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Preview: Birmingham in the First Round might be ugly for Hounds

Preview: Birmingham in the First Round might be ugly for Hounds

It’s been a long time since we’ve played Birmingham Legion, and an even longer time since we previewed them. Our last match against the so-called “Magic City”* was the 7-0 drubbing we gave them in the opening round of the 2019 USL playoffs,  their expansion year. Birmingham finished 10th out of 18 teams in USL East that year on a 12-7-15 (WTL) record – and then clearly demonstrated why no team that finishes below .500 in any league or any sport should be allowed to make the playoffs as the 1st place Riverhounds tore them limb from limb in front of a gleeful and raucous home crowd of 5,627, the second-largest in team history.

The last preview I gave them is notable in that – it was literally the first time we had ever played them, on June 29, 2019. Back then, the expansion Legion were composed of a lot of cast off parts from the rest of the league – guys like former Chivas USA midfielder Eric Avila and former NE Revolution stalwart Daigo Kobaiyashi and Tyler Turner, a former USMNT youth international who is currently playing indoor soccer for the Milwaukee Wave. The Hounds beat them on that night, 4-1.

Since those two games, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds have not faced Birmingham. In 2020, the league played in those tiny little regional groups that required long bus rides and an infinite repeat of matches against Philadelphia Union II in some kind of bizarre Covid-inspired soccer version of the movie Groundhog Day. So no Birmingham. This year, the bulk of games were played against the new ‘Atlantic Division’ of USL. Pittsburgh played just three non-divisional opponents: Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Austin. Short aside: I don’t know how you long-time USL fans do it. This league changes names, teams, and league structural formats more often than Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson changes A-list girlfriends. I find it exhausting and irritating.

Tactics

Simply put, this is not the 2019 Birmingham Legion. They’ve tightened things up quite a bit, improved their players, and found an identity.

The Legion tinkered with a few formations this season – 5-3-2 and 4-3-3 – but have played in a 4-2-3-1 for the past month or so. Their calling card as a team is defense. Here’s a chart:

This chart is care of americansocceranalyis.com, a website you should check out full of advanced metrical genius. What you see above is ‘Team Goals Added’, a metric that aggregates all of the play of every player on a team  – every tackle, every clearance, every slick dribble and perfect dish to a teammate, and every bobble or blown shot or errant pass at any given spot on the field – and assigns those actions a value based on whether it positively or negatively contributes to a goal. Take all the actions of all the players and add them up, and you get Team Goals Added (known as G+). It mostly helps to even out fluky things like luck, and also helps identify a teams specific strengths and weaknesses.

What you see above tells you a lot – the four best teams in all of USL on Goals Added (G+) are 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+ differential of +4.91 is less impressive, but still better than zero. For comparison, the league’s worst team on G+ differential was Real Monarchs with a -22.99.

Birmingham Passing G+ (circled in blue) was a very bad -0.38; that was 28th out of all 31 teams in USL-C. Meanwhile, their Interrupting G+ of +21.20 (in the red star) was pretty good; 14th in the league.

That tracks with what I saw in their final regular season matchup against Louisville City. Birmingham’s primary approach on offense against Louisville was to hit a lot of big, over the top two-line passes up to the forwards. It was really risk-averse stuff – as in ‘let’s set up our offense in such a way that when we fail and turn over the ball, the defense is in it’s best position to defend.’ This was a team that did not want to get caught out in transition, and so on some level the setup is ‘play not to lose.’ They let Lou City possess. Usually that kind of approach is consistent with so-called ‘counter-attacking football’, where a team looks to defend fiercely, force turnovers, and strike quickly in transition. But Birmingham really didn’t do that. They were content to do a lot of this:

Yup! Pretty dull stuff.

They did have this one nifty play, but really, in 90 minutes of football, this was the only pretty sequence I could recall. It is the exception that demonstrates the rule.

One last piece to the ‘risk-averse attacking’ thing: Birmingham do like to involve both of their fullbacks in the attack, getting high and overlapping on both sides, which is not that common (usually the ball-side full back goes up the field while the so-called weak side fullback will sit deeper in case he needs to defend). The reason that still comes out as ‘risk averse’ is that the two defensive midfielders for Birmingham will stay tight and central, and ready to defend in case of a turnover. A way to play offense that is risk averse is to go down the sides, so expect Birmingham to do that a lot.

As the title of the article implies, Birmingham are defensively minded and low-risk-long-ball inclined. I expect them to try and win ugly.

Personnel

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

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

Matt Van Oekel looks like a man that is currently serving in the 3rd regiment of General Silas P. Farnsworthy’s Confederate rebs.

Matt Van Oekel has the look of a man that, if my car broke down in front of his home and he came out to ‘help’, I would run as fast as I could very, very far away from him.

Lastly, it is a shame Matt Van Oekel and Birmingham are not playing in Pittsburgh, because the things Steel Army would come up with to say to him would be absolutely priceless.

Ok, enough of that. There are some very familiar pieces to this Birmingham team too: former Riverhounds Ryan James, Neco Brett, and Thomas Vancaeyezeele.

Tommy hasn’t played much the past five games as manager Tom Soehn has elected to leave him out of the back line, but James at left fullback and Brett at striker have been automatic entries on the team sheet nearly every week.

Ryan James is almost exactly the Ryan James you remember: a slick dribbling winger that likes to come deep into the attack and can cause equal amounts of mayhem either racing to the end line to bend in a big cross into the box or cutting inside to find a dangerous pass. And he’s still fast, and he’s still a great defender. He’s not exactly as you remember though: James now sports a jet black mustache and beard along with cornrows. He looks like our Ryan James’ evil twin. Which, on some level, he is.

Here’s more bad news. What if I told you … there was a team with TWO Ryan Jameses – two fullbacks that defend well, but also push high and swing in accurate crosses? Because opposite the left back, Ryan James, is Birmingham’s right back, Jonathan Dean. Dean has played almost every minute of every game this season. It could be argued he’s even *better* that RJ, and in fact, he’s pretty much one of the best fullbacks in the entire league: he has the 3rd highest G+ amongst all USL fullbacks. He’s an excellent dribbler, excellent passer, has a fantastic first touch, and defends like a beast. The 24-year old native of Macon, Georgia should be on every MLS team’s radar, in my humble opinion.

Meanwhile, Neco Brett has had another solid year banging in goals in the USL. Neco’s 18 goals this season ranks 5th among USL strikers, and his +2.87 G-xG means his finishing has been well above average for a striker in this league. There are some underlying concerns with him, though: Brett has the lowest g+ on the team with an Overall G+ of -1.81. That’s a lot worse than when he was in Pittsburgh in 2019 and had a nearly-neutral -0.19. His receiving and passing this year haven’t been too good according to this metric. He’s often on an island for Birmingham – way up high and detached from the rest of his teammates as they stay in position to defend. His job is to keep the opposing defenders honest and force them to spread out a little, and then the fact that he’s far away means he’s most likely being given long balls to latch onto, so maybe the tactics have been hurting Neco peripheral metrics. He’s still dangerous in the final third with both feet and his head, so watch out.

I first noticed attacking midfielder Bruno Lapa at a Pitt-Wake Forest game back in 2019, Lapa’s senior year.

He’s still an exceptional player, although Birmingham’s style of play requires him to tamp things down a bit. In 1,403 minutes this season, Lapa has 5 goals, 2 assists – missing two months of time in July and August due to a sports hernia. He’s excellent in holding the ball, and finding small seams to pass to in the final third.

A very notable addition to this team at the beginning of 2021 was Junior Flemmings. Flemmings was one of the best players in USL in 2019 and 2020, winning the Golden Boot with 14 goals in 2020 and helping propel his team, Phoenix Rising, to the Conference semi-finals in 2019 and the USL Championship Final in 2020.

However, some of those who follow American soccer or USL closely will know the rest of the Junior Flemmings story: at the end of the 2020 season, the Jamaican-born forward was playing in a match against San Diego Loyal. During the match, he began jawing with Collin Martin, and at some point called him a ‘batty boy’ – a Jamaican derogatory term for a homosexual. Which would be disgusting and unacceptable enough, except that Martin actually is gay. Martin and his coach, Landon Donovan, protested loudly to the match official and the coach of Phoenix, to no avail. In the days following the match, Flemmings was suspended for the remainder of the season and playoffs, and his coach was suspended one match. After the season, he was released.

Birmingham signed him to start the 2021 season and acknowledged the controversy head-on in their press release, saying:

“Legion FC, and every individual associated with the club, strongly condemns all racial and homophobic comments and actions,” said Jay Heaps, Legion FC president and general manager. “We understand the importance of inclusion, respect and the impact our words have on those around us. We also believe that second chances provide opportunities for growth.

Heaps added, “Prior to moving forward, we had extensive conversations with Junior and his former coaches and teammates to better understand his character on and off the field. In addition, we spoke with [San Diego player] Collin Martin and [San Diego Head Coach] Landon Donovan to get their perspective on Legion FC giving Junior this opportunity. Lastly, we needed to look inward and make sure Legion FC has the appropriate structure in place to help our players as people, teammates, athletes, and accepting members of the community.”

In the match I previewed between BHM and Lou City, Flemmings played both wings, and was equally comfortable with either foot both in dribbling and in shooting. That will be a tough test for Hounds defenders. In terms of the advanced metrics, Flemmings leads the team in Goals Added with + 2.64, mostly due to a +1.91 dribbling g+. That’s a bonkers high number for any player. However, he has just 6 goals, 2 assists. What that tells me is that his main asset to the ball club is dribbling, drawing defenders, and dishing. The actions he performs on the field may not immediately lead to goals, but they take so much effort to stop, they frequently lead to a Birmingham goal one or two passes later.

I’ll mention one last player, although he’s hard to miss. At 6 foot 5, center back Alex Crognale is a a big dude. On corner kicks, we’ll get to enjoy watching him bang it out in the low post against Shane Wiedt like this was the Undertaker vs Andre the Giant.

And a final, final note: Birmingham’s field looks like it’s been hosting monster truck shows. There are four stripes of bare ground that inexplicably extend nearly from end line to end line, and goal boxes are high- school-mud-pit-level bad. The grounds, called PNC Field, are at UAB, and clearly suffer from overuse and perhaps poor maintenance. It will certainly have an effect on the game.

Last Game’s Lineup for Birmingham Legion

Van Oekel; Dean, Crognale, Kavita, James; Herivaux, Asiedu, Kasim, Lapa, Flemmings; Brett

Match Information

Date and Time: Sunday, November 7, 5pm

Location: PNC Field (Formerly BBVA Field) on the UAB Campus, Birmingham, Alabama

Streaming: ESPN+

TV: 22 The Point

Live Updates: PittsburghSoccerNow.com

Image of Alex Crognale c/o Birmingham Legion twitter.

—  —  —  —  —  —  —

* – It is apparently called “Magic City” either because some tall buildings sprang up in the 1910s so quick it was ‘like magic’, or because industrial pollution was so bad that the city disappeared and reappeared into smog sometimes ‘like magic’. These are, in my humble opinion, both dumb reasons to have a nickname. I’d rebrand as something cool and Southern like ‘hot sauce capitol’ or ‘the cradle of civil rights’.

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

Pittsburgh Division I College Soccer Schedule (Spring 2021)

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