Preseason Review: Birmingham Legion 0-4 Atlanta United

A mixed result

It certainly would have been nice to get some kind of result on the score sheet – and yours truly had rather expected it – but overall the first full game of 2022 was a success.

The score hurts, of course, and my concern over that is mostly with respect to casual fans, who probably don’t fully understand the difference between MLS and the USL Championship. The loss could have a negative effect on attendance.

Until the Legion starts winning, that is.

Which I expect every soon.

Back to that difference though. Consider this: the USL Championship’s maximum benefit spend (its version of a salary cap, which includes other non-wage payments) for this season is $1.88 million. Last year with Atlanta Luis Araujo earned $3.94 million and Josef Martinez earned $3.89 million. That’s well over 4 times the Legion’s total roster budget. For two players.

Now, obviously income gaps do not necessarily have a direct relationship to talent gaps. Even so, Atlanta United’s top players – and almost all of them were of the field Sunday – should beat the Legion at most attempts. That’s especially true when the Legion has been together for meaningfully less time time than their opponent. Both teams are dealing with work visa issues (as are most US-based teams, as well as teams trying to enter the country to play games), but still. Marlon Santos arrived Thursday and Macky Diop arrived Saturday. Edi Horvat has been with the team just over a week.

And yet, Atlanta United had looked less than imposing in their preseason to date. A week or so down in Guadalajara saw them lose two scrimmages 3-0 ahead of this match. The Three Sparks had every reason to hope for a successful afternoon baptizing their new stadium.

In fact, barring four defensive errors, it was a pretty good display. But let’s go through those four errors first.

The Phanuel Kavita own goal was, of course, a major howler and can probably be attributed to two things. First, a failure of communication after the offseason layoff. Second, the turf. The team had not even been in Protective Stadium until Friday evening’s open house and would not have had a chance to play on it Saturday as the surface was still being prepared. Artificial turf – especially new high quality artificial turf that has been properly wetted – plays much faster than natural grass. Phanuel clearly did not expect the ball to move the way it did. And if he’s going to make a mistake of that magnitude, at least it was in preseason.

The second error leading to Josef Martinez’ first goal was in playing a very high line. That is, having the defensive backs well up the field. I’m not sure if they were trying to play an offside trap, but against a team as fast in the attack as Atlanta is and against a player such as Martinez, who flirts with the offside line all game, it can be deadly.

The third goal, by Martinez’ Venezuelan countryman Ronald Hernandez, was a similar error, in that Hernandez was able to time his run against the offside line perfectly. This time the Legion did appeal for an offside, but reviewing the play in slo mo shows that he was indeed onside.

The fourth was simply that nobody was marking Josef. Which no one should ever do. Leaving a player of his caliber and nose for goal alone is asking to get hurt.

But other than those four errors, things actually looked pretty darn good. For the most part, the Legion was able to play United on even terms, if not having the upper hand at times. We don’t have detailed stats for the game, so it’s difficult to say who had the possession advantage. Likely Atlanta, but not by too much. The Three Sparks didn’t score, of course, but they got a lot of good looks and a fair few balls into dangerous positions in the Atlanta box.

So let’s review some of the positives out of this game.

Jonny Dean should be in Nashville

Jonny was on trial with Nashville SC of MLS up till just over a week ago. Why they did not sign him is a mystery.  Going head to head with Andrew Gutman for most of the game (that is, until he switched to the left when Ryan James left the game) he had the upper hand over the Atlanta left back. Gutman is fast and physical, but Jonny was in no way threatened by that.

Enzo Martinez is the man

Now that we are released from the obligation of hating him, we can now see just how good a player Enzo is. He was impressive in the scrimmage against Memphis last week, and continued that this week in spades. Given that he can play virtually anywhere in the midfield, the Legion now has a highly flexible attacking midfield that will confuse and overwhelm USL opponents.

Edi Horvat is the other man

I’m going to predict this: Edi Horvat will not win the 2022 USL Newcomer of the Year award. But only because it doesn’t exist. The Legion dug this guy up out of absolutely nowhere and he looks like he is going to be a consistent scoring threat. He’s also big and strong and hard to bring down. And his teammates tell me he speaks very good English, so that’s not going to be a problem.

Marlon and Macky need some time

Well, doh. They only just got here and for them to play in this game at all was a bit o a surprise, but both looked good in the few minutes they played. Three weeks until the season opener should be more than enough for them to work their way into the squad properly.

The Legion’s commitment to youth was on display

Sitting a few rows behind the Legion bench I was rather disappointed to see Matthew Corcoran not dressed the game. But that disappointment was offset by the late entry into the game of Dante Johnson. Dante turned 18 last November and doesn’t graduate high school until this spring. He’s a Columbus, GA native and is only a few years past nearly losing a leg. Amazingly, he had a very good scoring chance in just the three minutes or so he got to play.

Whether the team signs him or not (and he may not be available until midseason), what remains clear is that the Legion is not afraid to use young talent. Which is a very good thing.

The new kits are the boss

Man, do they look good. Not sure which of the three is my favorite yet. Probably a toss-up between the red and the white, but the Legion could be getting a good deal of my money soon.

Overall, I was very pleased with the team’s performance this early in preseason against a loaded opponent that is kicking off its own regular season next week. There is plenty of time for the kinks to be worked out and for the team to gel properly. This Legion team is projected to be a legitimate title contender sand I think we saw some glimpses of that on Sunday.

As for the new stadium, overall I was happy. Lines at the gates and concessions were too long and some concessions ran out of some items far too quickly, but those are issues that should get ironed out soon. After all, the stadium has had relatively limited use so far, but is about to get very busy. One other issue was that the main camera angles are much higher than at PNC Stadium, so the TV experience is much different. And my68 needs to figure out a way to manage the lighting better. For most of the first half, the west side of the field, which was in shadow, was more or less blacked out on screen, and in the second half the east side, which wasn’t yet under shadow, was completely bleached out. Not a good look.

All in, then, it’s early days yet. Problems are bound to exist. There’s time to fix them. And the stuff that doesn’t need fixing is great.

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