Diving Deep FC Tulsa 1-1 Birmingham Legion


So the big question in this one is: how much did the baseball field affect the Legion’s play?

This was the second straight game the three Sparks have played on a converted baseball park (and whatever happened to the league’s requirement for all teams to play in soccer-specific stadiums by 2020?). The first was Memphis’ AutoZone Park, then Tulsa’s rather ungainly named ONEOK Field.

There are essentially two factors to consider. First is the field size. Second is the field condition.

Field size is dictated by the dimensions of the stadium. Typically, a baseball field cannot accommodate a normal; size field. “Normal” is a relatively vague term in soccer though, as the Laws allow for a very wide range of field sizes. Width can by anywhere from 50 to 100 yards and length can be 100 to 130 yards. The only stipulation beyond that is that the field length must exceed its width. The most notorious culprit of squeezing a soccer field into a baseball stadium is probably New York City FC of MLS, who play at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees insist that the pitching mound not be removed for each NYCFC home game, thus limiting the field considerably. The club refuse to allow measurements to be taken, but several visiting coaches have claimed to have done precisely that, and have found it be narrower than league requirements.

But that’s a different league. The USL Championship requires fields to be a minimum of 110×70. Unfortunately, actual field dimensions are difficult to find. Looking at a Google Maps image of BBVA Field, for example, I estimate that the playing area at the Bank is possibly 118×75. A pretty healthy size, in fact. ONEOK is apparently 106×70. That is less than regulation length and barely regulation width. According to reports, AutoZone Park may be the required minimum 110×70, but that’s really shoehorning it in.

OK, you think, BBVA Field is just 5 yards wider. 2.5 yards on either side. Not a big deal, right? Actually, for wingers and fullbacks, it’s a very big deal. Speed and acceleration are key to wide play in soccer, and having well over two running strides to work with can mean all the difference when you are trying get around a defender attempting to force you out even wider.

Similarly, an extra 8-12 yards of length in the pitch not only benefits faster players, but also changes the passing dynamics. If all your players are compressed into a shorter space, then they have to adjust either the power of their passes, their tactical movement, or both. Consider also how many balls went straight from Matt van Oekel to his counterpart Austin Wormell at the other end.

That’s one adjustment that has to be made. The other is field quality. At AutoZone Park, in order to get the field as big as they do, they have to include the entire baseball infield on the pitch, all of it at one end. So the area that has be covered with temporary sod is as big as it can possibly be. Bear in mind that both Memphis and Tulsa are playing a summer season that coincides with the baseball season, so the sod never really gets the time to “take”. It’s always loose. ONEOK Field is not quite as bad – most of home plate and the entire right field basepath are outside the soccer pitch. That means that the entire stretch from first to third is on the field, and the left field basepath runs to one corner of the soccer pitch. But that also means the variation from one side to the other is significant. A big strip from the goal almost the center spot is all temporary,  and there is a chuck of temporary sod on one side that has to be played through. One half of the game you playing on mostly permanent grass, the other half you have to deal with the temporary stuff.

This also makes the pregame coin toss a huge factor – do you want to play into or out of the baseball diamond in the first half? Remember that this is the decision the team winning the coin toss has to make: they choose which end they defend first, not whether they kick off first.

Last Saturday, the Legion played out of the diamond in the first half. In that half, they had 10 shots. In the second half they had 10 shots. So no drop off there. Not to mention they scored in the second half. Oddly, Tulsa took 10 shots into the diamond and only 4 at the outfield end.

It was also clear that the Three Sparks’ wing play did not really suffer. Playing through the first to second basepath, Jonny Dean and Prosper Kasim created all sorts of headaches for the Tulsa defense. Likewise,  Ryan James and Mikey Lopez did the same in the second half playing into it.

By way of evidence, here is the combined passing chart for Jonny and Prosper in the first half:

And in the second:

Not a great deal to differentiate the two. There were in fact a few more passes in the first half, and more balls into the box too. Bear in mind that Prosper picked up a yellow card early in the second half, so he was likely playing a little more cageily.

Overall, the Legion dominated this game offensively. The bulk of play was towards the Tulsa end in both halves. And Tulsa did not score from open play, remember.

Now, this was a much better designed conversion than at AutoZone Park, where the Legion has struggled mightily, and certainly did last week. Moreover, it was the second straight game on such a field and adjustments were already in hand. Additionally, the Tulsa ground crew has making this conversion far longer and the field was probably in much better shape a result. On the other hand, the Legion were playing a better team than Memphis.

Oh, and at ONEOK they don’t insist on serving bad barbecue at the concessions. All told, a far superior experience.

So the answer to the initial question is: not very much. This week at least. Still, it’s good to get back to real soccer fields again.

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