Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 0-1 Memphis 901

A shocking blow

Well, let’s start off by saying that as an Englishman resident in Birmingham, Alabama, this was not a good weekend.

England losing in a penalty shootout was not a surprise. The Legion losing at home to Memphis 901 was, in contrast, a shocker. Especially given how the game went, by and large. There are basically four reasons why the Three Sparks lost this game:

  1. Not getting at least one penalty in the first half, and another one in the second.
  2. Failure to finish chances.
  3. Kyle Morton standing on his head in his first game in goal for Memphis and his first game for anyone since last season.
  4. A somewhat lucky score by Kyle Murphy.

As far as the first item is concerned, there were two clear penalty calls in the first half. The first was a blatant barge by Zach Carroll on JJ Williams in the 22nd minute. The second was 6 minutes later when Neco Brett was dragged down by Andre Reynolds. Both occurred immediately in front of me while I was pitchside taking photos. At full speed there should have been no question as to the correct call in both cases. Watching both plays on the TV replay, there is absolutely no justification for not calling the foul on JJ. The foul on Neco was perhaps rather softer, and in retrospect I can see that one getting ignored. The call in the second half was in the 75th minute when Raul Gonzalez threw himself at Ryan James. He got a corner kick out of it, which was a terrible call, since he approached James from behind and was twisting away from him when contact was made.

One problem here is that JJ Williams is 6’4″ and 200 pounds. He’s a big guy, basically, and that tends to make referees think he should be able to stay on his feet better. If this were football, that might be true. But this is soccer, and the only real advantage tall guys have is in the air. On the ground, and at speed, they are in many respects at a disadvantage, not least because they have a much higher center of gravity. So when he comes into contact with another player’s entire forearm, JJ is going down. In contrast, consider Anderson Asiedu, who is 5’6″ and 160 pounds. A little kid by comparison, but he’s almost impossible to bring down.

Anyway, blaming the refs is never a viable excuse. You still need to get the ball in the back of the net. As noted, Kyle Morton had a great game, making a total of 8 saves and getting named Player of the Week. Granted, not all of those saves were all that spectacular (although the tip of JJ’s stoppage time header certainly was and is a Save of the Week candidate), but he held the Legion at bay. At the other end, Matt van Oekel only faced 3 shots on goal all game.

Again, that’s not a strong excuse either. As for the Memphis goal, it came down to an unfortunate deflection off Phanuel Kavita’s foot. Kavita was properly placed to block Laurent Kissiedou’s shot, but the ricochet fell directly to Murphy who capitalized. Them’s the breaks.

So that just leaves us with the Legion not scoring. We’ve become used to low-scoring games this year, but when you create 12 chances you have to finish at least a couple. Indeed, they had an xg of 1.38 for the game; Memphis had just 0.76. The Three Sparks racked up a total of 17 shots in the game and should have found a way to finish them. They simply didn’t. The question is: why not?

Amazingly, in a team that is for the most part extremely deep, I think the issue in this case was personnel. Tommy Soehn went with the 3-4-3 that has shown itself to be pretty effective so far. But on Saturday he was without the services of Bruno Lapa, who was injured. He was also missing Junior Flemmings and Zach Herivaux on international duty, but Zach is a defender and the team has proven capable of scoring without Junior. The key absence was Bruno.

Mikey Lopez was given the start in his place. Additionally, Jaden Servania played in Junior’s spot, although he is more of a midfielder than a forward. So the two center midfielders were Lopez and Asiedu. But both of them are much stronger defenders than attackers. So, rather than the typical midfield diamond with Bruno joining the attack and Anderson covering at the back, we had what amounted to a 4-4-2. Mikey was hanging back with the defense, and Anderson was the attacking linchpin and Jaden played as an extra winger.

Here are the average positions in the game:

You could also argue that’s a 3-5-2, or even a 4-3-3. But it’s clear that the disciplined organization we have seen over the past few games wasn’t there. And yet, the team still managed significant penetration. Here’s the heat map:

The Legion playing left to right. The Memphis 18 is pretty much blanketed. That’s good, obviously, but it’s not much use of the ball doesn’t come into the box with the players (when it did, they got fouled, but hey). Here’s the passing chart for the midfield quartet:

Basically, they were great everywhere except the Memphis penalty area. Between them they managed just 8 successful passes into the box. 15 passes into the box failed. And note the total absence of passes from central midfield, good or bad, into the 18. That would normally be Bruno Lapa’s job. Mikey Lopez is not a like-for-like replacement and the team suffered as a result. He was subbed off for Daigo Kobayashi after 67 minutes, which made for somewhat more offensive strength. Ten minutes earlier Soehn had taken Jaden Servania off for Prosper Kasim. Kasim for Lopez may have been a better choice. Not that it made any real difference: Prosper and Daigo combined for 6 passes into the box, all unsuccessful.

In the end, the Legion remains on top of the table, but not with the points clearance a win would have provided, and the Central Division proved once again that it is the tightest in the league with only 0.63 points per game separating top from bottom. The next nearest is the Mountain Division at 1.33 PPG separation, more than double the Central and with one less team. At this stage, no result can be taken for granted. Even against Memphis.

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