be without the services of two Haitian internationals. Armada FC defender Mechack Jerome and mid/fwd Pascal Millien have been named to the their national team's 23 man Copa America roster. Both are regulars on the Armada squad, but Haiti has a friendly in Miami on Sunday so I would not expect to see them on Saturday. An already weak team just became a little bit weaker. Combine that with the well publicized transfer of Richie Ryan a couple weeks ago and the Armada are floundering with first time Head Coach Tony Meola at the helm.
The most dangerous part about this game will be complacency from Indy Eleven and the Florida humidity. Indy has not produced much offensively in Florida. Two trips south have yielded a pair of nil-nil draws. That simply wont be enough for a team with loftier ambitions. The Indy defense travels extremely well having only allowed one goal so far in three games. That trend should continue against the the worst in the NASL.
This continues to be an incredibly favorable schedule for Indy but beware the mighty trap game. With jobs and professionalism on the line, I expect to see some fight from the Armada. Restructuring and rebuilding is eminent, but who has to walk the plank is probably still up in the air. Jacksonville is a shipwreck that you want to give respect to because of a healthy fear of tetanus, rats and whatnot. It is up to Indy to put them out of their misery early and send them to Davy Jones' Locker.
The game will be on ESPN 3 and kickoff is scheduled for 7pm Saturday.
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