Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 6-0 Sporting Kansas City II
Tuning up for the big one. With nitrous.
There are a few situations in soccer that throw normal analysis right out the window. The most obvious one is a red card, which changes everything for both teams. Another is losing a key starter to injury early in the game. A third is a blow-out.
We got that on Sunday. Boy, did we ever. For the first time in team history the Legion racked up 6 goals. And what a time to do that, right before the division-deciding game against Louisville City, who probably thought that their 3-1 win over Memphis 901 the previous evening was a statement. What a way to get ready.
Now, obviously, the game plan doesn’t get ditched immediately. But once you hit 3 goals in 31 minutes, it pretty much turns into shooting practice. Or keepaway. Or something. And with those 3 goals, they had already exceeded their xG for the game, which was itself a fairly lofty 2.74.
By the time Neco Brett scored the third goal, the Three Sparks had put up 8 official shots, with 4 on target. I suspect that the actual was higher than that, given that the ball was rocketed at the goal multiple times for at least two of the goals. Anyway, the team went to fire another 10 shots at poor John Pulskamp. Sporting Kansas City II, for their part, managed just 3 shots in the entire first half. The Legion rather generously allowed them 9 in the second half.
So the game plan was the same as it’s been for a while: press high out of the 4-2-3-1 and fire early and often. The lineup was tweaked again – Junior Flemmings moved to left attacking mid and Ryan James moved out of that spot back into his more regular left fullback position. And Jonny Dean on the right was clearly set loose to run up and down the field as fast as possible. Which of course in his case is very fast indeed. Clearly, it worked.
But then a second issue came up that also affected the initial game plan. Phanuel Kavita and Anderson Asiedu both picked up yellow cards in the first half. At any other point in the season, that might not have been too big a deal, but with the division clincher looming in 6 days, the risk of a second yellow card – and therefore a red card and a suspension for the next game – was too big. The coaching staff, sitting on a 4-goal half-time lead, had the not very difficult decision to pull both of them and slot in Ben Ofeimu and Thomas Vancaeyezeele. Now neither of those is a downgrade, although Asiedu and Vancaeyezeele are not similar players.
Frankly, there’s no one in the USL like Anderson. Indeed, even in MLS the only player I can think of that’s anything like him is Darlington Nagbe. Midfielders who can control, recover and distribute the ball the way Anderson does are few and far between, and Atlanta United giving up on him (a first round draft pick!) so quickly is baffling. Especially given that they also lost Nagbe. We are very lucky to have him.
So the game plan kinda changed on that account as well. A second-half strategy of “Don’t let them score more than three” would have been perfectly acceptable, of course. And in the past it may have been how the team reacted, certainly in the first two seasons, and in the early going this year too.
But not now. Apart from anything else, they had a frustrating 0-0 draw to get out of their system. This should have been the division-winning game, but it ended up not being that. Their natural response now is to score. In bunches.
Moreover, they were clearly having a blast doing it. And that is probably the most important result here. Yes, it’s great that they enter a crucial game with a lopsided win under their belts. Yes, it’s great that the have the points and home field advantages. But the biggest advantage is that they are clicking as a team and enjoying themselves to boot. It was blatantly obvious to anyone watching that game that the Legion were having fun. And they have chosen the absolute perfect time to get themselves into that frame of mind.
And the biggest fun is yet to come.