Diving Deep: Las Vegas Lights 3-3 Birmingham Legion

Proposing a different mindset

OK, this one is not going to be about what the Legion did on Saturday so much as it will be about what they didn’t do. Those of you who read through our player ratings may have figured out some of where we are heading with this.

The problem this past weekend was, quite simply, manpower. Most especially, manpower at the back. With Collin Smith recalled, at least temporarily, to FC Dallas and Gabriel Alves out on yellow card suspension, Tommy Soehn found himself without 2 of his four fullbacks. Jake Rufe of course was available and has proven himself admirably at right back. The other would be Moses Mensah.

Before I go any further, I’m discounting Ben Reveno as a fullback. He supposedly is a versatile player who plays more or less anywhere on the back line but is primarily a centerback. In any event, he has failed to impress and doesn’t represent a great option.

Back to Moses. His experience is mostly at left back, but Gabriel looks to be the starter of choice at that position. Alves has missed just this one game and has started 12, averaging 70 minutes per game. Mensah has 13 appearances and 7 starts (subbed off in 5 of those), averaging 39 minutes. That also means the two have been on the field at the same time fair amount. One of them wasn’t laying fullback when they did.

My opinion of Moses is that at this level he is not best deployed as a fullback. The USL Championship is not the Colonial Athletic Association (in which he played for the Campbell Fighting Camels) or USL League 2 (with One Knox). It’s way faster than either of those. Recovery speed is a necessity for a fullback and in those leagues he probably had enough of it. In the Championship, not so much, I fear. It is my feeling that he could be better used as a wingback.

That brings the fullback count down to one, Jake Rufe. But Jake can also play at centerback very handily and still represent an attacking threat.

But Tommy Soehn is pretty set on a 4-man back line. The USL site and FotMob both decided that he didn’t go with his favored 4-2-3-1, opting instead for a 4-3-3. Well, maybe. But frankly, if that’s true, then it was a poor choice. Sure, what the Legion did in the first half looked good, albeit with a couple of lucky escapes on defense, but they were pretty disorganized all told. Take a look at the average positions of the starting XI:

For a start, this is highly compressed to the defensive half, with only 4 players in the Vegas end, and that by just 10 yards. The back four are unusually flat, and the remaining 6 field players do not exactly look like they are two lines of three. In fact, this looks more like a 4-2-4 than a 4-3-3. And note that Enzo Martinez (hidden) and Neco Brett (#11) are practically falling over each other. But if you shift Enzo back just a tad, then it’s a 4-2-3-1. Either formation makes sense, and they are in fact largely interchangeable, both relying on a double pivot. And Enzo at CAM makes his double assist and goal a logical result.

That compression though is troubling. The heatmap for the game also bears this out, especially in the second half, but in the first half too. In fact, the Legion ended the game outshot 20-16 overall and 14-10 inside the 18. Penetration, which has long been a problem for the Three Sparks, was an issue here too.

But the dogged insistence on a 4-man defense was a big part of dropping points in this game. We have already discussed on this site the team’s evident ability to play a form of Total Football. In addition to players being able to play multiple positions (some better than others, of course), that should also mean the team can do two other things: namely, work in different formations and play in a different style. Here, the formation didn’t really change and the style – counterattacking – did change early on but crept back in after the team built a 2-goal lead, if not before.

Which gets us to what I think the team should have done against the Lights given the available players:

This is  3-1-4-2, a slight modification of the 3-5-2. Obviously, it drops one midfielder into a defensive slot, but that player can also easily move forward into a more attacking role. It also has two strikers, which the Legion should be doing far more regularly; the team has serious firepower up top that it simply isn’t using.

My player selections, however, are probably the most debatable part of this. Clearly, I have gone with youth. In a big way. I spent some time criticizing Mensah, but I’m starting him over Prosper Kasim in the wingback slot I think fits him best. Prosper doesn’t possess much in the way of defensive credentials and he is notoriously one-footed; Moses does not appear to have either of those problems. I’ve also picked Matthew Corcoran; they don’t come much younger than him. But he has already proven himself mature beyond his years and he is not easily intimidated. I mulled a bit over flipping him and Ando, and in fact that could probably be done comfortably in-game, After all, they have been playing much of the time as a double pivot. The final contentious choice is starting Diba over Neco Brett. Neither of them scored in this game, but I think with a full 90 minutes or at least 70 Diba would have been a murderous threat. Pairing him with Juan would cause all sorts of defensive nightmares.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for a team that is used to a 4-2-3-1 to adapt to this formation. The two systems have one big point of convergence: the midfield triangle (also part of a 4-3-3). In the initial lineup it is of course inverted in a 3-1-4-2, but that does not mean it lacks the rotation capacity that any other triangle-based setup utilizes. The rotating triangle concept is useful in that can rapidly adapt from a defensive alignment to an attacking one. It is ruthlessly coached at virtually every academy and should be an ingrained part of any midfielder’s skill set. The Legion already uses it all the time.

Another advantage kin defense is that it obviously can adapt to a 4-man defense very quickly, and with the two wingbacks, 5 or 6 men even. And that’s assuming the three centerbacks are somehow vulnerable. The three men at the back here are hardly that.

Obviously, this formation has a major attacking punch. Regardless of who the Legion might pair at forward, they would be supported by a highly talented midfield. A high press would be very easy to attain, and the midfield would be relatively clogged up to prevent fast counterattacks by the opposition.

All that being said, Gabriel Alves will be available for the Tampa Bay game, so lineup choices will not be as constrained. It’s unclear if Collin Smith will be back; the assumption had been that FC Dallas recalled him because of roster issues relating to the Gold Cup, but the only Dallas player picked by any nation is Jesus Ferreira, who is a striker. He’s still playing, of course (or was as we originally wrote this), but that shouldn’t have a bearing on Smith. In any event, Tommyball with its 4-manback line will likely not change for this weekend.

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