Diving Deep: FC Tulsa 3-1 Birmingham Legion

A strange way to lose a game

When it comes down to it, there are basically two reasons the Legion lost this game: Sean Lewis and Matt van Oekel. Both are fairly obvious.

Lewis had a monster game. He made 5 saves in the game (after having had to make 1 save against the Charleston Battery the previous week, which he failed to do). That includes a close-range header by Enzo Martinez in the 32nd minute that under most circumstances was a certain goal.

MVO contributed to the loss with his inexplicable foul at the end of the first half. He admittedly had no chance on the first goal. That one was the result of the back line moving out too fast after the clearance of a corner and allowing too many Tulsa attackers to run free in the box. The final goal made no difference to the game and was not Matt’s fault as he was up in the opposing end attempting to tie the game up.

In fact, take the final few seconds of each half out and it was a tied game. Still, what was Matt thinking? As a football block it was pretty poor and in soccer it was just plain illegal. And it’s not as if he didn’t have a better chance on the ball than da Costa. Strange behavior.

Anyway, the game started off with all the hallmarks of a typical Three Sparks game: go down a goal early on poor defending and struggle to get back into it. For the first 30 minutes, the Legion played much as they had against Tampa Bay in Week 1; high pressing, ball-control soccer but with no real penetration. IN that time they managed five shots, but only 2 inside the 18 and that just barely. Tulsa didn’t do any better, though. They had just three shots, two of which were blocked.

But then the Legion started doing what they had largely failed to do the previous week. They got into the box. By the end of the first half they had accumulated 11 shots, 6 in the 18 and 4 on target, including Prosper Kasim’s goal. And that doesn’t include other chances created, such as Prosper’s earlier whiff on a very good chance. The only shot Tulsa added was the PK.

The second half proceeded in similar vein. 10 more shots, all but 1 inside the penalty area and 2 on target. 1 more hit the woodwork. Tulsa added just 4 more, of which the only one on target was the open net goal to end the game. When all was said and done, the Legion had built  an xG of 2.37 and Tulsa only 1.41 (which was inflated by the PK, of course). Additionally, Birmingham had 4 big chances compared to Tulsa’s 2.

Which is to say, the final score was completely unrepresentative of the play in the game. In fact, even with the Legion down a defender late and throwing everything into the attack, Tulsa was mostly kept out of scoring range. Here’s their heatmap for the game:

They are playing left to right. Limited penetration and serious defending in the middle of their own box. On most days, that’s a loss.

But, stellar goalkeeping or not, Birmingham is still suffering from an inability to put the ball in the back of the net. The good news is that they are getting closer. The bad news is that this should not be an issue at this stage. For a while now it seems that the Legion really does not know what to do with strikers. Putting them actually on the pitch would be a good start. Edi Horvat’s absence from the gameday roster is puzzling. He is not on the injury list (although that doesn’t really mean anything) and unlike some foreign players in almost every US league who are still stymied out of the country with visa issues he is here and available. He’s a classic target forward and he needs to be used.

Unless there is some reason he can’t play, I would suspect that we will see him Saturday evening. And I also think we will see a new formation. In Week 1 the Legion used a 5-3-2 to good effect, largely nullifying Tampa’s attack. That morphed into a 3-4-1-2 this week (almost the same formation really, just a bit more attacking in focus). The oddity this week was the exclusion of Bruno Lapa from the starting XI. That really was necessitated by the choice to start Marlon up top, leaving Enzo as the central attacking mid. Was it a good game plan? Well, yeah, other than silly errors and an inability to get past Sean Lewis, I guess. At least the team is getting faster in transition, a big factor in not beating Tampa.

But with the issues on the back line, some more tweaking of the lineup is more or less guaranteed. A 4-man back line is highly likely. Ahead of that, Tommy Soehn’s preferred formation is the 4-2-3-1. But getting Bruno and Enzo on the field together with options in front of them suggests that the 4-2-2-2 might be a good option (another possibility once Alex Crognale and/or Freddy Kleemann are back would be a 3-3-2-2, but that’s for another time). That would allow for various lineup selections. Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Zach Herivaux can both play defensive back and defensive mid, so either could work alongside Anderson or Phanuel. You have Mikey or Ryan at left fullback opposite Jonny. Bruno and Enzo can play together and create havoc. And up top you can choose between Marlon, Edi, Prosper and Macky. That’s flexibility of a sort that’s getting close to Dutch-style total football.

So, they fixed the two things to work on from last week (attacking cohesion and speed in transition) but ended up with two new ones: finishing chances and eliminating unnecessary errors. Back to work, guys.

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