Week 1 Preview: what you need to know
The long wait is over
139 days. Come Saturday, that is how long it will have been since the Legion last played a competitive game. A new season is finally upon us. The Birmingham Legion stands atop the league currently, if only by virtue of being first alphabetically. That status will now need to be supported by actual performance. And week 1 offers a special opportunity to do that…
The most important part
OK. Set Memphis 901 aside. Louisville City and the Tampa Bay Rowdies too, for that matter. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds are far and away the most hateable team in the Eastern Conference, at least as far as the Legion and its fans are concerned. From globular head coach Bob Lilley on down, they justly earned the scorn of the Magic City.
We have our share of elephants in Alabama and we do not forget. We have fumed for 137 days and that fury is about to be unleashed in a hellstorm of revenge. Moreover, we have not forgotten the embarrassing 0-7 loss in 2019, nor the outrage of 2021. This year, the Riverhounds are projected to be a road playoff team again; the Three Sparks need to set them on a journey to miss that projection. It all starts at 6:30pm Saturday.
There are some question marks, though. Enzo Martinez and Mikey Lopez are both back in training, but how match fit they are is unknown at this point. The good news is that Neco Brett finally made it back into the country, but again, his match fitness is a potential issue. That being said, it seems rather fitting that he joins the Legion for the second time following a playoff loss to the Riverhounds. With all of that, it is rather difficult to project what lineup the Legion will have on Saturday. But it’s not as if the team is lacking in quality aside from those three. New faces Tyler Pasher, Gabriel Alves and Moses Mensah are all dangerous players and the team has a new left-sided attack that may confuse some opponents.
Pittsburgh, for their part, had a mediocre offseason. The big news was that long-time forward Russell Cicerone (who stands second in all-time Pittsburgh scoring history behind Neco Brett) left for sunnier climes in Sacramento. His15 goals last season will be difficult to replace. Veteran forward Dane Kelly also left – to Charlotte Independence of League One. Another 7 goals gone. The biggest incoming name is Joe Farrell, who moves over from Phoenix Rising. He’s a defender, and played under Bob Lilley a way back at the old Rochester Rhinos. The major scoring threat, then, will likely be Albert Dikwa, who put up 11 goals last year. He will probably be partnered by Edward Kizza, who you will recall scored both equalizers as a substitute in the playoff game last October. The real strength of the squad is its midfield. Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz both put up 11 assists and controlling them is the key to controlling Pittsburgh.
Prediction: This is likely going to be a low-scoring game, unless the Legion gets really mad and exacts total revenge. That’s possible, but with it being a new season, a cagier approach is more likely. Both teams have good defenses, but the Legion probably has the edge here, and so I’m going with a 1-0 home win.
Best of the rest
All games but one this weekend are on Saturday. For some reason the Colorado Springs Switchbacks and New Mexico United are on byes (Colorado Springs plays this coming Wednesday). I get not playing in Colorado this early in the season, but Albuquerque?
Anyhoo, kicking off the season at 4:00pm are Memphis v. Loudoun United and The™ Miami FC v. FC Tulsa. The latter of those will be the more interesting game to keep an eye on as you proceed to Protective Stadium (and you had better be doing that). Miami and Tulsa both improved somewhat over the break. More to the point, Tulsa will be the Legion’s next opponent, and on a short week no less.
Coinciding with the Legion game will be the Charleston Battery v. Phoenix Rising and Tampa Bay v. Indy Eleven. Charleston and Phoenix both had rough seasons on 2022 but both have done serious work to improve and this will be an interesting game to catch up on later, aside from being the first interconference game this year (there are 3 more this week). The Tampa-Indy matchup is also appealing, as both are competitive squads.
The late games are a pretty juicy schedule. At 8:30pm, just as the Legion should be closing out, will be El Paso Locomotive v. Sacramento Republic, two pretty good teams. Then at 9:00pm are the 3 remaining interconference games: Monterey Bay v. Hartford Athletic, Orange County v. Louisville City and San Diego Loyal v. Detroit City. Hmm, 3 of 4 interconference games in week 1 way over on the Pacific Coast. Seems a tad unfair. Of the 6 teams involved, only Lou City and Detroit probably aren’t improved from 2022. Lou City doesn’t need to improve, of course, but Detroit could be in for a rough year. Any one of those games is worth watching.
Sunday’s only game at 7:00pm is Rio Grande Valley v. Las Vegas Lights. Watch if you’re in need of comic relief.
Back in the Old Country
We haven’t paid much attention to the Blues over the offseason, and to be honest they have been underwhelming. As of right now they are in a lowly 19th place, albeit a fairly comfortable 7 points clear of the relegation zone with 11 games to play. This weekend they play Rotherham (Saturday, 9:00am, no ESPN+ feed) who are in 18th, 1 point ahead of Birmingham, and the best the Blues can do with this game is to flip places with them. You can watch the game on PPV, of course, but personally I have to choose between that game and my home town team Southend United playing Wrexham at the same time. Not that hard a decision, frankly.