Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-0 Memphis 901

There are at least 10,000 reasons to love this one

There are two things that stand out about this game.

The first is that the Birmingham Legion has depth.

The second is that it is incredible that John Berner had only two professional appearances since 2017 coming into this game.

Let’s deal with that first. He was on the Colorado Rapids roster from 2014-2017, making a total of 5 MLS appearances. During that time he also loaned to Charlotte Independence, where he played 36 games. He was loaned out again in 2017 to Phoenix Rising who didn’t play him. They took him permanently in 2018, and didn’t play him again; they loaned him to OKC Energy, who also had him ride the bench. He was out of contract in 2019 and finally signed with the now-defunct Saint Louis FC for 2020, where he appeared twice. That’s it. So Memphis take him to replace Jimmy Hague (who in turn replaced Tim Howard) and he immediately stands on his head. Despite being outplayed by Matt van Oekel, he made 9 saves in the game, and even the goal he got a foot to. He single-handedly saved Memphis from total embarrassment. It is not by chance that the USL Championship Team of the Week featured both goalkeepers in this game – Matt (who was also the USL Championship Player of the Week) was the starting GK, and Berner was on the bench. Memphis found themselves a diamond in the rough with Berner. Which is probably just as well, as the only other keeper on their roster is one Jake Gelnovatch, who is so anonymous he doesn’t even have a photo on the club website (he was the 2020 University of Louisville netminder, so he’s young and relatively untested).

Back to the Legion’s depth. The Three Sparks started this game without Alex Crognale, Mikey Lopez, Jonny Dean and Zach Herivaux. Prosper Kasim had to be subbed out after only 30 minutes. Against Louisville they played without Crognale, Herivaux, Junior Flemmings and JJ Williams. The Legion has yet to play a game this season with the team at full strength, and this coming Saturday in San Antonio probably won’t be the first either.

And yet…they still managed to completely outplay a Memphis 901 side that had very suddenly become an actual threat. Granted, the signings of Dominic Oduro and Dre Fortune were Monday and Tuesday respectively leading into the game, but even so, on short practice they would make the team look far more dangerous than it might otherwise have appeared.

That is because the Legion’s front office has managed to assemble a very solid depth squad. Ben Ofeimu, whom most of us had never heard of two weeks ago,  made the absence of Alex Crognale almost invisible. Jake Rufe, while not as speedy in attack as Jonny Dean, is certainly no slouch going forward on the wing and is easily as good a defender. Lopez’ absence was covered by moving Bruno Lapa back into the defensive midfield (not that you could tell, really) and slotting Junior Flemmings into the attacking midfield. When Kasim went down, Eli Crognale came on and the team barely missed a beat. And Lapa was spelled by Jaden Servania, who also plays more often in an attacking role. And just this week the team added centerback Freddy Kleemann on loan. It’s going to be tough for opponents to find gaps to exploit in this team’s roster.

Memphis 901 didn’t find any. Take a look at this graphic:

This shows the shots on target achieved by both teams. The USL helpfully decided to confuse everyone by coloring them black and gold, because of course Memphis plays in one of those and Birmingham doesn’t play in both. The Legion’s shots are in gold. Memphis managed just 5 shots on goal, and all of them were from distance. In fact, the only close range shot the 901 managed was by substitute Kyle Murphy in the 78th minute and it went so far wide it crossed the goal line outside the 6-yard box. Birmingham, by contrast, pummeled the goal from well inside the 18. 10 of a total of 17 shots were on target. 14 of the total were from inside the box.

Which leads us to a discussion of everybody’s least favorite statistic – expected goals. xG – as the stat is usually called – essentially measures the likelihood of scoring from any given attempt. It then adds those up and says this is how many goals the team should have scored in the game. The likelihood of scoring is a complex formula – and differs somewhat depending on who is doing the calculation – involving distance, angle, defense, etc. Most top leagues around the world use xG extensively. Data for the USL Championship is relatively sparse. The most reliable source of xG for the USLC that I can find is American Soccer Analysis, a top notch independent soccer stats site. Fir the season to date, the Legion has an xG of 4.34 (and an xGA – i.e., goals conceded – of 3.12). For this game alone, the xG was 2.38 (and for Neco Brett by himself it was 2.03). Memphis’ xG was 1.37. All told that means the Legion should have won 2-1. That was the 5th best performance so far this season by any team, and the 4 better were against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Las Vegas Lights and San Diego Loyal (twice), who have a combined record of 1-6 (and the win was against Sporting Kansas City II).

On the flip side, Matt van Oekel has an xG of 2.91, so his two goals allowed is well ahead of expectations.

So the Three Sparks should be scoring at a rate of 1.45 goals per game, more than double the actual 0.67. but then, they have had a relatively difficult schedule already. Nonetheless, converting chances needs to be a top priority. It’s not like the team doesn’t get into position to do that. Per FotMob, the Legion generated 12 scoring chances. Consider also this;

This shows the touches that Neco Brett, Junior Flemmings and JJ Williams had during the game. They managed a combined 26 touches in the Memphis 18. That’s a significant number. Now they need to turn those touches into shots, and the shots into goals.

As for the rest of the statistics in this game, the Legion dominated almost all of them, with the exception of interceptions, which Memphis led 26-11. but that’s what happens when you don’t control the ball much.

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