Diving Deep: Pittsburgh Riverhounds 1-0 Birmingham Legion
A general lack of effort all around
Technically, the Legion has now had two straight games against the Riverhounds without managing a shot on goal. The Three Sparks won the first one though; I guess you can say Pittsburgh scored three own goals. Actual games aren’t any better: the Legion is now 0-4-0 against the Hounds with an aggregate score 1-13. Granted, 3 of those games were in 2019. Three of the 4 games were in Pittsburgh and the last one in 2019 showed the Legion the value of Neco Brett, but still.
You don’t have to go much further back than that phantom game last year to find the last game the Legion did not record a shot on goal. In fact, it was the previous week in the regular season finale against Louisville City. Not too long ago.
Taking this a bit deeper, the Legion are tied with Pittsburgh this season in shots on goal at 44 for 8th best in the league (along with Sacramento Republic). That doesn’t should too bad. However, when you consider that as a percentage of total shots, Birmingham drops to 19th at just 31%. That’s because the Legion are 4th in total shots. The Legion also remains tied for 2nd worst in shot conversion per the league’s own stats.
The numbers get baffling. Per American Soccer Analysis, the Three Sparks have the 7th best xG in the league at 14.61. As an aside, and oddly, best in both shots on target and xG is El Paso Locomotive, who of course had a horrendous start to their season and have only recently climbed out of their hole. Second best in both is Louisville City, which is most definitely not surprising. Taken another step further, the Legion’s xGD is 2.25 as compared with their actual GD of -3, making them 4th worst in the league on that score (El Paso is second worst).
Which obviously leads to the question: what the hell is going on? Well, in all fairness, as far as this game is concerned, the team was in a very physically demanding game against The Miami FC just three days earlier. Miami, who were collapsed on the ground after the game had the luxury of being off this past weekend, which I imagine they are quite relieved about. So, the Legion’s energy level was patently missing on Saturday. That has to be taken into consideration.
Another issue was the formation. The 4-4-1-1 was a poor idea. First, putting Juan Agudelo up top alone when he has yet to work his way into the team properly and is still getting over a knee problem was a mistake. He now has two straight games without a shot. Again, the lack of service is a big part of the problem but we need to see more from him. Edi Horvat played 34 minutes and had 2 decent attempts (both with his head, which is one important reason we have him).
A tired team is not going to find it easy to penetrate with a solo striker. In fact, the formation played in some ways like a 5-3-2. But that’s a defensive formation that will find it hard going against a solid defense like Pittsburgh’s.
But the big problem with the formation is that it was yet another change. Worse, a change away from the team’s clearly established strengths and from formations that have been shown to be successful. Why keep up with the constant tinkering? It has to stop.
Overall, the game was a tactical mess, and is frankly not worth extensive analysis in its own right. And that is why I started this post with a long list of season statistics (it’s also why I mentioned El Paso twice). We are still not quite a third of the way into the season. There is a long way to go. That being said, there is not that much time to get things right. And that time is now.
Between now and June 8th the Legion has just 4 games. The first of those is a welcome 11-day break after the mess at Highmark Stadium. The games are Las Vegas Lights at home next Wednesday, the Baby Bulls away 9 days after that, and then Memphis 901 at home 8 days after that and then a tough (but not as tough as one might have predicted preseason) road trip to Phoenix 4 days later. Then there is a whopping 17 days off before a run of 8 games over 36 days, 6 of them on the road, including two trips out west. 4, maybe 5, of those should be winnable but if the fatigue factor kicks in (not to mention the increased risk of injuries) it could be a lot harder to get the results.
So this relatively relaxed upcoming stretch should be the time to get points on the board and heads straight. El Paso did it; so can the Legion. And with the 11 days off can they fix their continuing and utterly frustrating shooting problems? We shall see.