Diving Deep: Orange County 1-2 Birmingham Legion

Smoke gets in your eyes

Here’s a tip for the Orange County stadium staff: when you score at home, it’s usually not a good idea to have the smoke bombs behind your own goal. It’s doubly not a good idea when your smoke is orange and the opposition is playing in a similar color.

When Juan Agudelo scored the equalizer exactly 3 minutes had passed on the game clock and just 114 seconds of playing time. The smoke had literally not cleared when Juan emerged out of it on the left wing to smash the ball into the back corner. You don’t often get that 12th man assist on the road.

It is in fact the goals that we want to focus on in this edition of Diving Deep. But not so much from the attacking perspective but rather from the defensive side of things. In a sense, all goals are scored as a result of a defensive error. After all, if every player in the game executed perfectly, the game would necessarily end in a 0-0 draw (and such games are often the most entertaining, to be honest). Almost by definition then, in every goal there is somewhere a breakdown in the defense. Which is why, I suppose, that after more or less every goal the victimized keeper immediately starts screaming and gesticulating wildly at his back line. Even when he was at fault, of course.

Soccer is a simple game, but that does not mean that it is strategically simple. Indeed, its very simplicity is what allows it to become a massively complex undertaking. You have 10 players who can be deployed literally however you want (except as a second keeper!) and given responsibilities that also vary significantly with almost infinite variations resulting. Most teams of course keep to a relatively small number of options in search of an answer to the two key questions of any sport: how do we defend and how do we attack?

The first of those two questions is usually the more important, or at least a majority of head coaches will focus on it getting it right first. And the answer to the question largely comes down to how one approaches the issue of marking. As in football, you have essentially two choices: man-marking or zonal marking. Man-marking is easy: assign each defender an attacker and stick to him like glue. However, it can be extremely inflexible. Zonal marking is much like zone defense in football, which is to say, fans hate it. But it is in fact the preferred approach of most modern soccer teams. It has flexibility and is especially useful for counterattacking teams like the Legion as its underlying principle is space. There are several variations on the theme of zonal marking, which differ in how the zones are determined, but we won’t go into that here. What they all have in common though is a need to maintain high levels of communication between the defenders. It is much easier to misunderstand ones assignment when it is constantly changing.

There is, by the way, a hybrid man-oriented zonal marking concept, whereby the zones are defined by where the attackers are. Also difficult to execute properly, but easy to accidentally slip into since the temptation to follow the man is always there.

Anyway, two of the goals in the game – Orange County’s and Enzo’s game-winner – can be attributed to a failure in the zonal marking system. Obviously, this also implies that both teams were using it. As I said before, it is the system of choice. Anyway, let’s first take a look at Emil Nielsen’s opening goal.

You’ll probably need to watch this clip through several times. Although the assist was given to left back Ryan Doghman (#23), it is really left winger Alex Villaneuva (#3) who creates it. He has the ball at the start of the clip. But also look at the legion back line. Phanuel Kavita and Alex Crognale are positioned at opposite ends of the D and Gabriel Alves is closish to the top left corner of the penalty area. Out of frame is Collin Smith, but he is positioned similarly to Alves on the opposite side. Now, in the gap between Alex and Phanny is Milan Iloski and in the gap between Phanny and Gabriel is Thomas Amang. Two very dangerous players, and not to be ignored. Right on the corner of the penalty area is Emi Nielsen.

Villaneuva is out of position coning from the right side but his aim is get back to the left side, and with the ball. Which he does, getting past Anderson Asiedu, Matthew Corcoran and Prosper Kasim in the process. Impressive enough in itself. But watch what Alex, Phanny and Gabriel do. They pinch in on Iloski and Amang, forcing them back a bit. But as they do that, Nielsen is left wide open.

Collin Smith is then forced to move left, both to fill the hole left by Alex and to meet the oncoming Villaneuva. He muffs the tackle and the ball bounces out to Doghman. Smith recovers well, and as Doghman curls in, the Legion back line is back in formation, but tight. Iloski is now hanging out at the penalty spot, exactly where he would be expected to be. Amang is trailing Alves, who probably thinks he has that side adequately covered. He’s forgotten about Nielsen. And the entire back line is looking at Doghman. Doghman’s cross is probably intended for Iloski, but Iloski is canny enough to know that Nielsen has a good chance. Even worse for the Legion defense, Trevor Spangenberg is completely from seeing Nielsen with Gabriel and Amang both in his line of sight.

There are any number of errors to pick from as the main cause of the goal. The Legion defense hardly covered itself in glory on that one. But if the line had maintained its zoning at the get go, it would have been Alex challenging Villaneuva (a pretty uneven fight) and Collin would have been free to move out and cover Doghman.

We’ll skip over Juan’s goal for now and go to Enzo’s. It has some similarities to the first goal, but in this case part of the problem was Orange County sticking rather too closely to its zone assignments.

At the beginning of this clip, Prosper has the ball way out on the right wing and is covered by someone (Doghman, I think) and the Orange County back line is neatly arranged just inside the penalty area. Between them they have Diba Nwegbo (#7), Juan and Enzo to cover. However, one of them is in fact Villaneuva filling in for Doghman who has been pulled way left by Prosper. Still, they have the numerical advantage and look safe. But Collin Smith’s revenge is at hand. Like Villaneuva before him, he gets past 3 men until the two are back in a duel. Note what the last of them does though. It’s Doghman, who actually gives up on the play, even raising his arms to let Villaneuva know he is ceding the zone. Also, as Collin moves towards the goal line, so does the Orange County defense. They have Diba and Juan covered effectively man-to-man and #6 Andrew Fox is there to assist Villaneuva if needed. But just like Iloski and Nielsen got left alone, so does Enzo. Collin masterfully nutmegs Villaneuva and Enzo’s job is easy from there.

Again, evident breakdowns in the marking system led to the goal.

Juan’s goal was rather different and probably came down to Orange County relaxing a bit after taking the lead, an all too common problem even at this level. Quite simply, they got caught way out of position by Phanny’s incredible through ball. We’ll need 2 pics to show this. First:

This is at the moment of Phanny’s pass. Including Alex out of frame to the left, there are six Legion field players here, with only Collin even marginally into the attacking half. But there are 6 County players in frame and way spread out. Next:

This is the other end of the pass (the ball is close to the top of the frame above Juan’s head if you hadn’t spotted it!). You can see some of the lingering smoke with Juan headed straight toward it. And since County had the superior numbers in the first shot, obviously the Legion has the advantage here. Even better, both Enzo and Juan are behind the defense and onside because of the long ball. There was even a slight shirt yank on Juan, I think, causing him to stumble a bit but he recovered very well. Orange County were caught napping big time.

So there we have it. The blame game is almost as much fun as soccer.

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