Diving Deep: Tampa Bay Rowdies 1-0 Birmingham Legion

The season comes to an end

So we come to the end of the road. And in the USL, all roads lead to Tampa. At least this year.

For neutral fans, this was probably a very entertaining game. Especially if you are a fan of defensive soccer. For those with skin in the game, it was a very nervy, and, ultimately, a frustrating affair.

The firs half was extremely balanced. The Rowdies had the majority of the possession, but were only to convert that into 4 shots, of which 3 were on goal. The Legion matched the total shots, but only one was on target, and the other three were all from outside the penalty area. All of Tampa’s efforts were from inside the 18, and resulted in some hard work for Matt van Oekel.

In the end, that inability to penetrate deep was the undoing of the Three Sparks. Here’s the team’s heatmap from the game:

The Legion is playing from left to right. Granted, Tampa’s isn’t that much better. But the Rowdies were able to get in the box and shoot. The Legion wasn’t. In the second half, the Three Sparks added just 2 shots. Although both were from within the 18, only 1 was on target. Indeed the game as a whole was an exercise in avoiding the final third. Here are the average positions for both teams:

Every player bar the two keepers is clustered in the middle third. Which made for a deal of difficulty in finding ways to get past the defense and generate scoring opportunities. Per FotMob, there was only 1 big chance in the entire game. And no, it wasn’t the goal.

The major threats for both teams were completely played out of the game. Neco Brett had just 2 shots (one on and one off target). Sebastian Guenzatti had just one attempt, which was blocked. Both teams’ second best striker wasn’t even in the game. Junior Flemmings was off with Jamaica (as I write this it is 30 minutes until kickoff against the USA at 4:00pm) and Tampa’s Steevan Dos Santos was injured. The next  threat on the depth charts are JJ Williams, who had no shots in the game and Leo Fernandes who had 2.

Thus the only goal in the game came from Tampa’s Yann Ekra who had one goal in 22 appearances prior to this game. It was a great goal admittedly, but here’s the primary reason it found the net:

In this shot you can’t even see Ekra. Moreover, he was moving from right to left, and eventually shot to the right corner. Alex Crognale, Phanuel Kavita and Jonny Dean are all covering the goal area. The shot was slotted through a very narrow gap between Alex and Phanuel.

In a sense, Tampa got lucky. In another, the Legion may have lost before they even entered the pitch.

The team came out in a 4-1-4-1. That is a somewhat defensive formation but can be aggressive if you use it right. With a holding defensive midfielder (Anderson Asiedu in this case), the two fullbacks are able to move up while still leaving essentially a 3-man back line. But Coach Soehn chose to leave Ryan James on the bench and play Mikey Lopez at left back. While Mikey is certainly able to play that position well, it has been Ryan’s job virtually the entire year. That was a slightly strange choice.

The other problem was that Tampa was set up in a 3-4-3 with the back line anchored by man-mountain Forrest Lasso. It was always going to be a tall order to get past that.

Beyond that, losing the team’s first-ever home playoff game cannot have helped. That is a mental issue that is not so easy to get over. Whatever momentum the team may have had going into the playoffs was lost in a cloud of viral dust.

But then again, did the team really have great momentum? In its last three regular season games it scored in only one. OK, the total was 6 goals, but it was against Sporting Kansas City II, who were already well out of contention. When it comes down to it, the Legion missed on a potential deep playoff run by one goal. Either one goal scored against OKC Energy – who played a cynical defensive game against the Legion – or one against Louisville City (or in that case, alternatively one goal not given up).

If the team had done that, it would have faced two teams it had already beaten this year – The Miami FC and then Charlotte Independence, both at home.

One more thing – the Legion’s record this season against playoff teams wasn’t great. They were 5-7-3 against such squads, and worse, 1-4-3 on the road. Overall they had a -5 goal difference, and -6 on the road. That should give some pause for thought.

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