So far, so good for No. 1 Indiana.
After avoiding a massive scare in the season-opener in South Bend — a 3-2 overtime win against Notre Dame — the Hoosiers opened their home slate last Tuesday with a much more commanding 1-0 result over Butler.
By no means was it easy, though. But what win is easy when you’re without a MAC Hermann Trophy runner-up (Victor Bezerra), senior captain midfielder (Joe Schmidt) and key rotational forward (Ryan Wittenbrink) due to injury?
Fortunately, the return of All-American left-back Spencer Glass to the Starting XI helped to soften the blow. And in Glass, the Hoosiers were able to find the lone goal of the match.
The game-winner began with junior forward Herbert Endeley, who went on one of his trademark runs before a late tackle from a Butler defender brought Endeley to the turf just outside the 18-yard box.
Glass, as he’s done time and again in his IU career, calmly hovers over the dead-ball spot to survey his options. Within seconds he knows where to put the ball.
He swings his left foot. The pass collides with sophomore defender Joey Maher’s head but clanks off the near post. The ball jostles around in front of Butler’s net. Nate Ward tries a second header but only finds the chest of a Butler defender.
Third time’s a charm: Maher stays on his toes and rifles the ball with his right foot. The Hoosier crowd roars in the 29th minute and is the only tally needed to get past the Bulldogs.
“We bent a few times, but yet our help defense was good, we were able to get a body or obviously Roman makes a save,” IU head coach Todd Yeagley said after the match.
So what changed for IU to go from the nail-biter in South Bend to posting a relatively dominant clean sheet against Butler?
It starts with a calmer and more organized backline. Glass’s return to the starting lineup certainly helped, but the Hoosiers defense also benefited from a more stable group ahead of it, with the midfield producing a strong performance.
Give credit to Tommy Mihalic, Endeley, Lawson Redmon and Lukas Hummel.
“I felt like the guys coming off the bench were very hungry, very energetic.” Maher said.
This type of tactical flexibility comes with the increasing options available for Yeagley. Indiana can afford to rest All-Americans knowing capable backups exist in the squad.
The performance is even more impressive when you consider who else wasn’t available in addition to Bezerra: senior captain midfielder Joe Schmidt and dynamic forward Ryan Wittenbrink.
Freshman Tommy Mihalic can step up and fill Bezerra’s shoes, another freshman in Patrick McDonald can play beyond his age to cover for Schmidt, and both Lawson Redmon and Brett Bebej have proven capable of dropping into the defense.
Maouloune Goumballe, Samuel Sarver, Endeley and Mihalic all featured as both a forward or wide midfielder against Butler, proving a nightmare for teams to defend against. Very few teams can match the depth Indiana can draw from.
Despite many positives, there is still a lot of room to grow. “I still feel like offensively we’re not quite where we need to be.” Yeagley said after the match. The potential of the group both in terms of youth and availability is a tantalizing prospect.
When Indiana start getting closer to perfect, opposition teams better watch out.
LOOKING FORWARD TO ADIDAS/IU CREDIT UNION CLASSIC
Indiana will make it a trio of Big East opponents this weekend when it hosts Creighton and Xavier in the Adidas/IU Credit Union Credit following the win against Butler. However, the Hoosiers will be presented with tactical styles that they’ve yet to encounter this season.
“They’ll probably be a little different in their defensive stature,” Yeagley said ahead of the classic “Creighton will probably try and open the game up a little bit more. I see Xavier sitting and reducing space and looking for transition moments.”
Indiana may have an advantage in playing a match that’s more open offensively, though, with Sarver, Mihalic and Endeley all thriving when running at defenders with the ball. And with the Blue Jays and Musketeers coming to town, the trio should get plenty of opportunities to do just that.
In Creighton, its biggest threat comes in reigning Big East Offensive Player of the Year Diego Gutierrez. The senior was so impressive, in fact, that he was selected by the Portland Timbers in the third round of the 2021 MLS SuperDraft last winter, but he opted to return to the Blue Jays.
In the Musketeers, IU will face a team that has produced 15 first-round MLS Draft Picks since 2015, which means talent should be of no concern on either side.
However, Xavier is looking to bounce back from an extremely uncharacteristic 2020 season in which it failed to win a single regular-season conference match. Dynamic forwards Karsen Henderlong and Felix Boe-Tangen and midfielder Jolly Jerome should offer a tough test for IU’s backline as the trio have already combined for seven of Xavier’s 12 points this season.
With the likely returns of Bezerra, Schmidt and Wittenbrink in some capacity this weekend, Indiana should be able to remain stout regardless of the circumstance or opponent.
Nonetheless, the Hoosiers will have their hands full in the annual home Classic, but these are the kinds of non-conference opponents that need to be dealt with if the Hoosiers want to prove their worthiness as the top team in the nation.