A series of rapid, bright flashes from the lights at Historic Riggs Field illuminated the thunderous sea of purple and orange. Pandemonium poured between every seat — painting the fans as culprits of some electrical error. But they weren't at fault.
Clemson midfielder Ousmane Sylla was. The junior's second goal of the match — a beautiful strike landing just below the crossbar — switched on the strobing lights in the 80th minute. The No. 1 Tigers and defending national champions led 3-2 over No. 13 Indiana on their home turf, and Clemson's fans celebrated as if this was the walk-off overtime goal. It wasn't. But Sylla's go-ahead goal stood ultimately as the match-winning goal in a 3-2 season-opening victory — and loss for Indiana under the same circumstances.
"There are very few environments you'll find that are that tough," Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said following the defeat. "Their crowd, give them credit, they did a great job of trying to make it the best home field advantage. I thought we kept them quiet for a good chunk of it. But yeah, that was a very loud and proud student section."
The noise, clearly overhead on the ESPNU broadcast, amplified Clemson's skillful goals. Sylla and forward Mohamed Seye both created adequate spacing before burying three strikes with elite precision — bottom left corner, top right corner, and almost bar down. All appeared unsavable for Indiana goalkeeper JT Harms, despite the attempts to swat them away. The referee charging midfielder Ben Yeagley with a yellow card less than a minute into the match also seemingly hindered the redshirt senior's aggressiveness in stopping Seye from quickly dribbling toward the box before delivering the 2-1 go-ahead goal. If Yeagley still had a tactical foul to give, Seye might not have broken through.
"That battled Ben a little bit," Yeagley said. "He knew he needed to disrupt — and we're not talking about bad fouls, it’s just ones you might need to have an obstruction to make sure they don't get through in transition. I'm not saying it wasn't a yellow (card), but that's a really tough early yellow for any player."
Indiana could have easily thrown in the towel following Clemson's two goals five minutes apart in the first half. Yet, Yeagley said his team adapted well — quickly realigning from the three-player backline they used in the preseason to deal with Clemson's fearsome attack. Sylla simply beat Indiana's backline to the punch 60 minutes later, dribbling through countless defenders before rifling in the match's final goal. Heartbreaking? Sure. Hopelessness? Not quite. Yeagley said if you eliminate 10-12 minutes of the match, it was fairly even on both sides. Both squads even split possession time straight down the middle. Indiana missed some promising chances, and so did Clemson.
"I've been in the locker room when we've just been outplayed, and outfought, and there's disappointment on several levels," Yeagley said. "That was not the case. I told them to hold their head high. They did a lot of really good things in a tough environment to start the year... the great news is that we have unbelievable opponents every game. This is not like, well this is our one chance to beat a top-five team. It's like, bring on the next one."
Yeagley finished that thought by saying the team is focused on its next match: Tuesday night’s home-opener against Portland. And while Portland might not be a top-five team, the Pilots defeated two top-five opponents — Washington and Oregon State — by a combined score of 6-0 in preseason exhibition matches.
Questions abounded whether the beat-up surface on sections of Jerry Yeagley Field would be fixed in time for Tuesday. But Yeagley assured the field is playable, and the Hoosiers are ready to welcome Portland to Bloomington.