Game Preview: Detroit City v. Birmingham Legion

An important game

This one is big for two reasons. First, this game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network (Wednesday, 6:00pm). As such, it will be the Legion’s debut on network TV. It also means you will need a subscription package that includes CBSSN in order to watch it. Or visit a bar that actually shows soccer. Not sure which is easier on the wallet these days.

Second, and more importantly, Detroit is ahead of the Legion by two points and has two games in hand as well. And with the Louisville City showdown looming at the weekend, this is a game the Three Sparks absolutely needs to win.

That’s easier said than done. Detroit is tied for fifth overall in goals scored (1.50 per game) and tied for 9th in goals allowed (1.25 per game). In contrast, the Legion is 17th (1.07) and 6th (1.14) respectively. On an xG basis, Detroit is right where it should be, per American Soccer Analysis. They have scored 17 goals with an xGF of 16.73 and have allowed 15 with an xGA of exactly 15.00. The Legion’s 13 goals scored (excluding 2 own goals) compares to 19.79 and its 16 allowed to 22.44. So the Legion’s attack is underperforming and its defense is way overperforming. Which should come as a surprise to precisely nobody.

The good news is that the Legion is doing better on both fronts. Take out the 0-5 drubbing in Louisville and the 0-3 home embarrassment against Memphis and the defense is doing extremely well. The Three Sparks have a healthy 5 clean sheets (8th in the league) and have allowed more than 1 goal only one other time (the 2-2 draw with Tulsa). And that was 7 games ago. 6 of the team’s 13 goals scored have come in the last 3 games. This week could be an excellent indication of whether this is a continuing improvement. Especially given that the team will be without the services of both its first team keepers and Jayden Hibbert remains effectively untested after the cakewalk he had against San Antonio. Note however that Detroit’s goals allowed number is similarly bloated by Louisville, who beat them 5-1, so we have here a couple of very stingy teams.

Detroit, for its part, is also extremely streaky. Le Rouge started the season with an impressive 5-game win streak, going 10-4 in scoring. They then proceeded to go 0-3-2 and 4-11 in scoring. They have won their last 2 games 2-0, against Rhode Island and the Charleston Battery. Given what Rhody just did in Louisville, that’s a couple of impressive results. They also have the double advantage of being at home (in a very partisan stadium) and playing on 11 days’ rest, having been on a bye this past week. In fact, they have dropped points at Keyworth Stadium only once this season (a 1-1 draw with Phoenix Rising). They did play a friendly Saturday against Mexico’s Pumas UNAM (which they won 1-0) though. The club used its entire roster in that game, which means most of the regular starters likely didn’t play too much.

Detroit’s biggest threat by far is central midfielder Maxi Rodriguez. In 11 appearances the Texan leads the team in goals (5), assists (3) and shots (14). Which is to say he has been involved in 8 of the team’s 17 goals. Keep him at bay and Detroit will have a much harder time scoring. Defensively the two centerbacks are Devon Amoo-Mensah and Stephen Carroll (in the picture above); both are Detroit veterans of long standing. Behind them usually is Nate Steinwascher, an abnormally reliable shot stopper; however, in the two recent wins between the posts was Carlos Saldana, a Mexican previously with Sacramento Republic. He is also reliable and whichever of them plays in this game is somewhat immaterial.

In the two recent wins the team has played a 4-1-3-2, a relatively rare formation. It is generally viewed as an attacking lineup, which is somewhat counter to Detroit’s historical philosophy. But they are playing under a new manager this season, Englishman Danny Dichio, a former forward who probably has a rather different mindset than his predecessor Trevor James (who is still with the club as sporting director). The formation can be looked at in a couple of ways. It is either a modified 5-3-2 (with a defensive pivot replacing a centerback, in this case James Murphy, formerly with Monterey Bay) or a modified 4-4-2. In either event you have at least 5 attacking players to deal with, which can be hard to say the least. But this should be countered with the Legion’s own 3-man midfield which plays a high press. We shall see.

Here’s one more thing about Detroit’s scoring: they rank 22nd in the league in overall shots taken (17th on a per game basis). That’s pretty low. But their conversion rate is extremely high: 18%, tied for second behind only Louisville (who else?). In other words, they are very efficient.

Prediction: This is a hard one to call. On paper the two teams look fairly well-matched at this stage. Detroit does have the home advantage on long rest but could also be rusty. The Legion has a few very good results under its belt and should be high on confidence right now. With all that said, I’m calling for a draw.

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