Diving Deep: FC Tulsa 3-1 Birmingham Legion
So what went wrong?
I imagine that absolutely no one – either in Alabama or in Oklahoma – anticipated the final scoreline of this one. And yet that’s what we got. The question then is why? What happened to cause this game to go do much against the odds?
Despite my own prediction of a Legion win, a draw likely would have been a reasonable result. And in fact, the 3-1 score rather flatters Tulsa as the Legion were pressing hard to get the tying goal, so the late clincher was not all that surprising. When you go YOLO, you can expect to get burned every so often.
But it never should have come to that. Under normal conditions (and when has the Legion seen those this season?) everything favors the Three Sparks. Here’s a few of the factors that combined to upset the apple cart.
Coach Soehn reverted to the 4-2-3-1 for this one, which mirrored Tulsa’s lineup. In the previous four games the team had used, in reverse order, 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3. So this was the 4th formation in five games. That’s highly unusual and is expecting a lot of the team’s players. It’s going more or less full Marcelo Bielsa1, who asserts that there is a total of 29 soccer formations young players should learn and know.
Well, maybe, but that much experimentation in that short a period is overkill. Moreover, the 4-2-3-1 has not proven to be the best lineup for the Three Sparks, certainly not this season. Beyond that, it is probably not the best counter to an opposing 4-2-3-1 unless you are planning on man-marking, which almost nobody does (in the upper echelons of US soccer, I am aware of only one that does this – the San Jose Earthquakes, who are 10th of 13 in the Western Conference right now). Possibly the best option is the 3-4-3, or at least some formation with a three-man back line and a defensive midfielder for additional support. That way you stand far less chance of being outnumbered in a counterattack. With 4 at the back and a high press (which is what the Legion were attempting), your fullbacks are out of position and you can get in trouble very quickly.
That’s not exactly how the first goal happened, but there had been at least one Tulsa chance before that where that was precisely the cause. Fortunately Matt van Oekel forced Jason Johnson just wide. But take a look at this:
This is the position just before Matt Sheldon’s goal. It was to some degree a failed clearance attempt by Ryan James that led to the goal, but if the Legion had not been overloaded, it likely would not have happened. Now it looks from the shot as if Birmingham has 5-4 advantage in men here. But that’s not exactly true. The Legion players are, from left to right, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Jonny Dean, Prosper Kasim, Zach Herivaux, Alex Crognale and Ryan James. James is at least back in defense, but Dean isn’t quite there. Kasim is the attacking central mid, so he is effectively out of position. Herivaux is one of the two defensive mids, and is the intended target of James’ clearance. The big issue is Vancaeyezeele, who was playing as a center back. He is oddly way off the back line and in no position to get back in time. With Sheldon racing forward (he is directly below Jonny Dean in this shot), it is ultimately him and Johnson (who takes the ball from James) against Crognale.
After that, the Legion was chasing the game, and poorly for much of the time.
The injury to Flemmings
When one of your major offensive threats is out the game after just 21 minutes (and he hobbled even before that), the game plan tends to go out the window. It’s not quite as bad as a red card, but it’s up there. Soehn had two potential attacking options on the bench – Mikey Lopez and Jaden Servania. Neither is a perfect replacement for Junior. Lopez was the choice. Granted, Mikey scored on Wednesday, but that was from the left back position and he had a fully loaded front line ahead of him to occupy the defense. He ended up with one shot all game from outside the box and it was blocked. Also consider this:
This shows the average positions of all players in the game, including substitutes. Birmingham’s subs were Lopez (#5), Phanuel Kavita (#3), Jaden Servania (#17) and Jake Rufe (#13). Take those 4 out and you have a very clear 4-2-3-1. But Mikey replaced Junior, who is #77. As you can see, he played a much more retracted position overall. Without Junior, the formation became more of a 4-3-3. Sheldon scored just 4 minutes after the switch. So not only was the Legion playing in an initial formation that wasn’t working, they were still trying to adjust to a new one.
Three games in 8 days is a tough call, especially in the August heat, even if two of them were at home. Granted, Tulsa also played Wednesday, but that was also at home and they had a full week prior to that. And with another two games this week, Soehn was somewhat forced to employ some squad rotation. Taking Phanuel Kavita out for the first time all season was probably a necessity, but it hurt. Kaylor Hodges noted in his post-game pod that he was surprised that the replacement wasn’t Ben Ofeimu, and I have to agree. Pulling Vancaeyezeele into the central back position was his selection, and it was essentially Thomas out of his more natural defensive mid role. That seems like a strange way to go about using a what most would consider a very deep squad.
What’s worse is that the Legion still has two more games to go in this compressed stretch before they get a break. That gives me pause.
For all its depth, the Legion is not the same team without him. But when he gets back, he is going to have some very fired up players around him. Look out, league.