Preseason Analysis: Birmingham Legion 1-2 Atlanta United

Options, we got options

Well, we didn’t get snow, but we surely got rain and gloom of night Saturday evening. Those did not prevent the over 7,000 in attendance from having a great time in the first chance to see either the Birmingham Legion or Atlanta United in action in 2024. Was it revealing? Well, yes. Certainly for the brand new kit, and for the Legion fans who have seen a number of players leave with no apparent replacements they were introduced to some very new names.

As far as the score is concerned, who cares? To be honest, it was really a 1-0 Atlanta win, with both the ensuing goals resulting from unlucky deflections. They both count, of course, no one is going to upset at the loss whatever the score. And it very nearly ended up a 2-2 draw anyway.

And for Atlanta United, it should be noted that they were missing a few key pieces. Not least of those was talisman Thiago Almada (who is rumored to be heading to Europe, possibly Atletico Madrid) as well as new acquisition, midfielder Bartosz Slisz. So they were slightly undermanned, despite fielding 33 players on the night.

For the Legion, some questions were answered, and some new ones raised. Let’s run through them.

The strategy

The Legion went with a 3-4-3. Not quite the 3-5-2 I have been rooting for, but close enough. Even up against Atlanta’s nearly complete first XI, it looked really good. Flowing, fast, attacking soccer. Also, the wings got used much more effectively than last season, largely as a result of the reintroduction of pace, which was sorely lacking most of last season. If this is what the Legion is going to be giving us this season, it’s going to be a wild ride.

The back line

With absolutely no apologies to Pedro Pascal, this is the way.

As I had opined recently ( and repeatedly last season), a 3-man back line is probably optimal in the USL Championship and for this club particularly. In the recent post I had suggested that the best starting line would be Moses Mensah, Phanuel Kavita and Alex Crognale. Saturday we saw AJ Paterson start rather than Moses, and he looked pretty damned good. In fact, in his later stint, Moses looked like he was struggling a bit. Obviously, it’s early days yet and he may not be fully fit yet, but the slot is likely to be up for grabs between the two of them at this point. Right now, AJ looks to be the front runner.

Other than Alex not covering Nicolas Firmino quite close enough on the first goal, the line looked very solid and communication appeared good despite AJ being new to the club. And with Jake Rufe we have 5 defenders available already. Not bad at all.

The midfield

With a 4-man midfield, which is what the Legion ran with on Saturday, you are really dealing with two discrete groups: the central mids and the outside mids. In a 5-man it’s even trickier, as you have essentially 3 groups. Anyway, from left to right the Legion started with a trialist (#25) at left wingback, Enzo Martinez and Matthew Corcoran in the middle, and, interestingly, Preston Tabort Etaka on the right wing. That last was a very interesting choice. I had pegged Preston as a striker, but he has incredible Jonny Dean-like speed and can cross the ball. Also, the interplay between him and Prosper Kasim ahead of him was spectacular to watch. If the Legion sticks with that arrangement, it will be glorious. And Preston can very easily score from that position anyway.

Enzo and Matthew in the middle was also intriguing. Instead of a standard double pivot in which one of them stays back and the other goes forward, they tended to trade off. Enzo was generally the more advanced of the pairing, but Matthew is just as capable of working his way into the attack and he can be a lethal free kick option as well. For as long as the Legion keeps him, that is.

The trialist on the left – the only one who started the game, which says something of what the Legion thinks about him already – was Dawson McCartney. He’s 25 and played college soccer at Dartmouth and Notre Dame. Since 2022 he has been with Portland Timbers 2, playing 22 games for them as captain over the past 2 seasons. He performed reasonably well, but was hardly earthshattering. We’ll see how he progresses, but he is likely going to be a backup to Diba Nwegbo at best.

And then we got to see Miguel Perez for the first time, taking over from Enzo. Miggy played with a very attacking mindset if a tad rusty, but he should shake all of that off over the next month. And having Enzo Martinez as a mentor (but sadly no longer his brother Alex as a coach) should help him develop and adjust to this league in good time.

The attack

So the 3 up top were Tyler Pasher and Prosper, supporting an entirely new face in Mohamed Bura Turay. Ty and Prosper looked in really good form considering how early in the season this is, and it’s only up from here.

Turay is an interesting individual. He is from Sierra Leone and is 29. He spent most of this playing career to date in Sweden, with stints in Belgium, China and most recently Denmark. 10 clubs in 10 years, and 2 of them no longer exist (did you know there was a Juventus in Sweden?). His personal life is also odd, and is in fact the main reason he is here. He got married 2 years ago, but his new club at the time, Malmö, wanted him in camp when the wedding was scheduled, so his brother stood in for him. Then there were apparently visa issues and he ended up in Denmark with Odense Boldklub and she came to the US. Hence his desire to come here. Turay’s year at OB didn’t go too well and they appear agreeable to let him go for free despite his contract running through 2025. Personally, I wasn’t overly impressed with him on Saturday, but he didn’t get too much in the way of service. His name was on the short, so he’s probably already signed.

We also saw Stefano Pinho at striker in the second half. Pinho, a Brazilian, is even older than Turay at 33. He is just as widely traveled and is coming off his second stretch with Indy Eleven. He appeared 18 times for them last season scoring precisely…zero goals. Another name already on the shirt. I was underwhelmed.

My feeling is that the Legion needs another striker or two.

Bit players and the infamous Trialist family

The newly-signed Finn Calloway got about 13 minutes late in the game. That was against an entirely Atlanta United 2 XI, including one player even younger than he is. He did not get too may chances to show his chops but what we saw was enough to whet the appetite.

A new goalkeeper, Owen Jack, was introduced and looked solid. He just graduated from the University of Vermont and somehow managed to escape the attention of the otherwise eagle-eyed Khano Smith up in Rhode Island. He played every minute of last season, logging a 13-6-2 record including 8 shutouts and a 74.6% save percentage. Impressive. We did also see Seth Torman briefly between the sticks, which was a little surprising as I was pretty sure he had signed elsewhere.

And then of course there were the numerous players to be named later. or, in some cases, probably never at all. Among them the obvious standout was #14. His name is EJ Johnson (that’s him in the photo above). 20 years and hailing from California, he signed with Hibernian in Scotland 2 years ago and was immediately loaned out to the Charleston Battery, where he scored once in 13 games before a loan spell in the Scottish third tier and then last year with Austin FC II in MLS Next Pro. All told he has 46 pro appearances and 4 goals. He was electric Saturday evening and the heavy bandaging on his left hand did not look to hamper him at all. He was a major pest to the Atlanta defense and made Quentin Westberg look really bad, stealing the ball and very nearly scoring the equalizer. The crowd clearly enjoyed what they saw from him and on the basis of that one game they will get to see him again.

Toni Tiente (#6) was on trial and didn’t do very much other than 1 decent scoring chance. The Cameroonian was with Atlanta United 2 the past 2 seasons and should have known exactly what he was dealing with.

#8 was Chris Salamatou. He is nominally a forward. From France he just finished his senior season at Georgia Southwestern (that’s in Americus. Which is a bit southeast of Columbus. Trust me, I looked it up), a D2 school. He was used Saturday more as a central attacking mid than a forward, but seemed to do okay.

Lastly (among the identifiable names at least) there was Gabriel Ortiz (#22) who entered the game with Finn. He was with Flower City Union last year in NISA, who finished 6th and in the last playoff spot but ended winning the championship. A midfielder, he hardly got any chance to demonstrate anything. The short time on the field tends to suggest he’s not too highly rated.

The kit

Dump Nike. Stay clear of Adidas. Choose Hummel. Well done, guys. This kit is superb and apparently selling at a fantastic rate. That includes me, and I have never previously bought a non-replica shirt. And there are at least three more yet to come this season.

In conclusion

Weather notwithstanding, this was a great way to start the 2024 season. The soccer was surprisingly entertaining given this was the first outing for both teams. We saw some new stuff that bodes well for the season to come. Importantly, the Legion has clearly not been anywhere near as inactive in roster building as some had feared. Yes, some of the new faces were very unfamiliar, but if the brains trust has dug up a few diamonds in the rough, all well and good.

The remaining home preseason game against Chattanooga Red Wolves on February 17th will not be open to the public. The away preseason game against Nashville SC (February 7) and Huntsville City FC (February 24) will also be closed door. However, the game against Chattanooga FC (March 2) will be open and will realistically be your best chance to see the Legion until the home opener April 7. The first three game of the season are all away, at Phoenix, Hartford and Louisville (some diehards will maybe make the Louisville game). To buy tickets for the Chattanooga game, go here.

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3 Responses

  1. DanF says:

    What did you think of trialist #4, the defender from the second half? And, any idea who he is?

    • John Fuller says:

      I don’t think he was ever named in the stream. Several people were impressed and have asked who he might be and no one seems to know.

      Personally I thought he did an acceptable job at right back but wasn’t very dynamic. Bear in mind he was up against an attack made up of ATLUTD2 and academy players so want overly tested.

      • DanF says:

        That’s a fair point. I would hope he gets some time against Nashville to see how he holds up. If we knew who he was, we might have more from his history to know. But he definitely looked composed and natural.

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