Week 26 Preview: what you need to know
The race is on
The West has been tight all season long, to the point that almost every game has had significant implications attached. Until the past few weeks, that wasn’t true in the East, but that has changed. Although the conference is fairly clearly divided into the haves and have-nots, the 7 playoff spots are spread over just a 14-point range (the West is actually wider now at 21 points). The top 4 are just 6 points apart, and 2 through 4 are just 2 points apart. Every game is critical now, and the schedule for each team equally so. That’s especially true for the Legion who in their remaining 7 games play 3 teams in the Eastern playoff spots and the top team in the West. And 4 road games. It’s not a sprint to the finish, it’s a marathon.
The most important part
First up in that crazy schedule is The™ Miami FC (Saturday, 6:00pm) for the second half of the Magic City derby. The first half, here at Protective back on May 4th, ended up a 0-0 draw. The two teams managed a combined 7 shots on goal, and although the Legion had probably the better chances (including 2 that hit the woodwork) they lost the xG battle 0.80-1.66.
Both teams have improved considerably since then, and have changed lineups to some degree. Of the 11 Legion starters that day, only 8 started last weekend (although that was partly due to injuries and suspensions). The same is true of Miami. Notably, former Legion player Ben Ofeimu wasn’t even in the 18 for the game against Louisville.
The Legion has changed in a few other ways as well, of course, not least of which is increasing its scoring output. Miami, in contrast, has remained fairly consistent in scoring all season, but is not exactly a high-scoring team, averaging currently 1.22 goals per game. The Legion is at 1.63 and has been steadily raising its average since at least week 11. Miami’s biggest scoring threat is Kyle Murphy, who has 7 of the team’s 33 goals.
Like the Legion, their strongest feature is the defense. Both teams are on 25 goals allowed, 4th best in the league on a per game basis. Connor Sparrow, who made 4 big saves in the earlier game against the Legion, now leads the league in clean sheets on 12, 1 more than Matt van Oekel and Kyle Morton. Last week against Louisville he made 5 saves, bringing his total to 66, 6th in the league and 1 fewer than MVO. This one will be in large part a goalie battle. The back line in front of Sparrow includes Mark Segbers and Paco Craig, both quality players.
In fact, Miami is quite happy to put numbers behind the ball and absorb pressure. This could be the right tactic to oppose the Legion, which still struggles to break through heavy defenses. Take a look at their average positions against Lou City last week:
In this game they took the lead after 4 minutes and bunkered down. Only Kyle Murphy (#9) averaged inside the Louisville half. That’s not a great deal different than how the Legion beat Sacramento and San Diego, only more defensively done. Jose Mourinho’s dream team.
Prediction: Keeping Miami from scoring shouldn’t be too much of a problem: handle Murphy the same way they did San Diego’s Vassell. They’re both named Kyle, so there’s no chance of tactical confusion. Getting past Sparrow and his defense will be the trickier job. I’m tempted to call this one a draw, but the Legion will be all too well aware of the playoff implications, especially if Pittsburgh wins midweek. As a result, I’m calling it for the Legion, if only very narrowly.
Best of the rest
The week’s schedule kicks off tonight with 3 big games in the East, all potentially affecting the standings. First up is Indy Eleven v. Louisville City (6:00pm). Indy got a real knuckleball thrown at them by the schedulers, asking them to play both conference leaders back to back over just 4 days. Both games at home though. They got the surprise 1-0 win over San Antonio; can they repeat that feat over Lou City, who are coming off an equally surprising 0-1 loss in Miami? Area Code FC will hoping the answer is yes, as they take on Loudoun United (7:00pm) tonight. The right results could see them just 1 point off the East lead.
The big game from the Legion’s point of view will be Pittsburgh Riverhounds v. Charleston Battery (6:00pm). This is key: the Hounds are playing their game in hand over the Three Sparks. A win would tie them on points and games played with the Legion, but would drop the Legion into 5th place on tiebreakers (Pitt beat the Legion 1-0 back in May). Pitt, unlike Indy, have had a really easy run of games: they just played New York and Atlanta, and after Charleston is Loudoun. That’s the 4 weakest teams in the entire league. On the other hand, they drew 2-2 with the Baby Bulls and squeaked out a 2-1 win over Twonited, so their form isn’t exactly stellar right now. Still, the pressure is on the Legion to get points from the upcoming Miami and Indy games, because right after those is…Pittsburgh.
There’s only 1 game out West tonight, but it could be interesting. Phoenix Rising v. Rio Grande Valley Toros (9:30pm) features 2 teams with an outside chance at the playoffs, but RGV is coming off a 5-0 shellacking of (admittedly 10-man) Las Vegas Lights, and the Rising continue to struggle even under new head coach Juan Guerra, losing 1-3 to El Paso last weekend.
Speaking of the Locomotive, they head to New Mexico Friday evening (8:00pm) in a tilt of 5th v. 6th in the West. Neither team is in great form, with just 4 points each from the last 5 games, but both are in competition to get into the home playoff spots.
On to Saturday, and we see that Detroit City hosts the busy Indy Eleven (6:30pm). Detroit is in 7th, trailing Miami by a point but with a game in hand. They’ll be looking to leapfrog the South Floridians, but obviously will need some help from the Legion to do it. At the same time, the improving FC Tulsa will be hoping for the Michiganders to trip up as they try to close in on the playoff spots. They are in Atlanta, so have a better than even chance to see that happen.
2 more Eastern games at 6:30pm that you should make sure you have notifications turned on for: Lou City plays Sacramento Republic and the Tampa Bay Rowdies play Las Vegas. Tampa are just a point ahead of the Legion right now (on 1 less game though) so if the Lights can recover from that beatdown they could really shake things up in the East. Oh, and Tampa is next for the Legion after the Riverhounds. It’s all down to the wire now. The Lou City v. SacRep game is probably going to be a Lou City win, though, as the Californians will be looking ahead to next Wednesday, when they have to schlep all the way to Orlando for the US Open Cup final. Expect a heavily rotated team. Luckily, they can afford to do that without too much damage in the league standings, as they have a game in hand.
The last big game of the day will be Orange County v. Memphis (9:00pm). Area Code FC were off last week so are well rested for a trip to the bottom team in the West, but if the OC can pull off a result, both Tampa and the Legion could jump them in the standings.
Finally, on Sunday is that Loudoun v. Pittsburgh game (6:30pm).
Back in the Old Country
Birmingham City started last season looking fairly good before dropping into mediocre form. This season that lasted all of maybe 2 games before they fell off the cliff. Last weekend saw two losses, to Rotherham and Norwich, and the Blues have just 1 point from the last 5 games. They now find themselves in 21st and have played at least 1 more game than any of the three teams below them in relegation position. This week will be a little less hectic with just 1 game on the slate, at Preston (Saturday, 9:00am, no US stream). Preston are sitting in 13th, so points are possible. And absolutely necessary even at this early stage in the season.