Nikita Kotlov, pictured above, put in an excellent all-around perfomance for Indiana on Tuesday night in a 1-1 exhibition draw against Illinois-Chicago. Kotlov was active across the breadth of midfield, creating and distributing well throughout his time on the pitch.
Todd Yeagley can at least find comfort in his team’s ability to speak emphatically to its own shortcomings.
Dominant in possession in the first 30 minutes of Tuesday night’s exhibition game against Illinois-Chicago, Indiana was far less lethal in front of goal, spurning several excellent chances in the opening period. Before Yeagley could huddle with his team, to emphasize greater focus in the final third of the field, his players took control, relaying the same message.
“Before I could even say it, they’re talking about it,” Yeagley said. “Now, then we go back out, 15 minutes in the next period, we still get a couple chances that we were a little bit casual on. Talking about it and doing it, we’ve got to make sure those two correlate.”
Indiana tallied 16 shots, including four on goal, and played with tantalizing fluidity, pace and chemistry in stretches during their season-opening exhibition Saturday, but that profligacy cost them in a 1-1 draw. The Hoosiers enjoyed more possession than visiting UIC and controlled the match for long stretches, but failed to convert a number of good chances in a game that ended even after three 30-minute periods.
After a brief, non-descript beginning to the game, the Hoosiers asserted control on the match through a dominant midfield axis formed by A.J. Corrado, Jacob Bushue, Harrison Petts, Nikita Kotlov and new No. 9 Andrew Oliver, a promising freshman who acquitted himself well in his first appearance in an Indiana jersey.
Bushue began his junior campaign as he ended the last one, patrolling the middle third of the field and helping win and retain possession. Corrado, Petts and Kotlov kept the ball ticking over midfield into attack, finding forward-running wing backs, Oliver, or one another particularly down the flanks — “the wings were just kind of open,” Petts said afterward — and creating chances from several angles.
Kotlov spurned one sterling chance in the second period, when he found himself through on goal but could never work a clear shot. A number of Hermann Trophy watchlist honoree Eriq Zavaleta’s shots were blocked by UIC defenders often found wanting and out of position, only to turn up with much-needed deflections. And defender Caleb Konstanski spurned Indiana’s best chance in the second period, when Brown transfer T.J. Popolizio headed a ball back across goal, leaving the net open only for Konstanski to flash a shot wide left.
“I think we played well,” Petts said. “We kept possession a lot. One thing we need to do is make sure we have the killer instinct when we go to goal.”
That deficiency proved defining of the evening, though, as the Flames struck first, somewhat against the run of play.
Ivan Stanisavljevic, the reigning Horizon League Offensive Player of the Year, found space in behind a young defense in the 67th minute, carrying the ball into the right corner of the 18-yard area. He flashed a diagonal cross back toward a teammate, only to have the ball carom back out to his feet. Switching to his outside foot, he banged a low shot off the far post and into the net, breaking the tie.
Indiana began cycling out its starters after 30 minutes, often pulling them in favor of younger replacements. And it was through youth that Indiana found the equalizer, when redshirt sophomore midfielder Dylan Lax found redshirt freshman teammate Kyle Sparks alone and in space left of center outside the 18. Sparks took the ball toward goal, slotting home past back-up UIC goalkeeper Goran Ikic in the 72nd minute.
The visitors finished with 10 fewer shots (16-6) than their hosts, though each team found the frame with four attempts. Still, it would be generous to suggest that indicative of greater quality on the part of the Flames, who seemed content to sit behind the ball most of the evening.
“Right away, we knew we were going to have to kind of crack the shell,” Petts said. “We’re going to find ways to play against teams that sit back in against us.”
Man of the match: Nikita Kotlov
Hard to pick one, with so much substitution and experimentation, but even for an exhibition, Kotlov was superb. He buzzed about both sides of the field, finding space to receive the ball and moving it along superbly.
Often a catalyst last season, Kotlov looked in good start-of-season form Tuesday, and given the chances both created by and presented to him, on another night he might have bagged a goal. Indiana will need more of the same when the Hoosiers face Chivas Guadalajara in Fort Wayne on Saturday. That game will be broadcast nationally on Fox Soccer Channel, with kickoff set for 7 p.m.