On a week signaling the arrival of true spring weather, the Chicago Fire reserves took the pitch on a chilly evening versus the new Indy11 NASL team at Purdue University. In true college tradition, the atmosphere was family friendly, featuring supporters of the Purdue women's team, an abundance of youth soccer players, and other soccer fans.
Judging from the significant number of fans either wearing or buying Indy 11 gear on site, it appeared the Indy 11 Brickyard Battalion was actively recruiting members for the season. General admission seating in most of the complex led to something of a soccer-carnival atmosphere, and the BYB was welcoming anyone to their designated north-end section with open arms.
On the opposite of the pitch, our Section 8 road warriors came fully equipped with hard-hitting flags, banners, and enthusiasm, although traffic problems limited their presence pre-game - most of the Section arrived in the delayed beer bus, and streamed into position just before the game kicked off. Frank Yallop, in attendance to ceremonially meet with former Fire President/GM turned Indy 11 president Peter Wilt, left the coaching reigns to CJ Brown and Clint Mathis.
Kicking off under the Indiana sunset bolstered by dim floodlights, Indy11 continued their NASL preseason in only the second game on Indiana soil. The first-year club entered with a record of 1-1-5 (0-0-5 against MLS teams). Uniquely, the match represents the closest match to Chicago where the Fire have played as the visiting team. Section 8 was warmed up and supporting at full-speed after a trumpet rendition of the national anthem played by legendary supporter Section 8 Chicago trumpeter Frank ‘Guapo' Cardenas.
The Fire instantly broke out into a high-press 4-4-2 lineup. Even with some errant passes by captain Pause at the start, Indy11 counter attacks down the middle were easily gobbled up by center backs Patrick Ianni and Chris Ritter. On the opposite end, the home team had no answer for wing play by Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko.
After Nyarko won the first Fire corner kick of the evening, the subsequent Rolfe out-swinger landed on right back Lovel Palmer's head, wobbling past the outstretched glove of ‘keeper Kristian Nicht. 1-0 Fire just six minutes in.
As the ‘happy hour' wave of Fire fans entered, their presence immediately bolstered the already jubilant Section 8. The Brickyard Battalion on the other end, trying to build off the home atmosphere, failed to compete with raucous Chicago army.
Retaliating forays into the Fire box produced some chances for Indianapolis, demanding a diving push by Reynish and a blocked shot from Ianni. The clearances found Juan Luis Anangono holding up-top, winning some ineffectual free kicks. Patrick Nyarko's magical run down the right side cleared space for Palmer, who crossed to connect with the big Colombian for the evening's second goal: 2-0 Fire in the 17th minute.
The eleven players representing Indianapolis had no answer, producing easily managed long balls offering no true threat. Without true wing play, the Hoosier state team played down the middle, and the center of the Fire defense snuffed them out without much incident.
In one Indy attack, Chicago left back Marco Franco took a bad fall in the box and required a substitution after 35 minutes. The friendly nature of this contest became clear when his substitute was announced: None other than former Fire player Dasan Robinson. In a blast from the past, the retired former defender and current youth coach in Chicago was serving as a guest player. The loss of the usual attacking play of Franco was mitigated by Robinson's conscientiousness defending thereafter.
Easily dictating the pace of play, the balance of chances went the Fire's way. Chris Rolfe botched an opportunity while standing on the goal line as the highlight of Chicago chances, while Reynish's grabs thwarted Indy chances that initially spurred the home crowd.
Redeeming himself quickly, Rolfe turned on his ballet moves in a graceful dance down the middle, beating Nicht and netting the third goal before the interval. Shouts of ‘Chi Town Beat Down' by the away supporters drew jeers from the home crowd, but the scoreboard read 3-0 Fire in the 44th minute.
Section 8, complemented by one bus and totaling 80 spirited fans, debuted a tifo before restart thanking Peter Wilt for his work with the Fire. ‘He's over here!' chanted the Indy faithful in reply as Wilt himself walked the crowd.
With Alec Kann now in goal, the second half began in mundane fashion. A frustrated Anangono emerged, caught offside once before becoming increasingly animated as fouls were called against him. In the 60th minute, CJ Brown turned to the attacking bench as Giuseppe Gentile replaced Rolfe and Orr Barouch replaced Nyarko. Though slowed by a Ritter yellow card immediately after, the fire attack reemerged all thanks to Victor Pineda. Our favorite tenured home-grown player, initially lost in the central midfield role above Pause, found fluidity in collecting passes from the captain and busting moves around Indy defenders. A Pineda through ball to bulldozing Anangono produced a cunning opportunity that Luis sent high.
The chilly Indiana fans erupted in cheers as the home team was awarded a penalty in the 72nd minute. The bouncing ball off an Indy corner kick fell to Gentile, who controlled the ball with his arm in an attempt to clear. Taking the penalty was recently signed (like, the day before recently) Brazilian playmaker José Kléberson, a starter in Brazil's 2002 World Cup win and journeyman club player last with Philadelphia Union. While Kann guessed correctly to his right, Canarinho's spot kick was perfectly articulated into the net's far side. Indianapolis now trailed 1-3 in the 73rd minute. Not adding anything to the right side attack, Gentile's sloppy challenges drew the referee's whistle in favor of Indy on many occasions after.
In the most surprising move of the evening, Benji Joya entered the contest in the 74th minute replacing Lovel Palmer at right back. With the Fire content to close out the remaining match, the Indy 11 side was given new life down the left, frequently catching the attack-focused Joya out of position. Still, the easily-repelled Indy attacks sprung Pineda runs into a now spacious midfield. More chances were only thwarted by his own teammates in front, with heavy Orr Barouch passes blowing by everyone.
After 90 minutes, your Chicago fire departed Purdue the unsurprising victors, 3-1 scoreline in tow.
Against a NASL team still searching for identity in limited matches, we probably learned very little about the Fire team. Early high pressing and goals placed little pressure on our men in red while suspect Indy defending opened opportunities at the other end. Rolfe showed resurgent form early playing in a second-striker role on the right side. Limited playing time did not reflect well on fringe players Gentile and Barouch while stock in playmaker Pineda only increased. My MOTM is Patrick Ianni, organizing the new back-line formation, calmly repelling Indy attacks, and picking up the slack when rookie Ritter faltered.
All things considered, the 1,604 official attendees left having witnessed a historic match for soccer in the Midwest. In a show of good will, Brickyard Battalion ‘Brickers' crossed the pitch in thanking their Chicago supporter brethren for the great atmosphere. Bragging rights were also transferred, as a newly forged Schlabst Cup now resides in the Windy City until the teams again in the newfound rivalry.
Section 8 Vice-Chair Pattrick Stanton, having spent hours organizing the bus supporters there, was excited about everything surrounding the match. More than prevalent was his overwhelming respect for the Indy FO of Wilt and former Section 8 chair Tom Dunmore. "Tom held the match for us. We arrived just after the first goal," recalled Stanton. Having prepared the beverage list by which to christen the new rivalry trophy, everyone was "Happy to have a neighbor to beat upon." The feeling goes both ways, as Fire fans welcome a new addition to Midwest soccer. "A lot of people are even planning to attend the first Indy home game. They are just fire fans willing to support Indy," mentioned Section 8 stalwart Chow.
Both teams straggled behind, greeting their respective supporters. Chris Rolfe was the last Fire player to leave and even answered some of my questions. Beyond a continued development with Anangono as striker partnership, Rolfe sees players taking responsibility as Yallop adapts the high press, choosing the players that best fit the system. The Kettering, Ohio native also reaffirmed that "Soccer is huge in the Midwest." Even with lacking an MLS team, soccer in Indiana is on the rise in his opinion: "They have a good support base as we saw today and hopefully it continues to grow." Unfortunately, this interview was to be Rolfe's last in the Fire kit, as he was dealt this afternoon to DC United for allocation money.
For this temporarily displaced Chicagoan, I can only describe this as a dream come true to see the Fire play in my own back yard. For Indy 11, a new era begins April 12th with the NASL home opener at Carroll stadium against Carolina. Great effort by all involved for the entertaining match.
Indy XI XI (4-2-3-1): Nicht; Estridge, Frias, Norales, Hyland; Ring, Moore; Ambersley, Mendes, Ramirez; Spencer— Indy Eleven Live (@IndyElevenLive) April 1, 2014
Michael Frank loves writing about soccer growth in the U.S. and the Chicago Fire. Follow on Twitter @Chi_Skyace.