Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2(7)-2(8) Pittsburgh Riverhounds

It wasn't just the refereeing

This game was a hard one to take for a lot of reasons.

Let’s start off with the easy part. The second Pittsburgh goal should obviously never have happened. That center referee Eric Tattersall allowed play to continue after he and Zach Herivaux butted heads, both ending up with head injuries and out of the game, is inexplicable and indefensible. If you watch the replay, you will note that he wipes his head and looks at his hand, presumably seeing blood, then looks back at Zach and decides to carry on. Incredible.

That makes two goals gifted to the Riverhounds in 2 games at Protective, considering how Juan Agudelo was outrageously called offside in the last contest. Reasons to hate Pittsburgh are piling up fast.

But – and it’s a big but – the game should never have been in that position in the first place.

For one thing, that the Legion had scored only 1 goal in regular time was a continuation of a long-standing problem, which only erratically appears to have been fixed. Namely, the Three Sparks repeatedly fail to finish chances. The team had 18 shots in 90 minutes, 7 of them on target. 11 of those shots were from inside the penalty area. Granted, Pittsburgh goalkeeper Jahmali Waite stopped 6 of them and deserves a fair share of the credit. Even so, the game should have been out of reach for Pitt when Edward Kizza entered the game in the 89th minute. Per Fotmob (which is admittedly not always a great source), the Legion had 4 big chances in the game and missed on 3. Converting just one of those means the Legion moves on after 90 minutes.

Kizza, of course, scored both Pittsburgh goals, the first just 40 seconds after he entered the game, replacing Kenardo Forbes. That’s taking the supersub label to absurd lengths. But it highlights another issue: the Legion has repeatedly made poor decisions in its own end, and notably in its own box, especially late in games. In this case, Phanuel Kavita got pulled wide to cover a deep ball that had got past Jake Rufe. He cleared the ball to Ryan James, which was probably a bad move, as Ryan was himself covered. He was unable to control the ball and was dispossessed. The Legion then found itself in a 3-on-3 situation in its own 18: Jonny Dean had William Eyang, Alex Crognale had Russell Cicerone, and Jake Rufe had Kizza. Jake’s coverage was far too loose, and Kizza was effectively free to head the ball.

The second Kizza goal also was directly attributable to poor defending. Set aside the fact that Zach was moving to intercept Kizza when he got clocked by the ref. It doesn’t excuse what happened in the box. Take a look:

The pic’s a bit grainy, but you can see that there is an even 4-on-4 situation. But check where all four Legion defenders are looking. They are all literally ball-watching. Cicerone and Kizza (behind and to each side of Phanuel Kavita) are basically uncovered. Kizza in particular has a clear lane to goal. Jonny Dean was unable to cut off the cross and Kizza just walked it in. Now this was admittedly 116 minutes into the game, so errors are going to happen, but this was bad.

Then there’s the game management. Tommy Soehn didn’t make any substitutions until the 70th minute, when Marlon was subbed out for Sadik Balarabe. Interestingly, the Riverhounds’ Bob Lilley made his first subs at that time as well. That’s pretty late. That one didn’t seem like a bad choice at the time, although Marlon had probably been the Legion’s best player. He was almost certainly tired, though. The attacking pressure was clearly being kept up. It hurt later on, though, as Marlon, who is evidently the PK taker of choice, was no longer available. Next off, though, was Prosper Kasim 10 minutes later, replaced by Mikey Lopez. And that’s when it looked like the bus was going to get parked.

Now the Legion is not necessarily bad at that tactic. In fact, they’ve done it quite well on occasion, notably against Sacramento Republic, when they did it for 89 minutes. But to suddenly switch after 80 minutes when the high press has held the opponent at bay all game doesn’t make a lot of sense. To that point Pittsburgh had managed just 5 shots, only 2 on goal, and none on goal since early in the second half. It’s hard to score when the ball is deep in your own end, which is where it had been for much of the game. A major tactical adjustment when the team is fairly fatigued is not generally a good idea. As we’ve already described, it led to mental errors that proved disastrous.

Then things got weird. 5 minutes later, Anderson Asiedu was pulled for Bruno Lapa. That’s kind of a like for like replacement, although Ando is far the better defensive player. It almost seemed as if Tommy wanted him to get the standing ovation from the huge crowd. Which he did, of course. But did that mean the team was adjusting its tactics yet again, back to the high press? But a minute later, Juan Agudelo was taken out for Ryan James. A striker for a left back. Back to parking the bus again.

Moreover, it was clear the team expected to win in regular time. 2 major attacking players were now out. Worse, they were both the primary penalty takers over the course of the season. Juan not so good as Marlon, of course, but even so. In the end, that hurt big time. Marlon takes that first kick, the Legion probably wins.

Ultimately, it wasn’t to be. A good season is now over, and the offseason speculations and moves begin. The goal was to get a home playoff game at a minimum. This team was good enough to get to the conference final at least. It didn’t get there, so there’s still a lot of improvement to be made. The next 4 months are going to be huge for this team.

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