After an Early Season “Wobble”, Where Are We Now?
Early on, Birmingham Legion FC had an unexpectedly bad start to the season. Bizarre defense blunders, inconsistent midfield, and an anorexic offense. Many Legion fans were disappointed and some were straight up irate, calling for coaching staff’s head, asking for a complete gutting of the squad, and have threatened to end their fandom of the club.
Even after some good results along the way, fans didn’t really have a ton of confidence going into the Phoenix and Memphis 901 matches. Suddenly after a great goal in Phoenix by Prosper and another last minute banger by Anderson, confidence feels to be at an all time high. Why? What has changed? Are these results even good results? Let’s talk about it all.
Predictions vs Reality
According to my pre-season predictions, the 3 Sparks are only 3 points off the pace that I originally predicted. Not too bad. I predicted Legion would finish 4th by the end of the season. Currently, Legion sit in 6th, only 3 points behind Detroit City FC who are in… 4th. We’re not far off from where we originally thought the team would be, but how different would this season feel if we had gotten that win against FC Tulsa, or gotten a win against The Miami FC and/or Las Vegas Lights?
Just one of those results going our way would have us sitting in either 5th or 4th place, controlling our own destiny for a home playoff match. Is that why Legion fans feel so sick about the team? Is it because we are so close? What was/is the issue?
The Back Line Issues and Fixes
We have seen our backline make mistakes before, but with the ENTIRE backline and defensive midfielders returning to The Magic City, many fans expected perfection from one of the top defensive cores in the USL. The issue is that when your offense cannot score, your defense is suddenly even more exposed. A single goal feels like five and it’s completely insurmountable.
What was going wrong defensively? I think the answer is fairly simple, we were playing Mikey Lopez as a fullback and our man-marking was subpar. Now, I know that feels like it’s me slandering Mikey. It’s not, I promise. Defensive Midfielder Mikey Lopez is his best version in this Legion side. His ability to play defensively in a central area essentially gives us a more fluid 3 Center Back system. With Mikey, we are able to push teams more into the wide areas, relying on crosses to beat guys like Alex Crognale, Matt Van Oekel, or Phanuel Kavita. That is just not a sustainable task for any team, especially in the USL.
I also believe that the emergence of Jake Rufe has been huge. Jake Rufe slotting in as our Left Back gives us a much more defensive look, but it also allows Ryan James to come in as a midfielder or winger, which I believe he is best suited to do. While Jake can get up the pitch, he is absolutely another defensive wizard who does well to slow down or stop any attack in his direction. We saw it against Phoenix and Memphis, that nothing was getting past him. He is another guy who can give us that 3 Center Back look, if need be.
Okay, so we have a full back and a defensive midfielder who are playing pseudo-Center Back roles. So what? If need be, we have a four man backline right there, so guys like Jonny Dean can focus more on the Winger part of being a Right Wing Back. We have seen Jonny grow into a great defensive fullback, but his real threat is on the attack. Against New York Red Bulls II, Phoenix, and Memphis, we have seen Jonny make these runs in the center of the pitch where he would singlehandedly make something out of nothing. If we did not play Mikey or Jake, he would not be allotted that amount of attacking freedom.
So, stay with me. This is how Legion’s backline looks now with Jake Rufe and Mikey Lopez. The blue lines are defensive responsibilities, the red lines are offensive liberties, and the blue box is what I call the “defensive zone.” With Lopez able to drop in deep, it allows Jonny only one defensive responsibility because Crognale can play a little wider to deal with those attacks. Jake Rufe’s addition allows Phanuel to focus ONLY on the box now with Jake covering those outside threats. Overall, this gives our Center Backs more cover, Jonny more offensive flexibility to not only go forward in a wide position, but also in a centralized attack.
The Attacking Issues: Are They Really Fixed?
Not really. We have seen improvements but nothing is really fixed yet. Against Phoenix, we saw the Legion concede possession, only holding onto about 45% of the ball. What does that mean? Some people point to possession as a sign of dominance, but to me, it’s a sign of system. We decided to play a counterattacking brand of football against Phoenix where we utilized the press, forced mistakes, and decided to hit them with an attack as fast as possible. That last part is a big deal.
We have seen for 3.5 years of Tommy-ball where we just pass the ball into the net. It can lead to pretty sexy football, but it is incredibly frustrating when it does not work. This year, it wasn’t working. So we moved away from it. We dribbled less, we tried more through balls, and went right at the backline. This attack truly utilized the pace we have on our attack with Prosper, Jonny, Enzo, and Marlon. The issue is that Juan Agudelo simply does not have the pace to play that kind of game or the ability to press effectively for 60′-75′.
Against Memphis, we reverted back to passing the ball into nothingness for the first half. We were being outplayed and slowly working the ball into the box simply did not work. It was a strange decision to move back to a system that was not working, but come the second half, Tommy brought back the direct play with some wide attacks for some spice. The entire match was completely changed when Edi Horvat and Anderson Asiedu came into the match. Edi played a physical, pressing brand of footy that completely destroyed the Memphis backline. While he didn’t get the goal or even direct assist on Anderson’s game winner, his header to Ryan James is what created that entire chance.
Moving forward, Edi Horvat NEEDS TO BE STARTING, especially if we are pressing more and using our speed. This team can simply out pace the rest of the league. We have the ability to do that, now it’s time to do it.
Simply put, these next five matches are going to determine if we will host a home play off match. Pre-Season, I predicted only 4 points from this stretch, those coming from a draw in Louisville and a win against Atlanta United II. Now that we are in the heart of the season, Charleston is not who I thought they were.
While 6 points from 15 sounds incredibly grim, away to New Mexico, Louisville City, and Sacramento are three of the hardest away days in US Soccer. If we can get those 6 points, we would be sitting at 28 points, which should still have us sitting comfortably in a playoff spot, assuming that FC Tulsa does not win their next 5 matches outright. If we can manage to pick up extra points along the way, we should be looking at being favorites for a home playoff match.
Of those 5 matches, I think 6 points from Atlanta and Charleston are absolute MUSTS, but it is entirely possible that we can pull points from New Mexico, Louisville, or Sacramento. I am in the boat that 6 points is the expectation, 7+ is a very successful trip, and less than 6 is a major disappointment.
I am currently working on making a Google Number so Hammering Down can become a call-in show! I think this is a really cool addition, if I can make it work. Hope to hear your voices soon!