Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-1 Tampa Bay Rowdies

A fair result all told

Other than Monterey Bay, who were given the daunting task of facing Phoenix Rising in their first ever game, the Legion probably had the toughest task in the USL Championship this weekend: defending their brand new stadium on national TV against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Most pundits predicted a Tampa win, but the eventual draw was probably a fair outcome for both teams.

I say probably because there was one incident early in the game that could have completely changed everything. In the 10th minute Enzo Martinez found himself one-on-one with Tampa keeper CJ Cochran on a cross from Bruno Lapa. Cochran fumbled the initial incoming ball and Enzo pounced. Here’s what happened next:

The ball goes through Enzo’s legs, and instead of playing the ball, Cochran clearly grabs Enzo’s ankle. An appeal for a penalty went unheeded, but that looks like a pretty solid case for a PK.

Such is life.

The next key event in the game occurred in the 18th minute when Tampa was forced to sub center back Robert Castellanos out due to injury. Castellanos, who previously played for Rio Grande Valley, is in Tampa on loan from Nashville SC of MLS. He is filling the role of the now departed Forrest Lasso. The only other centerback capable of playing that position, Timmy Mehl, wasn’t even in the 18. That left Tampa with a major defensive problem. As it turned out, the Three Sparks never really capitalized on that.

To that point, the Legion had been in control. Virtually no play had occurred in the Birmingham defensive third. Only one shot had been taken though, a long-range (but on target) attempt by Bruno Lapa. Things continued in that vein until the 34th minute, when Tampa got their first shot off. And in.

As too often, the goal was the result of defensive errors. First, Phanuel Kavita was unable to take control of the ball after tackling Sebastian Guenzatti as Mikey Lopez came literally flying in. That allowed Yann Ekra to scoop it up and eventually make a cross to Sebastian Dalgaard, who put it the net. Letting Ekra get the ball wasn’t too bad; the Rowdies had managed to gain possession in the Legion at least a couple of times before that, only to be firmly rejected. Here’s the real error:

There are four Rowdies in the box: Ekra with the ball and Anderson Asiedu (rather weakly) pressing him, Steevan dos Santos, who is tightly covered by Alex Crognale, and Dalgaard, who is at the bottom center of the picture. Brunallergene Etou is the fourth Rowdie, but is clearly out of the play, and in any case has three defenders covering him.

Dalgaard is wide open though. The nearest defender to him is Jonny Dean. Up to this point Jonny had been tracking back but had been keeping his eye towards the ball, not on Dalgaard who was able to sneak in behind him. Jonny overran the play, tried to turn around, realized Dalgaard was there but too late. He ended up flat on his back with head in his hands, evidently knowing he blew it.

Such is life.

Apart from that, and a late long-distance screamer by Jake Areman, stopped by Matt van Oekel for a Save of the Week nomination, the Rowdies really did not threaten the Three Sparks’ net all game. As noted above, the Legion controlled play early, and continued in that vein for the entire game. They finished with 60.4% possession and in fact spent a fair amount of time with 10 players in the attacking half. But they ended up generating just 5 shots (6 if you include Enzo’s offside attempt that hit the crossbar). Take a look at the heatmap:

Yes, possession is all well and good, especially if you can do it against a team as strong as Tampa, but you have to do something with it. In the graphic, the Legion is playing from left to right. There is simply no penetration into the Tampa penalty area. That can partly be attributed to the fact that the Legion attack is still new and not entirely used to each other, as well as the absence (for unknown reasons) of Edi Horvat.

The major reason, however, is that although the Three Sparks were successfully employing a (very) high press, that press was slow. As in snail’s pace slow. The buildup needed to be much much faster. It’s all very well to get all 10 field players into the attacking half, but if you give all 11 opponents enough time to retreat and organize you’re going to go nowhere in a hurry. Which is exactly what happened.

Another issue was the fullback play. I’m not intending to pile on poor Jonny Dean. In fact, as you can see, he got deep a lot. Mikey Lopez, in contrast, did not. Ryan James typically does not penetrate as deep as Jonny, but it is not obvious to me why he did not start this game (he entered in the 89th minute). One-sided fullback play isn’t going to help much.

And Jonny did have a nasty problem to deal with. I had not noticed this in the Atlanta United friendly, but moving around the field on Sunday a major design flaw in the stadium became glaringly obvious.

The club/suites building on the west side does not extend all the way to the ends of the field. For football, this is not a big deal. But as the sun drops late in the afternoon it is directly facing the northeast corner flag. As result, any player trying to cross the ball from that angle is staring straight into the sun. It was bad enough that I could not take any photos from that position. Poor Jonny must have had spots dancing in his eyes for days after that, and to a lesser extent Tampa’s Connor Antley too. For day games, winning the coin toss could become critical.

One more point on this game: the Legion went with an entirely new formation, a 5-3-2. This is essentially much the same as the 3-5-2, but with an obvious tendency to be more defensive. With the exception of that one error-filled play, it worked well. But it is also to some extent a cause of the lack of attacking penetration. That being said, the recent return of Freddy Kleemann (who was excellent in this game) to the roster means that three centerbacks is an obvious choice to make. The Legion is going to be very hard to score on.

Also, the midfield, which was also stalwart on Sunday, is going to be dominant all season. So, two things to improve on from this game: more cohesion in the attack, and more speed in transition. They get those two things handled and this is going to be a very entertaining season.

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