Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 0-2 Colorado Springs Switchbacks

Failing at home

This was a tough one to watch, and an even tougher one to unpack. That is partly why I have waited until today to do it (also partly because of work commitments) so I can get my thoughts entirely into order. Even now, I’m not so sure that they are.

Anyway, the primary problem remains the same: namely, how can the Legion start scoring in a meaningful manner? In three games the team has scored just 2 goals, worse than anyone except the New York Red Bulls II and Indy Eleven. Scoring in bunches has always been an issue: with the exception of the COVID-limited season in 2020 when the team managed a healthy 1.81 goals per game, it’s never really been good.

Despite only scoring 1 goal against FC Tulsa, the team’s shooting was solid and looked like it was the precursor of a significant improvement. But this week saw a big dropoff. The Legion logged just 7 shots in the game. Only one was on target – a long-range attempt by Prosper Kasim, and only three were from inside the 18. The previous problem of a lack of penetration had raised its ugly head again. Here’s the heatmap:

Playing left to right here, there was some movement into the box, but clearly they didn’t do much with it. Why not? Well, I think there are two big reasons for this.

The first is an inability – or maybe a refusal – to stretch the field. Here are the average positions in the game:

This formation, which seems to have been set up as a 4-3-3, is a jumbled mess. Note the crowding at the front: the front 3 (Prosper, Edi Horvat and Marlon Santos, #9-11) plus Bruno Lapa (#8) are all practically falling over each other. Anderson Asiedu (#6) and Enzo Martinez (#19) are doing the same thing. This is key: Jonny Dean (#24) and Mikey Lopez (#5) are nowhere near as wide as they ought to be. Compare that to how spread out Colorado Springs (in a 4-1-4-21) are. Switching those two was a surprise, but it did look like it could be very effective.

It could have been, if the Legion had been spread out enough to cause problems with crossing play. Here are all the crosses they made in the game:

That’s not a large number, and there’s an awful lot of red. We know that both Jonny and Mikey are quite capable of feeding balls in from out wide, and both Edi at 6’2″ and Macky Diop at 6’3″ should be able to contest for those balls quite effectively. So getting those high crosses in is a must.

And that’s where the second reason comes in. I have previously noted that the Three Sparks’ build-up is too slow. On Saturday it was painfully so. It’s all very well to play a tiki-taka style with lots of short passing, but that will only work if you do it fast (even if you do, it’s boring to watch, but that’s a separate issue). A slow methodical build-up only allows the defense to retreat and organize. That would be true if the Legion were stretching the field wide, but since they aren’t, it’s even worse. Attempting to find a pathway to goal through a crowded back line is near impossible.

The Switchbacks’ defense is too good to allow a slow attack to get past them. The same was true of Tampa Bay; the Legion’s only goal was a long-distance golazo after all. Tulsa did allow it to happen, but quality goalkeeping and poor shooting did the Legion in. But you can’t plan your style around weaker teams you know you can beat whatever way you play. You have to contend with the quality teams if you are serious about championships. And there’s another one coming this weekend.

As for the constant formation changes, this week there wasn’t much choice but to change things up given Freddy Kleemann’s injury and Alex Crognale’s suspension. However, you have to settle on just a few lineups that you know will work. We do know that the Legion has proven it can be flexible with the various formations it used last season. But frankly, none of them will work if the problems discussed above aren’t resolved.

And that needs to happen pretty much immediately. Yes, it’s a long season, but falling too far behind early creates a mountain that’s too hard to climb.

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