Indy Eleven’s 1-0 win over FC Edmonton secures spot in The Championship final

Indy Eleven won their first-ever playoff game on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016 (photo courtesy Matt Schlotzhauer/NASL)
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INDIANAPOLIS - Sinisa Ubiparipovic smashed a 20-yard shot into the upper corner for Saturday's only goal as the Indy Eleven defeated FC Edmonton, 1-0, in a semifinal clash in The Championship, the North American Soccer League’s four-team postseason tournament, in front of a sellout crowd.

Indiana’s Team will either travel to New York to face the Cosmos or host Rayo OKC in The Championship Final next Sunday, Nov. 13, for the right to hoist the Soccer Bowl Trophy. Top-seeded New York hosts Rayo in Saturday’s other semifinal at 7 p.m. ET.

“We’ve grown into being a confident team especially late in the season with the work we’ve done on our game,” said Indy Eleven head coach Tim Hankinson. “We knew coming into this game that even with our game plan and focus, the Eddies were going to be a tight team to face. To see Sinisa pick out that upper corner like a surgeon, it’s a great bit of redemption for him and it’s great for this club. You can’t say enough about this group of guys.

Ubiparipovic, who played in The Championship Final last year while with Ottawa Fury FC (along with the Indy captain and defender Colin Falvey and Nicki Paterson), only recently returned from an injury that kept him sidelined most of the year. On the goal, he converted a pass from Dylan Mares, who was active and dangerous the entire game.

Indy, the No 2 seed after going unbeaten to win the Spring Season title, has now gone 19 games without a loss at Carroll Stadium dating back to last year and is 14W-3D-0L at home in NASL play in 2016, outscoring the opposition, 38-11. The Eddies entered the game having lost three of their last four, but boasted the league’s best defense, having allowed only 21 goals all year. But Edmonton also had the least productive offense, scoring only 25 goals combined across both the Spring and Fall Seasons.

Indy had the game’s first chance only two minutes in when Ubiparipovic found Don Smart with a pass at the top of the Eddies’ penalty area. Smart’s left-footed shot forced goalkeeper Matt VanOekel, who had 16 shutouts this year, to dive to his left to smother the shot.

Minutes later, Ubiparipovic again hit Smart with a pass, this time on the right side. Smart dribbled once before sliding a pass to an open Éamon Zayed for a shot that rolled under VanOekel, but Zayed was whistled for offside. Indy kept up the early pressure when Nemanja Vukovic whipped in a cross from the left that was headed over the bar by Zayed’s running mate up front, Justin Braun.

The Eddies countered quickly and Shawn Nicklaw found himself alone on the right side for a cross that was headed just over the crossbar by Sainey Nyassi in the game’s 9th minute.

In the 14th minute, Ubiparipovic drew a foul at the top of the penalty area that set up a golden scoring opportunity. The free kick by Mares, who was lively the entire game, curled but ultimately sailed over the crossbar.

In the 29th minute, Vukovic and Mares worked a neat give-and-go with Vukovic ending up with the ball on the left. He floated a cross on-frame that VanOekel let pass as it hit the crossbar and went out for a goal kick. Two minutes later, Mares unleashed a left-footed shot from the top of the arc that forced VanOekel to parry the ball out for a corner kick.

Indy pressed forward again, and again came close, in the 39th minute. Braun’s shot was stopped by VanOekel, but the rebound fell to Zayed, whose shot was once more stopped by VanOekel. But Marco Franco pounced on the rebound for a left-footed shot that VanOekel pushed wide of the near post as he hit his head on the goalpost.

Indy’s captain and central defender Colin Falvey spent about five minutes on the turf late in the first half after knocking heads with Tomi Ameobi on a corner kick. He walked off under his own power, but with his head wrapped to stanch the bleeding from a cut. He returned to the field before the end of the half.

Ten minutes into the second half, Mares created yet another opportunity. He chested down a cross and slid a pass to Smart for a right-footed shot that was struck well but sailed over the crossbar for an Edmonton goal kick. The assault on the Eddies goal continued three minutes later when Brad Ring’s diagonal ball from the right was headed wide by Braun, who was open at the back post.

Indy’s efforts finally paid off when Ubiparipovic scored his first goal in an Eleven uniform, giving the home team the 1-0 lead in the 63rd minute. On the play, Zayed held up the ball at the top of the area and rolled a pass to Mares, and with his back to the goal Mares lightly touched a pass to Ubiparipovic for a bending, right-footed shot that eluded VanOekel high to the far post.

“I was praying to God that the ball would fall to me, and once it left my foot I knew it was destined to hit the net. I obviously didn’t know it would hit the top corner the way it did, but that definitely made the goal extra special,” explained Ubiparipovic. “I’m extremely happy and proud of my teammates and really the entire organization. With this being our first postseason appearance, to win at home in front of our crowd is tremendous.”

The Eddies brought on Canadian youth international Ben Fisk in the 68th minute and pressed for the equalizer. Tomi Ameobi headed a ball across the goal for another header by Nik Ledgerwood that went right to Indy goalkeeper Jon Busch.

The Eleven nearly iced the match in the 83rd minute as Vukovic powered a free kick inside the Eddies goal box where Braun slid for a shot but pushed it wide.

Indy’s Busch was called on to make the save of the game with just under five minutes left in regulation as FC Edmonton pressed desperately for an equalizer. Nicklaw struck a cross from the right flank that Ameobi rose above the defense to head down in front of Busch. He kept his body in front of the ball and pushed the shot wide shot to preserve Indy’s lead - and his fourth straight shutout.

The victory in Indy Eleven’s playoff debut secured another first during the team’s historic 2016 season - a first appearance in The Championship Final in the squad’s third year of play.

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