What’s been going wrong with the Legion?
Ultimately, it comes down to one thing
First off, let me be clear: Diba Nwegbo is most definitely not one of the things going wrong.
A couple of weeks back we published a Diving Deep post that in part explained the apparent proliferation of wingers on the Legion roster. This week, rather than putting together a regular Diving Deep post, or even for that matter a Player Ratings post on the sorry showing in San Diego, we felt it might be more appropriate to focus instead on a few of the things that seem to be going wrong with the Legion on what seems to be a far too consistent basis.
This season, to say the least, has been baffling as far as results are concerned. The Three Sparks beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies twice. They put up a great Open Cup run at the same time as racking up a five-game losing streak in the league. They beat Orange County, but allowed 4 goals against Indy Eleven and the Oakland Roots. They lost 0-3 to Loudoun United. They’ve allowed 3 six times this season, including to Las Vegas, Detroit and Miami. They’ve managed a 3-game win streak just once all season, in weeks 2-4.
The team’s PPG to date is 1.333, so technically a losing record since that’s less than half points (it’s 4.5 points below a .500 record). Currently on 36 points, the team cannot match its 58 points total from last season. What, then, is going on? A few things, I think.
The Legion has always been a tad suspect at left back, although Ryan James, Thomas Vancaeyezeele and Jake Rufe, who shared that position most of last year, were clearly stronger as a group than Gabriel Alves and Moses Mensah. In particular, Moses has demonstrated that he cannot reliably perform at fullback in the manner that Tommy Soehn would like. He has repeatedly been caught too high and allowed wingers to get around him far too easily. frequently resulting in goals. Gabriel Alves is better but for some reason has not been starting lately.
On the right Collin Smith is a talented player, but he is not Jonny Dean. In fact, he’s really a wingback. Yes, he has speed and is relatively reliable in recovery as compared with his partners on the left. But the departure of Hotlinks left a big hole that the Legion has essentially failed to fill. Further, since he is on loan, chances are that the position will need to be filled again next season unless FC Dallas sends him back or even releases him.
Beyond that, the fullback corps is also lacking in any kind of depth. Mikey Lopez has in the past filled in at fullback but it’s hardly his best position.
Alex Crognale and Phanuel Kavita are among the elite backs in the USL Championship. But they really have no backups. That’s especially true of Alex, who it seems is an avid card collector. Jake Rufe can play centerback, and did so admirably subbing for Alex when he was suspended recently. But who else is there? No one.
I have repeatedly argued that a 3-man back line is the way this team should operate. Indeed, it is probably the best option for any team in this league. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the Rowdies, Sacramento Republic and San Antonio all regularly use 3 or even 5 at the back. A coincidence that they occupy the top two spots in each conference? I think not.
When Moses or Gabriel are held back in an effective centerback role, the team usually performs better. That also allows Collin to play more as a wingback. But again, depth is an issue.
A couple of weeks ago in the chat for the USL Show, the USL’s Nicholas Murray and I were discussing goals scored after the 75th minute. It turns out there have been quite a lot of those in the league this year. I guessed that the Legion probably leads in that category and the team is indeed high on the list in both scoring and allowing late goals. Three Sparks games account for over 10% of the total (I forget the actual numbers so you’ll have to trust me on that).
Obviously, scoring late is good. Allowing late, not so much. How it comes about is difficult to pin down, but one potential issue is lack of concentration. Another would be bad substitutions. The two are possibly linked, as is the issue of lack of depth at the back. You can’t expect a limited number of players to perform at a consistently high level if they are exhausted, mentally and physically. Even more so when you consider that the team generally plays better when giving up the possession advantage.
Another possible cause is pressing too high late in games. That’s reasonable if you are chasing the game, but if you are leading, not so much. Whatever the causes are, the leaks need to be plugged.
Lack of concentration generally
Over and above late goals, a lot of the goals the Legion gives up are due to stupid errors. The Detroit City game was a major case in point. Whether it be surrendering the ball in midfield (which the team did in spades against San Diego this week), misreading a mark or blowing a tackle, it all indicates a lack of focus. Moreover, the errors seem to be getting worse as the season progresses, and you just can’t choke like that when things are on the line. That’s Arsenal’s job.
The depth of the team at winger is all well and good, but the Legion really has only one out and out striker, Neco Brett. And Neco until recently has been underutilized. He has just 14 starts this year, barely over half. The Legion needs at least one more serious scoring threat in the middle. As with centerbacks, you can’t rely on just the one guy, Especially if you aren’t starting him.
Mikey Lopez was out for an extended period. Tyler Pasher has been for a really extended period. Anderson Asiedu has been out for a while. These are all important players and they are missed. Which leads to another issue…
For whatever reason, the Legion has always been really mum on certain matters, and injuries are high on that list. Just this week, early in the broadcast for the San Diego game, the injury report showed none for the Legion which is patently ridiculous. Why the team holds back that kind of information is unclear, and it can hurt relationships with fans. That’s particularly the case when fan favorite players are out.
The team can also be very quiet on other news matters as well, but that’s a big one.
OK, I’m going there. Kinda. Is the team being mismanaged? Frankly, I’m not sure. Bear in mind that sports team management is a dual process – game management and office management. The roles overlap, for sure, but are mostly filled by different people. Personally, I have to question some of the roster decisions, but I also have to criticize some of the on-field decisions.
Bear in mind that this team has never missed the playoffs in its previous four seasons, and earned a home playoff game the past two seasons. It still has a reasonable chance to do that this year, although if it doesn’t that has to be considered a step back. Is the team’s management capable? Absolutely. Certainly more so than quite a few teams in the league. Is a change at the top needed? I’m not convinced of that and in any case which top needs the change?
That being said, I do wonder if the loss of Khano Smith to the incoming Rhode Island FC hasn’t hurt the Legion’s performance. Quality assistant coaches can do a lot for a team; anyone who knows anything about how Nick Saban operates is aware of that. And Khano he was one of the best. Playing a team led by him next season is going to be very interesting.
If there’s a single conclusion to be made here, it’s depth. In a lot of areas. Except wingers. The Legion’s really good on that front. Really, really good. That’s not in itself a problem: the Legion is, as we have stressed here, very much a Total Football sort of team. Versatile players are what you want and the team has quite a few. Yes, they are primarily wingers but most can adapt well. Fine. However, there are certain spots where you need specialists and the Legion has to beef up at those positions. Obviously, it’s too late in the season to do that. Cleaning up some of the other issues will go a long way to finishing this season strong. But will the team take note over the offseason? We’ll see.