Diving Deep: Phoenix Rising 0-1 Birmingham Legion
Wild horses couldn't drag them away
I have opined in the past that 0-0 draws can often be the most entertaining of games. Two teams evenly balanced going at each other with equal talent and force and canceling each other out. In contrast, 1-0 games are often the most boring of games. One team has the upper hand and does the bare minimum with it to get the win. I note this because for a good fraction of this match it looked like we were going to get such a 0-0 draw. That lasted for approximately 57 minutes and 23 seconds. That’s when Matt van Oekel threw the ball to Jonny Dean and the goal ensued. Then the game got pretty wild, especially in second half stoppage time. Plenty of heart-stopping moments for fans of both teams after that.
All told, for Legion fans it was a very good reason to stay up lateish. With the possible exception of the season opener against Tampa Bay this was the best game the Legion has played all year.
Let’s start off with the goal. The ball reached the net at 57 minutes and 38 seconds. 15 seconds after Matt started the play. The field at Wild Horse Pass is 116 yards long. Matt played the ball from about 14 yards off his line. So as the crow flies it travelled 102 yards in that time. Probably over 120 yards in actual play. It was touched by a total of 4 players: Matt, Jonny, Enzo Martinez and Prosper Kasim (well, 6 if you count the ineffective touches by Phoenix’s defender Baboucarr Njie and goalkeeper Ben Lundt). And if you want to get really technical about it, Matt collected the ball on his own goal line from a rather weak cross attempt, so the ball did in fact travel the entire length of the field on the play.
What have we been going on about all year? Speed. Obviously, this was a fast goal. And because it went the length of the pitch it was also a goal against a stretched opponent who had no chance to reorganize. Even Matt did not do the typical goalie thing and hang on to the ball too long. After getting to his feet he took just 8 seconds to get rid of the ball. Oh, wait… Yeah, let’s skip over that part. Anyway, all things considered it was a very fast play.
It also had quite a few similarities to Marlon’s game-winning goal against New York Red Bulls II (a game which for various reasons we were unable to cover). That goal also featured Jonny Dean with a fast dribble moving from out wide to a relatively central lane and passing it back out wide right (skipping over Enzo that time) to the waiting winger who slots it in from an angle. That goal was also relatively quick, although nowhere near as much as Prosper’s this time.
And that segues nicely to another important aspect of this game. Wide play. Specifically, the wide play of Jonny Dean and Marlon in the first half (Jonny and Prosper in the second, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Take a look at this:
On the left are the combined touches of Jonny and Marlon throughout the first half, playing right to left. By my count there are 52 touches. Of those 35 are wide of the penalty area. And 30 of them are in the attacking half. Of the attacking touches, 24 are out wide and another couple are not far off that. The right graphic shows what they did with the ball. Lots of crosses. A ton of crosses even. And that doesn’t even get into the incredible overlapping play the two of them executed repeatedly. A thing of beauty it was. Not only that, but it was definitely the playing style we need to see from the Three Sparks. More of this please, lots more.
Somewhat unfortunately, Phoenix’s play in the first half was heavily tilted to their left, with Aodhan Quinn (back from an injury and possibly not yet 100%) and Santi Moar doing much the same thing. It was quite a head-to-head matchup for 45 minutes and the two tag teams went into the break pretty much even on points.
And then Tommy Soehn pulled the old switcheroo. Marlon went left, Prosper went right. And the Rising did not adjust. Prosper and Marlon combined for 5 shots in the game, 4 of them in the second half. All five were from the right. Even Prosper’s single first half attempt was from the right, as was Marlon’s only shot (in the second half). For whatever reason the Rising could not figure how to handle a left-footed winger on the right and all sorts of mayhem ensued. Prosper was slightly unlucky not to get a brace; against a lesser keeper than Lundt he probably would have.
Tommy has tried a similar trick already this season, flipping Jonny Dean to the left, where he was fairly successful, only to move him back to the right. Not a bad idea that, but switching the attacking midfielders in front of him seems a much better option. It certainly looks far more likely to produce goals.
So, speed and stretching the field. Great stuff. And bear in mind that the Legion did this without the services of Bruno Lapa and Anderson Asiedu. Against a quality team (granted a quality team that has struggled lately, but still). This was exactly the way the Three Sparks needed to start this tough summer stretch of games. I had thought the Legion would be lucky to get a point out of this one. Instead they got all three and they deserved to get them too. As I noted on Twitter after the game, this was a huge confidence booster at precisely the right time. The next three games are Memphis tomorrow, then a 17-day break before New Mexico and Louisville away. A pretty tough slate, but confidence running high as Area Code FC comes to town and an extended break to recover make it rather easier to manage than it might otherwise be.
Hang on to your hats, people, this summer is going to be a wild ride.