In an era of splashy team debuts, replete with llamas and flamingoes, neon-inspired crests and pink-electric kits, it’s got to be hard to be the Birmingham Legion. Their kit sponsor is not a hip artist collective or a self-driving car company. They aren’t from a hipster-magnet city that is attracting millennials to town with the cache of a growing robotics industry or a splashy ‘new economy’ business, although Birmingham was once, like Pittsburgh, a city proud of its steel mills.
The Legion are a bit basic. Their kit is black and gold – which would be cool if LAFC hadn’t have done the same thing a year earlier. Their name derives from Legion Field, a historic throwball (the ‘other’ football) stadium in town, which is in honor of the military veterans group the American Legion; but the soccer team doesn’t play there. Their crest is a hammer and an anvil. It’s fine. It’s just fine.
Other than a nice four-game unbeaten streak in March and April, their season has been pretty typical of expansion teams. By that I mean, they’re pretty bad. Birmingham are on a ten-game winless streak which included draws against fellow expansion clubs Hartford and Memphis. They also played a midweek road match in Indianapolis, where they were beaten 3-0. They roll into Pittsburgh tired and perhaps a bit demoralized. Teams like that are sometimes dangerous – with the stench of desperation clinging to their kits, they might play with a bit of fire. But really, this is a mediocre team that finds itself currently in a state of disorganization. The Riverhounds should win this game handily.
Personnel and Tactics
The color-by-numbers approach to starting a football club extended to the front office, coaching staff, and roster construction. The General Manager is Jay Heaps, a successful former MLS player who went on to have a less-than-successful experience as head coach of the New England Revolution. The head coach is Tom Soehn, a former assistant to Heaps in New England. Soehn has been head coach of DC United and interim head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps and the aforementioned Revolution in a coaching career that stretches all the way back to his time as an assistant under Bob Bradley with the Chicago Fire back in 2001. He played indoor and in the old A-League, spent time in MLS as a player, and has coached extensively in MLS, so he’s exceedingly familiar with how American football has been played over the past quarter-century.
Without the benefit of an academy or an affiliated MLS team, the Legion have been constructed as the Frankenstein’s leftovers of football clubs, made up of spare parts from across MLS and USL. Starting keeper Matt Van Oekel has completed the American soccer player’s trifecta of having played in USL, NASL, and MLS. Centerback Kyle Fisher washed out with Montreal Impact a few years back. Eric Avila‘s best days were spent at FC Dallas, Toronto FC, and Chivas USA from 2008 to 2014. He is a standard USL-player-from central-casting sort of fellow: hard-working, moderately talented, can play anywhere, not gonna turn any heads, though. Daigo Kobayashi is your factory-issued ‘veteran presence in the locker room’ who also can still ball a little. He’ll come in off the bench as a defensive midfielder to break up play.
Mikey Lopez is on this team, playing as a two-way central midfielder who is often lined up deep. Fun fact number one: he was once suspended from NYCFC by Arsenal legend Patrick Viera. Fun fact number two: his hair in 2016 was so spectacular that it won a contest I ran on Burgundywave.com of the best hair in MLS. He’s a good passer, so-so decision maker, and can shoot it from long if you give him space. Other MLS refugees include Femi Hollinger-Janzen and Brian Wright, formerly of the New England Revolution, Crew loanees JJ Williams and Edward Opoku, and former Chivas USA 3rd string goalkeeper Trevor Spangenberg. Leading goalscorer Chandler Hoffman, another quad-A MLS/USL guy, is a Birmingham native. And Hounds fans will recognize fullback Joe Holland, who was with us in Pittsburgh last year.
The team lines up alternately in a 4-2-3-1 or a 5-3-2 that will likely look pretty defensive on the road. Hypothetically, they want to score on the counterattack, but there hasn’t been much of that this year – the Legion’s 13 goals-scored is second-to-last in all of USL. In their last match against Indy Eleven, they created a few chances for Opoku, but he couldn’t finish them. Set pieces aren’t going to be much help either: the team lacks height, especially in comparison to the towering giants on the Hounds like Steevan Dos Santos and Joe Greenspan.
Long story short: there’s little chemistry and no breakout star on this Legion team. If they hammer on them non-stop (get it?) and dictate the pace of the game, the Riverhounds should emerge victorious.
Last Game’s Lineup for Birmingham Legion
— Birmingham Legion FC (@bhmlegion) June 26, 2019
Mabiala, Laurent, Fisher, Cromwell, Kasim;
Lopez, Johnson, Turner;
Date: Saturday, June 29
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh, PA
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #PITvBHM
Featured Picture of Mikey Lopez c/o Birmingham Legion via twitter