Diving Deep: Loudoun United 1-2 Birmingham Legion

We need some predation drills

The ESPN stream of Sunday’s game was commentated by the USL’s venerable announcer Mike Watts, but without his regular sidekick Devon Kerr. Instead he was joined by Englishman Gary O’Reilly, who, it so happens, played one game for Birmingham City late in his career. O’Reilly, being English, was rather trenchant with his color comments and possessed of that snarky wit that nation is so fond of (including yours truly). His insight was also pretty keen, so those comments were largely on point. The one statement he made that stood out for me most was that the Legion are “not predatory enough.”

This, of course, will not be a great surprise to Three Sparks fans this year. In fact, it sums up the season to date rather well. O’Reilly clearly recognized the the Legion were the superior team but were clearly lacking in finishing punch. I have noted several times this season that the Legion’s attacking buildup is too slow. They have been taking the high press and merely squeezing the field to about two thirds of its length and compressing the defense in such was as to prohibit any useful paths to goal.

In last week’s Open Cup loss, we saw a bit of a change to that approach in that the team started playing the long ball. But again, without success. They tried it again this weekend in Virginia, again, not successfully. Neither of the two Legion goals came form such attacks, although there should have been a number of good chances created that way. The problem is still that the attack is too slow. Take a look at this clip from early in the game:

After a recovery deep in the Legion end, Marlon plays a great long ball to Prosper Kasim on the right wing. Prosper has Enzo Martinez in the middle of the field in excellent scoring position. But instead of playing a quick cross in (remember his right foot is not so great) to him, he opts to back up a bit and play a short pass to Bruno Lapa, and the attack is killed off. Here’s another example from the second half:

Again, a well-played long ball by Jonny Dean creates an excellent chance. Marlon receives the ball, but has three defenders between him and goal, but once again Enzo is wide open in the middle of the park. Marlon sits on the ball for a bit and then decides to shoot wide, leaving a clearly annoyed and frustrated Enzo sitting there.

These are the kinds of opportunities that should not be allowed to go to waste. The apparent poor decision making in the final third has to be corrected. More to the point, the decisions have to be made quickly. You can’t putz around waiting for the defense to set. See a chance, take it. Prosper didn’t take his at all, and Marlon (who was otherwise pretty good in this game) made the wrong choice.

By the USL’s count, the Legion created 16 chances in this game. Per FotMob, there were 4 big chances, of which 3 were wasted. The Legion put up a total of 20 shots, 8 on target. Fully 16 of those shots were from inside the 18, but only one scored. Luis Zamudio, who was admittedly superb in this game (as if we haven’t seen that before this season from opposing goalkeepers), made a total of 6 saves. The Three Sparks’ xG was a massive 3.34. The team is still mired in 26th place in the shot conversion rankings (right above them are the Charleston Battery, so some improvement in that may be quickly forthcoming) despite being 4th in shots taken.

There is some good news in all of this: the Legion is managing all this without the full time services of an out and out striker. Macky Diop, who plainly had his best day in Birmingham kit this weekend, is not a starter by any stretch of the imagination. Juan Agudelo and Edi Horvat were both unavailable for differing reasons (I’m sworn to secrecy on the latter. Sorry!). Will the presence of a true scoring threat help to make the decisions easier for the attacking midfield? Maybe. Hopefully we will find out soon.

All told, this was a strange game. Planning must have been a nightmare, Not only did the coaching staff have a limited available roster to work with, they effectively had no idea who they were going to face. In the previous 6 games, Loudoun had played with 5 different starting lineups. For this game, they had to bring in 5 DC United players on loan. All 5 started the game, in fact. One of them was the red card as well.

What ended up happening was that Tommy resorted to his trusty old 4-2-3-1. It was pretty disciplined:

Enzo as the solo striker was likely the best option under the circumstances and it resulted in a goal and an assist, although he only attempted 2 shots in the entire game (not counting the ones from above that he never got service on, of course). Bear in mind, however, that when Zach Herivaux came in for Ryan James, the set up changed. Zach played much more centrally and the attack basically changed to Route 1. The Legion played a total of 11 open play crosses in the game and only 3 were successful. But the Legion scored within a minute of the change. It’s impossible to know exactly what the buildup to the goal was, as the ESPN broadcast helpfully covered that up with a replay of the previous attempt, but it looked like the Loudoun defense got pressured and overpowered in its own box.

The second goal was effectively the result of a long ball being properly utilized – if you can call a goal kick a long ball, that is – catching the defense still stretched out and then Macky outmuscling the defenders around him. However, it was also down the middle of the pitch.

So, there is good news in that the Legion is finding ways to create lots of chances and is moving the ball upfield much faster than it has been to date. I am not convinced that the long ball is the way to do that other than in obvious counterattack situations and it’s also 180° from Tommy Soehn’s typical elegant slow developing game. But however the ball is delivered, the speed in the final third is still lacking.

To stretch O’Reilly’s metaphor, the Legion needs to get hungry and start smelling blood. Maybe the Charleston Battery is just the fresh meat they need for the hunt.

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