Diving Deep: El Paso Locomotive 1-3 Birmingham Legion

Legion brings the hot sauce

Before this Saturday, the Legion had just 9 goals on the season. 2 of those were own goals. It also had a -5 goal difference. By the end of the evening, the tally was 12 goals and the goal difference was improved to -3.

That goal difference is still the worst among all teams in playoff position. On the other hand, New Mexico United is top of the Western Conference with a -1 goal difference. GD doesn’t mean much until the end of the season and even less so in the USL, which has it as the 5th tiebreaker. Still, it is an indication of how a team scoring relative to its opposition.

Until this past weekend, the Legion was not exactly doing well on that front. 7 earned goals in 11 games and 14 conceded is not good. 8 of those goals given up were in two games of course, Make of that what you will.

Across the league, teams are scoring at an average of 1.33 goals per game. With the 3 goals scored Saturday, the Legion is now at 1.00, well below the average and in fact tied for fourth lowest (with Hartford, Oakland, Las Vegas and Tulsa, not exactly great company).  The shot conversion rate improved a little from 8% to 10% but remains tied for league-worst (with Hartford and Pittsburgh, the latter of whom have had an even tougher time figuring out how to score). Those 3 goals were the Legion’s best offensive output of the regular season so far. But are they an indication of better things to come?

Now, let’s preface the rest of this post by noting that El Paso is hardly a model of excellence in the USL Championship. They are dead last in the West on just 8 points and 1 point better than the worst team in the East (Miami). They already enacted a coaching change, ditching Brian Clarhaut two weeks ago and hiring Wilmer Cabrera. Cabrera got an immediate improvement with the surprise 2-1 win over the Charleston Battery in South Carolina. That was a close-run affair and benefitted from a man advantage for the entire second half. But a win is a win. The Locomotive only has two of those all season. Cabrera’s tactical changes do look to have the team moving in the right direction, but they have quite the mountain to climb.

Reality came back to hit them in the face this past week, with hammer in hand. The Legion was able to exploit defensive weaknesses in ruthless fashion. But how exactly did the Three Sparks go about that?

The first thing to note is that the Legion was quite happy to cede possession. The team had a fairly consistent 38% possession throughout the game. There are several teams in the league who do that on a regular basis, most notably San Antonio. There are situations under which you can do that comfortably. Consider the heatmap:

The Legion is playing right to left. Clearly, the play is weighted towards the El Paso end. The average positions make this even more obvious:

6 Legion players averaged in the El Paso half, but only 4 El Paso players managed the same feat going the other way. The three Legion players you can’t see are, from top to bottom, Prosper Kasim, Enzo Martinez and Tyler Pasher. But note that the midfield trio, Jake Rufe, Kobe Hernandez-Foster and Dawson McCartney, are all in the attacking half as well. At a minimum, then, the Legion was defending with a mid block, if not a high block. It was certainly using a high press in attack. This also allows the defensive line to stay very organized and under limited pressure. El Paso did attempt 16 shots, but only 3 were on target. The Legion in contrast had 17 shots in barely half the possession and 6 on target.

As an attacking option the high press works in part by keeping the defense in a constant state of alert. That ends up being extremely tiring, mentally and physically. Ultimately, errors will happen.

Back to the heatmap. It is misleading in one aspect. That is, it appears to show a significant tilt to the Legion right flank. That was true to an extent in the second half, but not so in the first. The Legion pulled something of a bait and switch. We have sung the praises of Jake Rufe and how he is being used over the past few games as a clear attacking threat.  Well, for this game he was held back just a bit. El Paso was probably wise to him; he was engaged in 13 duels during the game, a very high number. But that released Dawson on the other side to roam much more freely. Very freely on the opening goal, that is, in which he was completely unchallenged by any Locomotive defender.

That goal resulted from play on the left side, even though the sequence started with a throw-in on the right. The throw was off a deflected cross by Tyler, who had drawn the entire defense deep and to the left. The throw was quick and the El Paso defense was slow to react.

Prosper’s goal was also mostly play on the left, although he was playing a right wing position. The long pass by AJ Paterson looked to be heading for Tyler and he had the defense looking to cover him. But Prosper had snuck over from the right and Tyler simply let him take the ball. He was already behind the last defender when the error was noted.

For the last goal Prosper rather returned the favor. Still working the ball from the left, he and Tyler had pulled a late switcheroo and were on opposite sides. Prosper dribbled the ball in from the left and it ended up eventually at Tyler’s feet on the right playing against a fullback who hadn’t had to deal with him to that point.

So, directly or indirectly, Tyler was involved in all 3 Legion goals. And that’s omitting the fact that he took 5 shots in total during the game. He was a nightmare to deal with. And if one player – be he Tyler, Jake, Enzo or someone else – gets all the defensive attention, there’s going to be a free attacker somewhere on the field looking to capitalize on that.

Moreover, these goals were all very creative, something the Legion has been lacking in so far this season. This is what we need to see going forward. Hopefully the Legion has found a winning formula.

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