Preview: Birmingham Legion in town



The last time the Hounds were scheduled to play Birmingham Legion, that wasn’t the case. Pittsburgh was scheduled to take on the Legion in the first round of the playoffs in November last year. Of course, the team had a Covid outbreak and had to retire instead, ruining another playoff for Hounds fans. For the past four years, the Riverhounds have been a top team that, for a variety of reasons, has not made the playoffs. It’s starting to irritate. Maybe we can take that frustrated energy and vent it on Birmingham. Maybe I’m projecting.

I’m mostly mad at Birmingham for writing this really great preview for them last year, which of course no one read because the game was canceled shortly after the article appeared. So some of that preview is repeated, sort of like episodes of Gilligan’s Island when I was a kid. Man this show sucked. Hopefully this preview is less annoying.

personnel and tactics

The Legion tinkered with some formations in 2021 – 5-3-2 and 4-3-3 – but have been playing in a 4-2-3-1 for about the last month. In 2022 they used a 3-4-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Last year, their calling card as a team was defense. Here is a chart:

This chart is from americansocceranalyis.com, a site full of advanced metric geniuses you should check out. What you’re seeing above is Team Goals Added, a metric that summarizes every player’s overall play on a team — every tackle, free kick, nifty dribbling and perfect dish for a teammate, and every wobble or miss or misstep Pass at a specific spot on the field – assigning a value to those actions based on whether they contribute positively or negatively to a goal. Take all the actions of all players and add them up and you get Team Goals Added (known as G+). It mostly helps balance random things like luck, and also helps identify a team’s specific strengths and weaknesses.

What you see above tells you a lot – the top four teams in the entire USL in 2021 in terms of goals added (G+) were Louisville City (goals added differential: 29.19), Tampa Bay (G+ diff: 23.10 ), Phoenix (G+ diff: 20.96) and Pittsburgh (G+ diff: 13.33). Birmingham’s G+ difference of +4.91 is less impressive but still better than zero. For comparison: The worst team in the league on G+ difference was Real Monarchs with -22.99. Birmingham’s Passing G+ (circled in blue) was a very poor -0.38; that was 28th out of all 31 teams in USL-C. Meanwhile, her interrupting G+ of +21.20 (in the red star) was pretty good; 14th in the league.

They’re defensive and risk-averse, but in 2021 they rode this pony to an 18-6-8 (WTL) record. So far in 2022 they are a perfectly symmetrical 3-3-3. They’ve kept their opponents by just 10 goals in those 9 games.

staff

The experienced core of this team is the goalkeeper Matt van Oekel, a 35-year-old second division veteran who joined the team in expansion year 2019. He looks like it:

Matt Van Oekel looks like a man who spends his free time churning butter and attending barn raisings.

Matt Van Oekel looks like a man currently serving in General Silas P. Farnsworthy’s 3rd Confederate Rebel Regiment.

Matt Van Oekel looks like a man who, if my car broke down in front of his house and he came out to ‘help’, I would run very, very far from him as soon as possible.

Birmingham also has a former Riverhound Tommy Vancaeyezeele. Tommy has only started in four games, all at left centre-back. You remember what Tommy brings: good distribution to the back, good defensive positioning, good open field ability to keep up with fast runners. Tommy isn’t that solid in aerial duels or in one-on-one defensive fights, and he’s occasionally been thrown out of position by attacks. If the Hounds can steal Birmingham while Tommy is in top field, they could get a 3-on-2 situation.

It wouldn’t be a preview of Soccer Rabbi if I didn’t mention a former Colorado Rapids player, Enzo Martinez. The 31-year-old Martinez with the pirate/Viking beard spent 2018 with the Rapids and was effective, but unfortunately the Rapids were terrible and Enzo fell victim to a season-ending purge. He returned to Charlotte Independence and continued to be a solid all-around playmaker and the No10. Birmingham have used him as a forward for the past three weeks. I don’t remember that he used to play a lot of forwards. Before that, BHM played Detroit City Juan Agudelo, the former longtime MLS winger who spent most of his career with New England, at the lead of the forwards. Enzo’s total minutes have gone down in recent years, and he’s lost a step, but he can still throw a ball through a mailbox from 30 yards if you let him, so…don’t let him.

Finally, former Wake Forest midfielder Bruno Lapa was signed by Birmingham after graduation. Lapa is an exceptional player, although Birmingham’s style of play requires him to tone things down a bit. Last season, Lapa had 5 goals and 2 assists in 1,403 minutes – in July and August he was out for two months due to a sports injury. He’s excellent at holding the ball and finding little seams in the last third to match.

Hopefully we’ll have a nice crowd for this game like last time. The rain is supposed to stop this afternoon. Hopefully Hounds fans will want to get out there after digging water out of our sodden basements for this game.

Last week’s starting XI

Van Oekel; James, Kavita, Crognale, Dean; Asiedu, Lopez; Marlon, Lapa, Kasim; Enzo Martinez

game info

Riverhounds (5-2-1) vs. Birmingham Legion FC (3-3-3)
Date: Saturday May 7th
Time: 7 p.m
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds +102 / Tie +260 / Birmingham +195 (Bet Rivers)
Tickets: ticketmaster
TV: 22 The point
Stream: ESPN+
Live Stats: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Pittsburgh Soccer Now, @RiverhoundsSC on twitter
Match hashtag: #PITvBHM

Image c/o Birmingham Legion via Twitter




Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now covering the Riverhounds, Pitt’s men’s and women’s teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast about the Colorado Rapids called Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red. He has written for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic and American Soccer Analysis in the past. When he’s not reading, writing, watching, or practicing soccer, he’s a real rabbi. Not really. You can find him on Twitter at @soccer_rabbi


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