Diving Deep: OKC Energy 1-2 Birmingham Legion

Goals early and late

Yet again, there was an early goal in a Birmingham Legion game. For once though, it was at the right end of the field and the Three Sparks found themselves in a position to defend a lead for 87 minutes.

Which they managed for 70 minutes until Villyan Bijev decided to go for a swim in the Legion 18 and subsequently scored on the PK he was awarded. Matt van Oekel came close to stopping it, though, and promptly forced Bijev to the ground so he did at least have a foul to complain about. The teams were then tied up for all of ten minutes until JJ Williams restored sanity and the Legion returned home with 3 points in the bag for the fourth game in a row.

That win streak is two more than the next best (the Rio Grande Valley Toros), although it is very much on the line tonight at Louisville City. But that’s for later.

Right now we need to review how Birmingham managed to pull off the win despite having a lowly 39.9% possession in the game, and being outshot 14 to 6. Right after the game I tweeted out a graphic of a heatmap for the game, saying that this was a hint to understanding how the game transpired. Here’s that graphic again:

This is the heatmap forboth teams. OKC are playing from left to right. As is fairly clear, they got stuck behind the halfway line. The Legion did too, to some extent, but the solid wall of red on the OKC side of midfield is key. The Legion parked the bus, but they parked it way out.

This worked very well in the first half. Here’s how the shooting went:

The Three Sparks’ shots are on the left. After the goal, they didn’t have a single attempt. But OKC only managed five, none on target and only one in the box.

In the second half, though, Tommy Soehn decided to change things up. In the 64th minute he took Alex Crognale out and put Junior Flemmings in. Swapping a striker for a defender is an unusual – and gutsy – move. At that point OKC had racked up just 3 more attempts on goal, none of them very effectual. An offensive formational and tactical shift was definitely on the cards. To cover for the missing central defender, Dean and James took turns covering on the back line as play dictated.

Overall, it worked. Although OKC managed to accumulate more shots than Birmingham, only 2 were on goal, and one of those was the penalty. Van Oekel was forced to make just one open play save all game. Their xG for the game was a lofty 2.01, but again, a PK is generally a near certain goal and counts for half that value by itself. That being said, only three of the Legion’s shots were on goal. JJ’s winner was a classic team effort, though. Birmingham’s final xG was 1.52, not out of line with recent history, and outperforming the xG is largely the result of Neco scoring on a very low probability chance (the Legion had just 3 touches from end to end).

The tactical shift didn’t really work out that well. OKC had 6 shots, including both shots on goal, in that final 37 minutes. However, in the entire game OKC only generated one big chance (again, the PK). So did the Legion, though.

Overall, this was a satisfactory performance by the Three Sparks. But that is about it. On the defensive side it was dominant, but not so much in the attack. yes, it was good to see JJ Williams continue to develop and get the game-winner as a reward for his work, and Neco getting his 50th regular season goal was also great. But this should have been an overwhelming display against a clearly inferior opponent. Tonight’s game in Louisville will be a more challenging outing, of course, and I doubt we will see risky tactical changes unless they become necessary.

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