After defeating Wisconsin on the road to keep itself in the Big Ten title race, Indiana men’s soccer began its three-match nonconference slate before the regular season finale back under the lights at Bill Armstrong Stadium.
With the postseason quickly approaching, Tuesday night’s match against the No. 2-ranked Kentucky Wildcats presented the perfect opportunity for the Hoosiers to boost their NCAA Tournament resume. Despite keeping control over possession for long stretches, the Hoosiers suffered a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the well-disciplined and clinical Wildcats.
In the battle of unbeatens, Kentucky kept its historic season pushing and extended its record to 9-0-5. Meanwhile, Indiana’s 16-match undefeated streak at home spanning back to last season finally came to an end. The Hoosiers are now 7-3-4 overall.
“Strangest game I’ve ever been a part of as a coach,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said. “Stats can be deceiving. The game felt like it was tight.”
With the chants and tunes from the supporters and band in cream and crimson fully behind them, the Hoosiers asserted their swagger and confidence from the opening whistle. Sophomore forward Samuel Sarver came close to heading in a corner kick in the third minute, but his gigantic leap to reach the inswinger forced his effort above the crossbar.
The Wildcats turtled into a defensive shell to counter the Hoosiers’ adrenaline, but quickly retaliated and gained ground in the midfield battle by progressively increasing their physicality.
Restarts and set pieces have been vital toward Indiana’s attacking success this season, and the team yet again concentrated on using them to find the breakthrough. Despite earning four corner kicks and a long throw-in in a span of two minutes, the Hoosiers couldn’t create a clear goalscoring chance.
The Hoosiers pressed high up the pitch and gave themselves an 8-3 advantage in corners but ultimately never found a way through.
“Tonight we didn’t convert, but if we continue to serve like that and challenge, good things will happen,” Yeagley said.
Against the run of play, Kentucky showed its quality and alertness in the attacking third with a short passing sequence that cut through Indiana’s back line.
After getting to a mishandled pass in the Hoosiers’ half of the pitch first, Wildcat fifth-year midfielder Clay Holstad precisely passed the ball through to sophomore midfielder Casper Grening in the penalty area. With yards between him and the next Hoosiers defender, Grening calmly squared the ball across the box to senior forward Eythor Bjorgolfsson to take a 1-0 lead.
Bjorgolfsson couldn’t comfortably strike the ball into the net, but his positioning made up for his mistimed run and earned him a team-leading seventh goal this season.
Indiana shortly returned to its attack-minded approach and controlled possession in search of the equalizer, but Kentucky stood firm and only allowed miniscule space to go forward down the wings. The Wildcats retained their one-goal advantage at halftime.
The Hoosiers’ best chances at tying the match came in the 54th and 55th minutes.
Sarver’s frightening pace down the right flank opened space for a low cross, but senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink’s shot was blocked by the parallel defender and redshirt junior midfielder Quinten Helmer’s unmarked shot off the deflection was struck high. Soon after, Wittenbrink rose high to meet a cross at the far left post, but his momentum toward the byline pushed his header wide of goal.
“We were on the edge of making a play,” Yeagley said. “We had territory, it was just that last decision (that was lacking).”
Only 10 minutes later, the Wildcats put the balance of the match firmly in their control by doubling their lead. With the Hoosiers’ back line concentrated on the tightly packed right wing, senior midfielder Nick Gutmann slipped into the penalty area and volleyed an overhead pass directly through redshirt senior goalkeeper Bryant Pratt’s gloves.
With momentum and confidence back on their side, the Wildcats piled on a third goal in the 67th minute. Facing a handful of attackers just above the penalty area, the Hoosiers back line miscommunicated over its man-marking assignments.
This gifted a dream opportunity for a wide-open Grening, who easily slotted the ball into the near corner.
“For a really good attacking team, they didn’t pose a lot of threatening feeling,” Yeagley said. “They happened quick, a couple transition moments. Their front four are good. The three that scored don’t need a lot of chances.”
Kentucky scored on all three of its shots on target, while Indiana registered just two. Still, the Hoosiers led 8-6 in total shots and generated enough moments and possession to squeeze out a positive result against what is shaping to be one of the national championship favorites.
The experience will be useful in the coming months, but for now Yeagley and the Hoosiers are looking ahead to the meaningful Big Ten matches yet to come.
“Keep your head up,” Yeagley said about his postgame message to his players. “They felt frustrated. I wasn’t trying to cheer them up, but I told them, ‘You guys were doing a lot of really good things tonight.’”
Indiana will play its final road match of the regular season against the University of Evansville at 7 p.m. Tuesday.