Week 31 Preview: what you need to know
Room for maneuver has evaporated
As last week, we refer you to our playoff update that shows how much there is left to decide. There are in fact 16 games in the Championship this week, and only one of those has no impact on the races. A scheduler’s dream.
The most important part
When you have a must-win game, it’s usually not a good idea for it to be against the top team in the league. It’s an even worse idea for it to be against the top tea in the league who are also 5 shy of a new season points record. But that is where the Legion finds itself.
After tonight’s games (see below), the Three Sparks could still be in 4th, but also in 5th or 6th place. All 3 of the teams behind the Legion in the playoff shuffle hold the tiebreaker over the good guys as well. There is, simply put, no room for error. The Legion are in control of their own destiny, but they have to win both remaining games.
With San Antonio coming to town Sunday (4:00pm), that is of course a very tall order. Having locked up home field advantage all through the playoffs, they technically would have little to play for. But they already get a week off, and they have that points record to chase. They have little reason to take the foot off the gas.
Well, to be more accurate, their foot is usually on the brake. San Antonio is the archetype of counter-attacking soccer in the USL. They rank just 8th in scoring (50, 2 less than the Legion) but are absolute best in goals conceded (just 23, 0.72 per game). Moreover, they are dead last in possession (42.6%, per fbref.com) and the next lowest team is 2.,5% clear of them. As a side note, Louisville City, best in the East, are 2nd highest overall at 55.2%. El Paso Locomotive tops the list at a hefty 60.5%, which shows you that possession is not always all it’s cracked up to be. The Legion, by comparison, is 19th at 48.7%.
More: despite giving up all that possession, San Antonio has allowed just 99 shots on target, 4th best in the league. All of this is to say, the team is defensively superb. Goalkeeper Jordan Farr leads the league in clean sheets with 17, and Cristian Bonilla has another. They have only given up goals in 14 games. San Antonio uses a couple of different defensive looks, typically playing either a 3-4-3 or a 5-3-2. In the 3-4-3 they will generally press high, but allow the opponent to move higher with the 5-man back line. Either way, they are operating with 3 center backs, which makes it very hard to penetrate to their goal. The three are generally Mitchell Taintor, Jasser Khmiri and Carter Manley, left to right. They are impressive as hell.
Offensively, the top scorer is Samuel Adeniran, with just 10 goals. Second best is Justin Dhillon with just 6, but he leads the team in assists with 7. And therein lies the kicker: Dhillon has been out with a lower body injury and hasn’t played since August 27th. In the past 5 games, despite winning 4 of them, San Antonio has scored just once in each game. He is missed.
So, this will be a contest of counterattacking teams and is likely to get bogged down in midfield. San Antonio also has a reputation as a very physical team (you may remember that from the one game the Legion played against them back in March last year, not least of which was the literal head-to-head matchup of Phanuel Kavita and Santiago Patino). As such, I would not expect this to be, well, visually appealing, shall we say.
Prediction: San Antonio has lost just 5 games all season, but 4 of those were on the road, at Phoenix, Sacramento, San Diego and Indy. 2 of those are somewhat surprising and give cause for some hope. However, they remain very tough to beat. I think the Legion can keep them from scoring, and I expect a draw from this one.
Best of the rest
There are 4 games tonight, 2 in each conference. In the East we have Louisville City v. Detroit City (6:30pm). It seems weird to want the men in purple to win, but Detroit would move up into 4th with even just a draw, as they hold the tiebreaker over the Legion. After that is Memphis 901 v. Rio Grande Valley (7:00pm). RGV lost at home to Lou City this past Saturday and have to face the #2 team in the East just 4 days later. Seems unfair. With the loss they fell to 8th in the West and definitely need points tonight. Memphis for their part are coming off a loss in Miami and will not want to waste points as they chase Louisville (with a game in hand). Over in the West we have El Paso Locomotive v. Colorado Springs Switchbacks (8:00pm). The Switchbacks can’t improve their 3rd position, but have Sacramento Republic chasing them. El Paso are barely in the playoffs, but a win would give them not only needed points but also the possibility to move above the Switchbacks in the final standings. Lastly, New Mexico United play LA Galaxy II (8:00pm). Only the New York Red Bulls have poorer form than New Mexico currently, who have just 2 points from the last 5 games. Los Dos are in 11th but with a game in hand are far from done.
Of Saturday’s slate, only 2 games are impactful for the Legion. Those are Tampa Bay Rowdies v. Loudoun United (6:30pm) and Las Vegas Lights v. The™ Miami FC (9:00pm). Tampa needs just 3 points to put 3rd place out of reach for Birmingham. They are likely to get them, but have a game in hand as well. Miami are in 7th, but are just 3 points behind the Legion and have the tiebreaker edge, not to mention coming off that big win over Memphis. The Lights are also performing well and have an outside chance at the playoffs, so this could be a big one.
The biggest game in the West will probably be RGV v. Phoenix Rising (7:30pm). Regardless of tonight’s result, the Toros will be desperate to win this one. The Rising have had a bad year but are clinging to playoff hopes. A loss would put paid to those.
On Sunday, the Legion will already know if Area Code FC are unreachable, but their game against New York (3:00pm) will probably ice it anyway. Of greater import though will be Sacramento Republic v Pittsburgh Riverhounds (4:00pm). Pitt trails the Legion by 2, so dropping points to SacRep will help. But Sacramento are having some difficulties lately and are on a 3-game losing streak. All the more reason to win the last 2 games of the season.
The final game of the week is San Diego Loyal v. New Mexico (5:00pm). San Diego have clinched 2nd place in the West but can’t improve. New Mexico, as noted, have been struggling mightily. This could be a strange one.
After this, we’ll all know what needs to happen next week. Hang on to your hats, folks!
Back in the Old Country
For some reason my schedule showed Birmingham City without a game last week, but it turns out the English Championship was playing. The Blues earned a very good result drawing 1-1 at league leaders Sheffield United. That’s a 4-game unbeaten run and tied for 15th on points. This is a double-game week, starting off this afternoon (1:45pm) at Middlesbrough, who are in lowly 22nd place, followed by a home match with Bristol City (Saturday, 9:00am, no US stream). Bristol sit in 11th, but are on a poor run of form. As we publish this, the Blues are down 0-1 30 minutes into the Middlesbrough game.