Diving Deep: Sporting Kansas City 0-1 Birmingham Legion

Winning on the back foot

OK, I know this game was 6 days ago, but this writer does have a day job, and he just recently saw his team lose 50% of its staff. And since the staff was previously a whopping 2 people, that has left little ol’ me with something of a heavy workload. Even so, my apologies.

Anyhoo, this one was a fair bit different than what we have seen before from the Legion. The first two wins in the now 3-game streak (second only to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who are at 8 and counting) were both achieved by a high press out of the 4-2-3-1. Coach Soehn spun the wheel again and this time came up with the 4-5-1. That’s a rarely used formation. At this dizzying rate of adaptation, the Legion will have covered all 29 of Marcelo Bielsa’s formations by about June of next season.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that this is a heavily defensive setup. Indeed it is, but it is also primed for the counter-attack. Why it was selected for this match is a head-scratcher, as the opposition didn’t exactly come in with a reputation for high scoring. They have bagged 30 goals in 28 games this season. That’s not great, although surprisingly it is still more than Indy Eleven and OKC Energy, who both have 29 goals in 28 games. At the other end, they have allowed 50, 4th worst in the entire league.

Moreover, as an MLS B squad, they have used a lot of players. 36 in all. They have played 4 different goalkeepers alone. And, like Atlanta United 2, most of these guys are young. Younger than Twonited even. That includes the recently signed Mataeo Bunbury who just turned 16 in June and got an impressive 45 minutes in this game. His brother Teal, who is almost twice his age, plays for MLS’ New England Revolution, by the way, although his teammates might be more interested in his also well-known older sister.

Still, despite all that, SKC II did show some offensive chops in this outing, which ended up turning into a goalkeeping battle. Matt van Oekel and Brooks Thompson both made 4 saves in the game. That may not sound too impressive, but only one keeper in the Championship is averaging more than 4 goals a game. That’s the delightfully named Alex Rando of the Las Vegas Lights, at 4.64 per game. He’s also conceded 54 goals, which means he has been keeping the Lights from being even more embarrassing than they already are.

Ultimately, SKC II outshot the Legion 13-9, although only one was from really close range. Still, they finished with an xG of 1.00, better than the Three Sparks’ 0.63. And that gives rise to a coupe of questions: was it justifiable to use such a defensive game plan? Or did the game plan fail?

As it played out, the 4-5-1 was rather disorganized. Here are the average positions of the starting XI:

That looks more like 5-1-3-1 to me or possibly a relatively defensive 4-2-3-1. Tough to say, really. Notably, though, both Jonny Dean and Ryan James played in very withdrawn positions in this game. Overall, though, this was clearly not a formation the Legion was used to playing, so some penetration by the opposition was to be expected. The substitutions pretty much doubled down on defense too. With JJ Williams not in the 18, there weren’t too many attacking options on the bench, so it’s not too surprising that the replacements were Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Eli Crognale, Zach Herivaux and the underutilized Jake Rufe.

In the end, though, it worked. SKC II were limited to just 16 touches inside the Birmingham 18. The Legion had even fewer at 14, in fact, but the touches were of somewhat better quality. It’s also fitting that the only goal in the game came from the head of a defender.

I seriously doubt that we will see this kind of defensive play the rest of the season. At this stage, there’s far too much to play for. The Legion is now in an all-out points race, not only with Louisville City, but also with FC Tulsa and Memphis 901. At some stage – and likely soon -someone in the division is going to call damn the torpedoes and from then on it’s going to be glorious fun.

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