Even on a night marred by a broken leg and a questionable red card, Eriq Zavaleta demanded the spotlight. As Indiana’s 2012 season continues, it stands to wonder just how brightly that light might shine.
Zavaleta scored twice, once with an excellent header less than two minutes into the match and once after Indiana had been reduced to 10 men, as Indiana dispatched of ACC foe Clemson 3-0 Friday night. Zavaleta’s individual brilliance and link-up play with Nikita Kotlov proved too much for the visiting Tigers to handle in the second game of the annual adidas/IU Credit Union Classic.
“He’s so calm around goal,” IU coach Todd Yeagley said after the match. “The bottom line is that the game slows down for him in the final third, and he’s continuously dangerous in the box.”
Where the sophomore Hermann Trophy candidate’s irrepressibility brightened the game on a muggy, humid Friday night, an ugly tackle and a serious injury dampened the proceedings.
Dylan Lax’s challenge in the 74th minute on Clemson forward Iain Smith left the Tigers’ forward on his stomach in pain, with what was later confirmed to be a fracture of two bones in his leg. Lax came in from Smith’s left, appearing to win the ball before his trailing left leg chopped Smith down.
Lax initially saw yellow from referee Hilario Grajeda, but after Smith received several minutes of treatment and was eventually stretchered off, that yellow was switched to a straight red, a decision Yeagley called “inappropriate.”
“One that I didn’t quite understand, quite honestly,” Yeagley said after the game, when asked what explanation had been given for the change of card. “I’m still a little confused on it.”
Yeagley expressed sympathy for Lax, who he said had “no intent” when he made the initial tackle and “is clean and honest as a player.” While Smith was still on the ground being treated, Lax walked over from Indiana’s bench and shook his hand, and Smith appeared to accept the gesture.
No. 8/10 Indiana (3-0-0) had already doubled its lead at that point, tacking an excellently worked goal from Kyle Sparks onto Zavaleta’s fine header, just minutes before Lax’s sending off.
The Hoosiers’ second came from a strong run down the left channel by freshman Femi Hollinger-Janzen, who cut into the box along the end line, firing off a shot that was parried into the path of an on-running Sparks. The redshirt sophomore didn’t waste the chance when it fell to him.
When play restarted following the injury, the on-field atmosphere remained tense. Clemson midfielder Jack Metcalf earned a yellow for hauling down Kotlov, who took exception to the challenge.
But that yellow came out just 11 seconds after Indiana had salted victory away, following a familiar script.
Kotlov worked the ball from the left toward the center of the 18-yard box, curling a shot that hit the woodwork near the opposite upper corner. Clemson’s defense was caught flat-footed by a hustling Zavaleta, who cut inside of a white-shirted visitor and chipped home Indiana’s third, his second of the night and fifth in just three games so far this season.
“Their center back was kind of lackadaisical,” Zavaleta said, “and I kind of saw that and worked hard to get there.”
After the goal and Metcalf’s rough challenge, Indiana settled the game by dominating possession and bleeding away the final minutes. Again, Zavaleta and Kotlov figured heavily, the latter buzzing about and pressing the ball, and the former holding it up well, using his 6-foot-1 frame.
Yeagley said afterward he was impressed with his team’s composure in finishing the game soundly, even down to 10 men.
“I felt we were pretty smart in how we held it,” Indiana’s coach said. “A few times, I thought we could have played more in their half and played more into the corers. Yet overall, we had quite a bit of the ball in that period where we were down a man, and that was good to see.”
Man of the match — Eriq Zavaleta
A fair shout for either of Indiana’s center backs, Caleb Konstanski or Kerel Bradford, who marshaled a second-consecutive clean sheet, but on this night there could be no other choice.
Zavaleta proved his versatility as a finisher with a superb headed goal to open the match and a simple finish born of hard work and good positional sense. He also proved his importance as a physical presence for Indiana in the final minutes, using his strength to hold up the ball and keep possession as Indiana worked to finish the game down a man.
“He’s leaving his mark on the program,” Yeagley said after the match. “He’s very focused on helping us fight for championships.”
So long as No. 2 leads their line, the Hoosiers should be able to dream of those championships, Big Ten and, perhaps, beyond.