How Indy Eleven built its spring miracle (and plan to attack the NASL fall)

Trevor Ruszkowski-NASL

Indy won the NASL's opening sprint, but as Scott French discovered, the foundation it's laid will also serve the club during the fall season, and beyond.

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They're calling it the “Miracle at the Mike,” and, maybe just this once, there's not a whole lot of hyperbole going on.

As the first phase of this year’s North American Soccer League campaign headed toward its climax at the end of May and beginning of June, Indy Eleven -- chronic stragglers through its first two seasons in the second division -- found everything suddenly going its way.

We're going to do this. We're actually going to pull this off tonight. We're going to get four goals.”

- Jon Busch

Indy in its first two years had led the league in attendance, with a 10,126 average, but it was 14-25-18 on the pitch, finishing ninth both seasons.

“We had quite a bit of success off the field the first two years, but not on the field,” Peter Wilt, the Chicago Fire founder who built Indy from the ground up, told FourFourTwo. “So it felt a little incomplete going into the season.”

In December, the club brought in an experienced head coach, former Tampa Bay Mutiny and Colorado Rapids boss Tim Hankinson, and with a budget boost retooled its roster, adding 11 veterans, five with Major League Soccer experience. There was a difference, and things quickly fell into place. Indy didn't always win, but it never lost, and the path toward something unexpected, something special, was clearing.

First the Carolina RailHawks and then Minnesota United tumbled from the top spot in the table, collapsing under successive losses in a 10-game spring sprint that punishes every lost point. Then defending champion New York Cosmos, needing only a draw to secure the spring championship before its bye in the season's final week, were beaten at Fort Lauderdale in its finale.

That left three teams capable of catching the Cosmos on the last weekend, and Indy -- the league's only unbeaten side -- had the best shot. It’d have to score four goals and win by three over the RailHawks, which would pull it even on points (18), goal difference (plus-7) and goals scored (15).

The next tiebreaker was head-to-head, and that had been settled in mid-April, when the Eleven scored in the 90th and 95th minutes for a 2-1 home triumph over the Cosmos.

Only one problem: Indy didn't score goals in bunches.

“We're not a high-scoring team by nature. That's not really the way we're built,” Hankinson noted. “So you've got to adjust your game and say we've got to create more turnovers, more shots, and a little bit of luck.”

It was something that no one really expected. I think that every Indy Eleven fan, player, coach, staff member hoped for it, but we recognized that 4-1 or 4-0 was a pretty hefty lift."

- Peter Wilt

Indy’s real forté was defending. It’d scored four in a game just once, in the result that started Minnesota's stumble, and one goal or less in six of nine outings, but behind former MLS goalkeeper Jon Busch and a backline that featured MLS veterans Greg Janicki, Nemanja Vukovic and Lovel Palmer, the Eleven were tough to break down. A shutout alone wasn't going to do it.

The plan was simple. Score at least two goals in the first half on the artificial turf at Michael Carroll Stadium and then see what happens.

“I said if we go for two goals in the first half, whether it's 2-nil or 2-1 at halftime, we stand a decent chance of pulling this off,” Wilt said. “And that's the approach we took.”

Prescription for a miracle

The “miracle,” as it was, was how perfectly the prescription played out. Eamon Zayed provided a 16th-minute lead, but Carolina equalized a little more than a dozen minutes later. “It didn't look like we were going to get” the second goal before the break, Wilt said, but then Justin Braun stepped up in stoppage. Halftime: 2-1, Indy.

I remember thinking, 'Oh, crap, I've got to stay out of the way or else I'm going to get run over and get hurt here.'"

- Jon Busch

“We talked about it all week,” said Busch, who joined up in January and also serves as the club's director of goalkeeping. “We didn't want to get ahead of ourselves. We talked about just getting the first goal and going from there. I will say, in the heat we had that day, on turf, I had never seen a group of men run as much as they did that night. They never stopped running.”

Zayed, a Irishman who plays for Libya's national team and earned the moniker “Mr. Hat Trick” with his exploits in Iran, netted a second in the 65th minute, and Busch told himself: “We're going to do this. We're actually going to pull this off tonight. We're going to get four goals.”

Zayed scored the fourth in the 85th minute, the final whistle blew, and it was pandemonium.

“I didn't even really move from the 18,” Busch said. “All of a sudden, there were just fans coming from every which direction, just running on the field. I remember thinking, 'Oh, crap, I've got to stay out of the way or else I'm going to get run over and get hurt here.' I just tried to hide in the 18-yard box.”

NEXT: Legends of the fall?