Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-0 San Diego Loyal

Sometimes strategy can be simple

OK, it’s only 3 hours till the next game starts but better late than never, right?

Fortunately, as it turns out, despite the fact that the Loyal was probably the toughest opponent the Legion has faced in a while, the tactics the team employed to win the game were relatively simple. It came down to essentially three things.

Thing Number One: The 4-3-3 formation

Two straight games in this setup (which is really a 4-1-2-3, remember) and the success rate is 100% so far. It crushed Twonited and it nullified the Loyal. As we have previously noted, it plays to the roster’s primary strength, which is primarily speed and defense. Ah, the roster’s two primary strengths are speed, defense and an ability to press from any point on the field. Dang it, the roster’s three primary strengths are speed, defense, an ability to press from any point on the field and an abundance of scoring threats.  Blast, the roster’s four primary strengths speed, defense, an ability to press from any point on the field, an abundance of scoring threats and the fans’ fanatical devotion to the team….aargh!

Sorry, my inner Spanish Inquisition broke free for a moment there.

Well, anyway, you get it. From my point of view, this is the most appropriate lineup the team can use based not just on the roster, but also because of its innate flexibility. It can morph into attacking and defensive postures with ease, and the players can switch around almost at will, especially Prosper Kasim and Marlon dos Santos, whose  casual wing flipping must give opposing defenders nightmares. Expect the team to stick with it for the time being.

Thing Number Two: Containing Kyle Vassell

Although the Loyal has several scoring threats, Kyle Vassell is clearly the best option they have, especially when he is healthy. Coming into the game he had 11 goals in 20 appearances and was averaging 2.35 shots a game. Here’s his shot chart from Saturday:

Yup. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. The Loyal’s center forward got absolutely no chances on goal. This was mostly the doing of Phanuel Kavita, who man-marked him for a good chunk of the game. When Phanny was doing something else, Alex Crognale stepped in, and on occasion so did Jonny Dean. If you replay the game and watch the Legion’s back line, they are constantly pointing out to each other where Vassell is. Well, at least he couldn’t say he was lonely. And he may be the first soccer player in history to get a yellow card for taking someone else’s shirt off.

This was so successful, Vassell barely got anywhere near the Legion goal. Here’s his touchmap for the game:

Not once did he get the ball inside the 18, although he was offside once. And he attempted just 7 passes, completing only 4 of them. Lonely? No. Frustrated? Undoubtedly.

Thing Number Three: Press and keep pressing

In the past when we have seen the Legion score early, they have been content to sit back and absorb pressure for the remainder of the game. In Sacramento they did that for 89 minutes. Not this past Saturday.

In fact, they really could not risk that. Despite the quality of the team’s defense and the decision to mark Vassell out of the game, the Loyal are still the league’s highest scoring team with 53 bagged to date. In particular, Thomas Amang has 8 goals and several other players have a fair few to their name. They score a lot. A 1-goal lead is dangerous with this team.

Fortunately for the Legion, Amang only played 22 minutes, although he did have what turned out to be San Diego’s best chance. Even so, the Legion had to try to extend the lead. Juan Agudelo’s goal in the 20th minute was only the 4th shot taken by the Legion and the second on target. The team took 14 more shots after that (4 on target and 2 more hitting the woodwork).

And they never stopped. Indeed, as the game went on, the Legion attack heated up. Of the 18 total shots, fully half were in the final 30 minutes of the game. The Three Sparks were utterly relentless. Never stop never stopping was the order of the day. And the cliché that offense is the best defense is a cliché because it is true. After all, they can’t attack your end if you’re attacking their end.

Moreover, since this was achieved through the press, it meant that the Loyal was forced to defend hard and found itself with its lineup stretched. Or squeezed, as appropriate. Counterattacking is difficult if most of your players are deep and your striker is in a vice all game. Even if you have a 12% possession edge. That is worthless if you can’t move the ball.

Was it fun watching the Legion rack up 6 goals against a hapless Atlanta United 2? Yes, for sure. But it was much more satisfying to watch them completely shut down and overwhelm a team that is a legitimate contender. It was a statement game and should have the rest of the league sitting up and taking notice, because if they keep this up, it’s going to be a wild ride to the finish.

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