Diving Deep: San Antonio 2-1 Birmingham Legion
Entertaining. You know, if you like the UFC.
Toyota Field needs a chain link fence installed around the pitch. This one was, frankly, ugly. Fouls galore, both whistled and unwhistled. Time wasting of various styles, but largely of the miraculously healed leg injury type (but let’s not forget one blatantly simulated face injury). This was CONCACAF soccer at its finest.
The biggest statistic of the game was that there were a total of 25 fouls called – 16 of them committed by San Antonio – but only 6 cards issued (5 to San Antonio). All of those were yellows, and each was to a separate player, with no one receiving marching orders for a double yellow; Joaquín Varela at a minimum should have seen a second yellow. The Legion’s Phanuel Kavita allowed Santiago Patiño to get inside his head enough that he needed to demonstrate how hard the outside of it is and was staggeringly lucky not to see a straight red.
That particular event occurred in the 18th minute, and the fact that both players were merely cautioned is what set the stage for the remainder of the game. It signaled to the players – and especially to the home team – just how much they could get away with. Disciplinary control was basically ceded and thigs just got worse from there.
Kavita aside, it didn’t seem to bother Legion players too much. At least not in the first half. At the end of 45 minutes, despite giving up a very early goal (also due at least in part to Kavita, who deflected a ball Matt van Oekel appeared to have covered). The Three Sparks looked much the better team other than that, and a tying goal looked very much on the cards.
But in the second half the fouling and theatrics increased and they clearly affected the Legion. The game lost all flow and became a nearly unwatchable mess. Which seemed to be San Antonio’s objective: take the opponent out of its game plan by whatever disruptive tactics you can get away with. That sounds like a pretty cynical strategy – but is it really cynical if it works?
San Antonio’s big problem is possession. They are frequently on the wrong side of 40% – in this game it was an anemic 37%. That means two things: first, you have to be opportunistic when you have the ball, and clinical in finishing to boot. Second, you have to be very solid defensively. The San Antonio Schenkers are good – but not great – at both of those, so they need another tactic. Hence the rough stuff.
The thing is, it’s not a strategy that’s going to get you over the final hurdle. Teams like Phoenix Rising or the Tampa Bay Rowdies are not going to be impressed. You don’t run roughshod over teams like those. With teams that are about you own level – such as the Legion – it can be very effective indeed.
Not that the win was entirely due to that, of course. The Legion has its own weaknesses. Most notably, they need to find ways to finish. This has been a team issue since day one. Worse, for a team with the kind of offensive firepower the Legion has assembled, it’s absurd.
Despite nearly doubling San Antonio in possession, the Legion managed only 19 total shots – a mere 3 more than the home team. On average, that’s 1 shot very 3 minutes of possession, as compared with 1 every 2.1 minutes for San Antonio. Of those 19 shots, just 6 were on target. And it gets worse:
This is all of the Legion’s shots on target. Only 2 inside the box. The other four were waay outside. Moreover, 3 of the shots were taken by Anderson Asiedu (who was easily the Legion Man of the Match). another was attempted by sub Daigo Kobayashi, and one more by Ryan James. Of all of the Legion’s heralded forwards, only 1 shot on goal was achieved. That happened to be the Legions only goal of the match, but still.
Note that this does not include the two strikes that hit the woodwork. By definition, that’s off-target, since the shot would not go in if it hits the frame (strangely, “on frame” means it’s on target, though. Go figure). In other words, close but no cigar. So let’s 4-ish shots that could have gone in. Still not great. In fact, for the game the Legion managed an xG of just 0.98.
What exactly is the team’s problem? Well, one might be (as Kaylor Hodges has pointed out in his podcast more than once) that the team does not like to take shots with less than very high scoring probability. That is to say, they are squandering less-than-perfect chances. If true, they have got to cut that out. Because there is another problem, and one that really should not exist.
Consider these two pictures side by side:
On the left is a graphic showing all of the Three Sparks’ open play crosses in the game. Red means the cross was unsuccessful, green that it found a target. It doesn’t get any better if you add in set piece crosses, by the way. Only 4 crosses in the entire game found a target in the box. On the right is the team’s heatmap, playing right to left. Penetration into the 18 was poor. If you cut the graphics down to just the first half, there’s only one good cross and virtually no play in the box.
So the Legion has sharpshooters in the attack, and speedy fullbacks and wingers who can provide service. Seems like a recipe for success, right? But the balls aren’t getting served in, and the forwards aren’t there to receive them. This needs to be fixed. Immediately.
Well, you say, if you can’t the outside game, play up the middle. Well, here’s how that went. This graphic shows all the successful non-cross passes:
Only 3 got into the box that way. It also shows very little success in the key area known as zone 14. What is that, you ask? Well, soccer analysts like to break the field down into 18 equal zones, with each half being a grid of 9 boxes. Zone 14 is the central box in the attacking half. The heatmap indicates that the Legion did get into that area fairly well. The passing map shows that they did absolutely nothing with the ball when they did. Again, this needs fixing in short order.
The good news is that Wednesday offers an excellent opportunity to right the ship. Let’s see how it turns out.