Diving Deep: New Mexico United 0-2 Birmingham Legion

In the favor of the gods

No doubt you are asking yourselves: what the hell is that lead image about? Well, apart from being a crappy piece of Photoshopping, the individual depicted joining hands with Vulcan in celebration of victory is the head honcho of the Roman pantheon, namely Zeus. Aside from being the top dog and sharing a common dislike of pants with Vulcan, he is also the god of weather, in particular rain and lightning. For a long time he was evidently highly displeased with the Birmingham Legion, as we all know from regular soakings at the Bank.

But the Three Sparks are now apparently in his good graces. For two straight games the Legion has received a big assist from the heavens. The nearly 2-hour delay against Memphis resulted in a big win, and then ongoing rain all week in Albuquerque produced balmy conditions at Isotopes Park (aka The Lab), notably a very comfortable 68° at kickoff, and later a downpour in the second half, creating a nice home away from home for the good guys and thus another huge 3-pointer.

So the Legion has now broken two consecutive 5-game winning streaks (they surprisingly can’t go a third against Louisville City this weekend). Even more impressive, they have done it by scoring just 3 goals. Further, they are on their own 4-game winning streak having scored just 6 goals. And they have allowed just 1. That is to say, they are making their goals count. 25 points from a mere 14 goals is in fact by a wide margin the best ratio in the entire Championship. (if that is a meaningful stat, which, being a stat, it of course is not). This was also the Three Sparks’ first multi-goal winning margin this season (and for once they beat their xG of 1.59).

And they did it on the road against a very solid team. New Mexico United came into the game on very similar overall stats to the Legion and having had to cancel their midweek match against the Rio Grande Valley Toros (due to weather issues delaying the pitch conversion from baseball to soccer) were almost as rested as the Legion and should have been feeling pretty confident.

So what went wrong for United? Well, for a start they seriously underestimated the quality of the Birmingham back line. Which, considering Neco Brett had worked with and against it for two years, was pretty dumb. The Legion had allowed just 12 goals on the season, not far behind New Mexico’s own 10. Now the two are tied for fewest in the league along with Sacramento Republic. Frankly, the way they tried to attack was a shocking lack of respect for the Legion’s stalwart centerbacks. Take a look at the average positions:

New Mexico is in brown playing from left to right. Interestingly, their own centerback pairing (Kalen Ryden, #22, and Will Seymore, #16) are pretty much a mirror image of Alex Crognale (#21) and Phanuel Kavita (#3). But look at how bunched up the rest of the team is. The only exception is right back Rashid Tetteh (#15) who was subbed out at half time, presumably for ignoring the game plan. They were bound and determined to go route 1 in this game. Not only were Alex and Phanny pretty much impassable, they had to get past Mikey Lopez (#5) at central mid first anyway. Little wonder that he ended up with 11 duels in the game. And let’s not forget the additional support provided by fullbacks Jonny Dean and Jake Rufe, both of whom had excellent games. That’s 5 guys to get past. Not many teams have managed that this season, especially lately.

The result? New Mexico had just 7 total shots in the game and only one on target. In the first half they managed just 2 shots. That massive 61% possession got them absolutely nowhere. Here’s their heatmap:

Firmly stuck in their own end on the left. It is also worth noting that playing narrow is pretty common for soccer teams that play on baseball fields (which should be a capital crime, frankly). But The Lab is actually fairly wide as such fields go1Hint: you can always tell how wide a field is by the placement of the hashmark indicating 10 yards from the corner circle. The penalty area is 44 yards wide, and the hashmarks are 11 yards from the flag. That’s 66 yards. So eyeballing the gap between the hashmark and the penalty area will give you a good idea of the overall width. At The Lab that’s a good 3 yards on each side.. In contrast, the Legion did use that width. Going back to the average positions above, check how spread out the team was. It’s almost as if they were inviting New Mexico to try to play narrow. Or was it hey, you’re going to play that way, we’ll just take the scenic route, thank you.

Check this out:

This is the combined passing chart for Jonny (#24), Marlon (#11), Jake (#13) and Ryan James (#7). There’s virtually nothing in the middle of the pitch. I count 18 of those passes into the box as well. Which led to something else unusual for this team: of the total 15 shots, 11 were inside the 18, including all 4 on target. And that doesn’t take into consideration the numerous other chances the Legion created.

But most of all, the Legion won this game because they played a superb team performance. Take a look at this video clip:

First off, scoring right as New Mexico’s “Magic Minute” was ending was just absolute perfection coming from the team from, well, you know where. Also note how the play utilizes the entire width of the field from Jake’s throw to Phanny’s switching pass to Jonny’s cross to Juan Agudelo’s header. And just 12 seconds from start to finish. What I have been saying about speed all year? Beautifully executed.

But that’s not what I want you to focus on. It’s the celebration after the goal that I think is really important. Watch what the players do. First, Juan waves everyone in, then Zach does the same, and Jake follows suit after making room in the huddle for everyone. Alex gets in, then Phanny and lastly Mikey. All 10 field players are in that huddle. Matt van Oekel, being a goalkeeper, is naturally exempt. What I see here is a team that is together in a truly meaningful way.

And when you have a locker room that unified on top of being that talented, then you have a team that is going to be very dangerous.

Lastly, I have to mention the coaching. This was a brilliantly designed game plan. Tommy Soehn has said several times that he has been looking for the formula that works best for this squad. It looks like he has found it. The counterattacking press style that this team has been playing recently seems to be the best option by far. Not only that, but it’s kinda fun to watch.

OK, that wasn’t my last point, but this is: Anderson Asiedu, Bruno Lapa, Prosper Kasim and Edi Horvat were not in the starting XI for this game. Think on that.

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