Preseason Wrap-up: Birmingham Legion 0-0 Huntsville SC
Some bad, some good
Well, it wasn’t perhaps the best way to start 2023. A 0-0 result against a brand new MLS Next Pro team doesn’t exactly sound great. However, the game was played in miserable conditions (cold and pouring rain in mid-February in Birmingham. Shocking). Enzo Martinez was missing (injured apparently). Neco Brett was missing (for reasons unknown). Mikey Lopez is recovering from surgery (although he was present last night). Jake Rufe is also nursing an injury. To make matters worse, Tyler Pasher came up gimpy after a shot and was subbed out at the half. Ouch.
And while we’re on the subject of injuries, we wish all the best to the Legion employee (on his second day reportedly) who gashed his head open on the field prior to the game and was taken to hospital.
That’s quite a few key pieces to be missing. Indeed, the starting XI had a trialist at right back (and no, I don’t know who he is, although he looked pretty good and I believe was the only player to go the full 90). Thus, the Legion was playing under fairly poor conditions. Add to that the fact that several of the Legion players were playing together and with the team for the very first time, specifically, Pasher, Gabriel Alves and Moses Mensah. A sparkling performance was probably not to be expected.
Well, we didn’t get one. I would say that the final 30 minutes of the game were a very creditable showing by a large number of trialists. The only first team players on the pitch at that time were Trevor Spangenberg, Grayson Dupont and Mataeo Bunbury (none of whom have extensive Legion minutes under their belts either). Granted, Huntsville had swapped out most of their players too (although it was hard to tell, as none of them were wearing numbers), but the kids were a very determined bunch and put up more than their far share of the Legion’s 13 shots in the game. The rest of the team though were not in the greatest of form.
The good news with that of course is that there is plenty of time to get the kinks worked out, and, hopefully, get all the team up to full fitness. Tommy Soehn also stated that he thought the team showed a lot of rustiness. Again, not really surprising. But time to panic it is not, by a long shot.
So, all of this also means there is perhaps not a great deal we can take from this game. But, as content creators and analysts, that’s precisely what we are going to try to do. Here goes.
We haven’t said anything here about what we think the team’s optimal formation might be this season. We are after all looking at a much revamped squad and its primary strengths are still to be determined. We have ideas, of course, but we’ll keep them in our back pocket for now.
The lineup last night was rather difficult to discern. Some of the time (and we’re talking the mostly first team players here) it looked like a 4-2-3-1, other times like a 4-3-3 and yet more times like a 4-1-4-1. That partly explains the somewhat lackluster result. Not that it implies disorganization. Indeed, the formational flexibility that the team has historically demonstrated, especially last year, was also to be seen last night. But getting the best out of a new group of players while testing that flexibility is a tough ask.
The good news here is that the new players are a big part of that flexibility already. Gabriel Alves in particular is a significant contributor. He can play equally comfortably as a fullback, defensive mid or wingback. He did pretty much all three against Huntsville, although the left back responsibilities were mostly assigned to fellow newcomer Moses Mensah. As a defensive mid he was more or less a third centerback, adding even more power to an already formidable back line.
At this point I’m not quite ready to ask for the 4-2-3-1 to be thrown out (again). I don’t think it’s the best option for this team when at full strength, but we will see how things play out.
Alves and Mensah are going to be fun
It felt really weird not to see the Legion pumping everything down the right wing. But Jonny Dean is gone, so we knew things had to change. and it looks as of the bulk of the Legion attack is going to come from the other side of the field. Alves and Mensah are both principally left-sided players and of course we already have Prosper Kasim on that side. That’s going to be a fearsome threesome. The two newbies are clearly already working well together, interchanging and overlapping very smoothly and looking like established pros. They may not be as fast as Jonny, but with both of them behind Proser that’s probably not going to leave too may gaps. Alves also loves to move centrally (hence the centerback option), which puts him often in a pivot position.
Moreover, this also frees up Prosper to flip to the right side and use his favored left foot on the inswing. We saw him do this a lot last year, and he did it a few times last night. A useful piece of the attack has not been lost.
The air is not just for breathing
It’s taken the Legion a long time to figure this out. The aerial ball constitutes a serious threat. That’s particularly true when you have a 6’2″ forward like Juan Agudelo who can measure up height for height against centerbacks. But the Legion has been generally very reticent to employ the tactic, especially in crosses. Apparently no longer. We saw quite a few high crosses yesterday, and they were uniformly dangerous. The Three Sparks have added a weapon to their arsenal, one they should have stocked up on long ago.
False 9 or real 9?
Juan Agudelo is now wearing #9, not the #99 he wore last season. Without Enzo and Neco yesterday he played mostly as a true striker and that new high ball was definitely aimed at him. However, he is likely best suited to be a false 9 supporting Neco Brett when the time comes. Big guy behind a little guy. A dual threat that puts centerbacks under serious pressure. Another thing to keep an eye as we get closer to the season.
Mataeo Bunbury: cha-ching
You may not know this but Mataeo Bunbury was on trial with the legendary Benfica of Portugal this off-season, alongside fellow youngster Joshua Wynder of Louisville City. Wynder, by the way, is projected to be the USL’s first ever $1 million outgoing transfer. They are both back stateside but that probably has more to do with them both being just 17 years old than lack of talent. Which they both have in spades. Mataeo was in pretty good form last night and if he continues to progress (he will), he is going to command a hefty price tag. He turns 18 in June, just a few days after the summer transfer window opens. I for one will be surprised if he is still with the Legion long after that.
OK, I’ve wrung just about as much as I can out of that game. A lot will change before March 11th, which is still a full month away. Which is way too long.