Game Recap: Birmingham Legion 1(4)-1(3) Chattanooga FC

A long night

So the Legion is now 1-1 in penalty shootouts1Officially known, by the way, as “Kicks from the Mark”, since no penalty is actually awarded.. It was a heart-stopping evening, all things considered. Still, the good guys triumphed in the end and move on to the Round of 32 in the US Open Cup for the first time in their history. Even better news, they get to host in this round again. The opponent will be Memphis 901, who got the upset win 2-1 over Atlanta United last night. So for the first time the Southern Harm derby will actually be immediately meaningful. Area Code FC, by the way, made it to this round back in 2019, losing 1-3 to Orlando City. They were ejected abruptly last year in the second round, also by a 1-3 scoreline to…Chattanooga FC. The game will be played May 9 or 10; all details are as yet unfinalized. In getting this draw, the Three Sparks avoided a matchup with either Nashville SC or FC Dallas, who will be playing in Tennessee.

So the USL Championship, the lowest tier league left in the Cup, is guaranteed at least one team in the Round of 16. Of the 6 other USLC teams still alive, Sacramento Republic (who made it to the final last year, remember) and the Charleston Battery probably have the best chances of advancing. SacRep will host the Colorado Rapids, who are not doing great in MLS, and the Battery travel to Inter Miami, who are also not performing in league play, and squeaked past The Miami FC last night 5-3 on PKs (after finishing 2-2).

Statistical support for US Open Cup games is rather weaker than they it is for the Championship, so this post will be relatively short on analytical content. That being said, overall the game was largely a matchup of a USL team that too often struggles to score – or even get into the opposing 18 – and the stingiest defense in NISA. Despite coming out with a slightly changed lineup – starting Ben Reveno at centerback instead of Phanuel Kavita and Moses Mensah over Gabriel Alves at left back – the Three Sparks stuck with the 4-2-3-1, matching up directly with Chattanooga. The game plan was, it sems, pretty simple. Press high, and keep pressing.

The upshot of that was that a good chunk of the game, especially in the first half of regulation time, was played in Chattanooga’s end of the field. 61% of the Legion’s passes were in the attacking half and 55% of Chattanooga’s were in the same half. Chattanooga actually had a 2% edge in possession, but as we have noted before, when you are stuck in your own end, it’s not of much use. Moreover, they were relentlessly hassled by Juan Agudelo and Enzo Martinez and had extreme difficulty moving the ball.

Conversely, the Legion had trouble getting into the box. Chattanooga’s centerbacks, Anatolie Prepeliță (a Moldovan national team player apparently) and Aydan Bowers, are the principal reason the team has yet to give up a goal in NISA. They are highly disciplined and know how to keep opponents at bay. Even on goal kicks they are always both positioned at the corners of the 6-yard box as a counter to that high press.

The Legion was thus forced to do what it tends not to do: play wide. The Three Sparks sent in 28 crosses in the game, way above their average of 8 per game in league play. That is rising a bit, but even so. They connected on just 6 of them, however. Moreover, the Legion goal came from as wide a position as you could possibly expect. Tack on 8 corners that produced no results and you have a vey wide game, especially on the left where Diba Nwegbo and Gabriel Alves replacing him were constantly getting very deep.

Overall, the game plan worked and would have seen the Legion through in 90 minutes if not for the penalty awarded against Alex Crognale. It was, to say the least, a very soft call, but Taylor Gray sold it really well. The kick was one of just 2 shots on target Chattanooga were able to generate all night, leaving Trevor Spangenberg fairly rested for the shootout. They totaled 10 shots for the game, and 6 of those were blocked, leaving another 2 off target. The Legion racked up a creditable 23 shots, with 7 on target, forcing Haitian Jean Antoine to work very hard indeed.

Ultimately, the Legion were able to force their way into the 18. Of those 23 shots a surprising 14 were inside the box. But Chattanooga racked up a whopping 76 defensive actions, suggesting that even under intense pressure that defensive discipline held. A less organized back line would have gotten pummeled (hello, Memphis?).

It was, all told, a great evening’s entertainment. It now remains to be seen how much further the Legion can progress.

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