Diving Deep: OKC Energy 0-0 Birmingham Legion

The win streak ends

Apparently in the cause of symmetry, the Legion’s 5-game win streak came to an end with a draw against OKC Energy, which happens also to have been the last result before the streak. Still, the Legions is on an 8-game unbeaten streak. That’s 4 games longer than any other team in the league, the next best being Charlotte Independence (who have won 4 straight since losing to the Three Sparks) and New Mexico United (who have 4 draws and a win).

So how did the relatively lowly OKC Energy manage it?

Yet again, Tommy Soehn didn’t change much in the lineup and stuck with the 4-2-3-1 that has been so effective lately. The only major change was resting Neco Brett, who apparently picked up a knock in practice, and starting Junior Flemmings at forward. Junior of course was fresh off international duty. He played 179 minutes over 3 games in 7 days. finishing in Honduras last Wednesday, along with travel to Austin, Texas and Jamaica. Was he tired? Maybe, but the injury to Neco didn’t allow for a lot of options (don’t forget that JJ Williams has also been dealing with a knee injury).

Frankly, that wasn’t a real problem. The Legion was still ready to press and attack hard, just like they had been for 5 straight games. There were two different problems.

Taft Stadium is, to say the least, old. Originally built in 1934, it has undergone numerous renovations over the years, but has three big issues. First, it was designed for football and track, which means that for soccer it is extremely narrow. Second, it gets a lot of use. No less than 4 high schools use it for their home football games. That combines with the artificial playing surface, which gets badly worn. You could clearly see where the football markings had been cleaned off, in fact. That in itself is not unusual for such fields, but the problem for soccer here is that all that heavy use compresses the surface. As a result, it turns pretty much into a solid rubber mat.

The consequence of that is that the ball bounces like a ping pong ball. Granted, the Legion already played one game there this year, but that was way back in June, plenty of time to forget how the surface plays.

The additional issue was that OKC played a very defensive game. Given that they were fighting for their playoff lives, this seems like an extremely bizarre decision. Admittedly, the chances of postseason play were already very slim (and after last night’s FC Tulsa win, essentially nonexistent) but in either event why not play for the win? Especially in your final home game of the year. That was cynical, cowardly or both. Presumably the Energy was banking on counter-attacking opportunities. But they should know that the Legion has one of the fastest – and biggest – back lines in the league. They don’t get caught out that way too often. There’s a reason the Legion ranks 2nd best in goals conceded. And OKC ranks 2nd worst in goals scored.

So, with that strategy in mind, the OKC formation was a 3-5-2, which shifted to a 5-3-2 when defending. Since the field is already narrow, that’s a tough line to break through. There’s a reason the Energy ranks 4th best in goals conceded.

So the Legion had to deal with a highly defensive opponent on a field that was difficult to play. For at least the first 20 minutes or so, the team clearly had problems adjusting. Unlike the past few games in which the Three Sparks pummeled the gal with early shots, not a single shot was recorded until the 22nd minute. And that was from Anderson Asiedu from extreme long range. The first shot from inside the penalty area wasn’t until the 28th minute. And only one more shot inside the 18 was logged in the first half, even after the Legion had begun to figure out the field and take serious control.

In the end, the game was entirely dominated by the good guys, albeit to their complete frustration. Look at the heatmap:

OKC defending the left, in case that wasn’t obvious. 6 Legion players averaged inside the OKC half, and none averaged in the defensive third. Not that they had to – OKC recorded zero shots on goal, with Matt van Oekel logging the double donut; a clean sheet and no saves.

Of the 13 shots the Legion did finally manage to accumulate – they averaged 14 over the course of the win streak, so ultimately there was no dropoff there – 5 were on target. Thus OKC keeper C.J. Cochran deserves some credit for racking up 5 saves to maintain his own clean sheet.

Oh well. Some scoreless draws are entertaining, a demonstration of good attacking play cancelled out by equally good defensive play. This, alas, was not such a game. OKC’s game plan rather eliminated that possibility. And was a very unfair treatment of their own fans.

All that being said, the biggest loser in this game though was probably Sporting Kansas City II, on whom all that frustration is almost certainly going to be unleashed.

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