A simple observer wouldn’t be able to spot a difference between Kentucky and Indiana.
Outside of the crimson uniforms of Indiana and the blue stripes of Kentucky, the two teams separated by 12 spots in the latest coaches poll couldn’t be more inseparable.
IU and Kentucky resemble each other in many ways. The two squads both play physical and stretch the game in the open field. The Wildcats utilize their size while the Hoosiers counter with their quickness.
But on Wednesday night, no one strength could out-match the opposition in the scoreless tie. Indiana’s speed was halted by impressive play from the Kentucky backline. The Kentucky size, rendered useless by top-level awareness from Indiana freshman keeper Roman Celentano.
In a year where upsets of top-10 teams have become a weekly occurrence, it’s no shock that two top-16 teams played a match with nothing coming between the two.
Wednesday’s match didn’t show anything about Indiana and Kentucky that we didn’t already know. It showed that this season, the parity in college soccer is as great as we’ve seen in recent seasons.
“It’s tight. Every game you look around the country and margins are small,” IU coach Todd Yeagley said. “Long-term playing a team that doesn’t impose the same threat that Kentucky does, it makes us better. That’s why we do it.”
Indiana kept the same starting lineup it used on Sunday’s 3-1 victory, reiterating the trust that Yeagley has in his freshmen players.
And the freshmen delivered.
Celentano played a phenomenal game between the sticks, cementing his title as the starting goalkeeper for IU. Herbert Endeley was in excellent form down the right flank even while defended by 6-foot-6 Aime Mabika, a defender with an 8-inch advantage in height.
Yeagley called Celentano’s performance “the biggest of the year.”
The play by the young players on IU’s roster has become almost scripted. The Hoosiers started seven underclassmen. Ian Black only played 11 minutes as he attempts to return to form after injury and Thomas Warr played just two minutes.
Endeley had a fair share of looks on net, but every time he found the ball in midfield, he was instantaneously surrounded by multiple Wildcats. The chances he did get all flew over the net.
“They can’t get upset and they can’t lose focus.”
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) October 10, 2019
Indiana had 12 shots but only two of them were sent on net. IU’s inability to crack the scoreboard was more indicative of the game plan Kentucky devised against IU than a lack of finishing.
“They’re a pretty physical, experienced team and their pressure is good,” Yeagley said. “I thought we weren’t very clean on the day in getting through our first couple passes. We weren’t very clinical in our decisions and our passes.”
Kentucky was the second ranked team that IU has seen this season, both coming in the nonconference schedule.
The second easily resembled the first: a long-winded, physical draw against Notre Dame. A year ago, Kentucky manhandled Indiana in Lexington 3-0.
Kentucky made it to the Elite Eight last season before falling to eventual champion Maryland. Yeagley is no stranger to scheduling the toughest competition, especially outside of the conference.
“The result tonight won’t hurt us,” Yeagley said. “It will give us experience that you can’t replicate by watching video or training.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut favorite in college soccer this season. Maryland started the season at No. 1 but has fallen all the way to No. 25 and has spent some time outside the poll.
Charlotte started the season at No. 17 and has worked its way into the top five. And if Wednesday night is any indication, it’s even closer than that.
Finishing chances and playing restarts well will continue to be a difference between the contenders and pretenders in college soccer.
But as we saw on Wednesday night, it’s close — very close.