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Preview: Memphis means BBQ! And footie on a baseball field

According to the National Weather Service, you will wake up to this preview to find a lot of snow on your front steps, which will be discombobulating because it is USL opening day, and that’s supposed to feel vaguely springlike. Alas, Fridays warm temps were but a tease.

Riverhounds soccer is back though, baby! So who gives a fig about the weather. You got Hounds, you got a pint, you got all yinz need.

John Krysinsky, Matt Popchock, Jordan Smith and I tried to download our collective USL prognostications into the metaverse yesterday on ‘Sounding Off on Soccer’, and I encourage you to listen to our thoughts on the upcoming season. Maybe you even want to watch, although on video I think I look like an awkward pasty white dude in my basement making goofy faces at zoom on accident. So maybe put on your earbuds and listen while you shovel the new snow instead, kids.

Before I preview Memphis 901 FC, which I accidentally googled as ‘Memphis 301’ and ‘Memphis 601’ first, just a quick reminder of why we are playing them again in 2022 after not having played them since 2019. The USL Championship competition format has, once again, changed. In 2019, the Hounds were in the 18-team Eastern Conference, which included Memphis, and so we played them. USL in 2019 also included Nashville (now in MLS), North Carolina (now in USL One), Charlotte (USL One), Ottawa Fury (defunct), St Louis FC (defunct), Swope Park (changed names, went to MLS Next Pro) and Bethlehem (changed names, went to MLS Next Pro).

In 2020, USL made some weird micro divisions because of Covid and we got to play Union II and Hartford seven-zillion times (but not Memphis), and then we lost to Louisville City to open the playoffs, and then the USL Final was cancelled because everyone had Covid.* In 2021, USL decided to play in a four division format, because there were a lot of teams. Annnnnnnd in 2022, we’re … back to a unified Eastern Conference.

This is mostly, probably, not USL’s fault. MLS decided to form a new reserve league called ‘MLS Next Pro’, which has the benefit of taking most of the youthful junior academy MLS teams that had near-zero attendance in the past and dropping them into a separate league (that probably no one will watch, again.) Unfortunately, it means that the USL Eastern Conference has only 13 teams now, and the league needed to revise its regular season structure for the fourth consecutive year, which is absurd. And as noted above, a lot of the teams we were accustomed to are gone.

I think a lot of Hounds fans are simply used to this level of inchoate chaos. I don’t care for it in the least. Call me crazy, but I like to wake up every morning knowing that my glasses are still on the nightstand and my coffee mugs have not been hidden in the basement. Who moved my cheese? Why is my underwear on inside-out? What happened to Wilmington Hammerheads and Richmond Kickers? This level of confusion and disorientation might work for some of you – especially those of you who get plowed at the Steel Army tailgate pounding IC Lights to the tune of ‘Thunderstruck’. It does not work for me.**

So, anyhow, we’re playing Memphis once again after a 3 1/2 year lay off.

Tactics and Personnel

Memphis head coach Ben Pirmann coached his first full season last year for the neon signed barbecue-eaters (note: not their official nickname) and led them to a 14-8-10 (WTL) record, good enough for third in the Central Division and a playoff spot; the first in the team’s brief history. They were then offed in the first round by Charlotte, so they may want to build off that little baby step there for this season.

Tactically towards the end of 2021 they lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with a modest but not impressive 47 Goals For and a modest but not impressive 42 Goals Against. Their center forward last year, Kyle Murphy, banged in 20 goals; but he departed in December for Miami FC, so that’s an area of concern.

I could have spent additional time looking at tape of last years team to detect tendencies and playing styles, but, like a lot of USL teams from year to year, there was a ton of turnover between 2021 and 2022. By my count, the team has only four of last years starters back on the pitch for this season, which means everything will likely look and feel different.

The veteran leadership of the squad falls to Trinidadian midfielder Leston Paul (pictured above), Ivorian midfielder Laurent Kissiedou, and goalkeeper John Berner, a former MLS backup with Colorado Rapids. Kissiedou had 4 goals, 5 assists in 2021, while Paul racked up 2323 minutes. Paul had 0 goals, 1 assist, and his -0.91 Goals Added, an advanced stat that measures overall impact in all the actions a player is involved in, demonstrates that he wasn’t great at anything in particular. Berner, meanwhile, split time with three other goalkeepers (including former Hound Kyle Morton). He started 6 matches in 2021, which is more than the 2 matches he had from 2017 to 2020. Yikes.***

There are some new pieces on the team that might be pretty decent. Jeremy Kelly played for the Colorado Rapids in 2020 and was on loan in 2021. He once did this, which was super dope:

Memphis lists him as a midfielder instead of a defender, so I think that’ll be interesting. Former New York Red Bulls draftee and player Rece Buckmaster is here too. He could be a solid every-game piece for Memphis. Zach Carroll, who is a returning player, and Niall Logue, from Northern Ireland, will likely center the backline.

Finally back to that big gaping whole at striker left by Kyle Murphy – I think they’ll probably try to fill it with either Derek Dodson, or David Egbo, or both. Dodson scored a ton of goals (32 to be exact) for Georgetown in his collegiate career from 2017 to 2021, and had 5 goals and 2 assists for Hartford last year. Egbo is on loan from Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS, and was the 9th overall pick in the 2021 MLS Superdraft.

In addition to all these players I’ve named, Memphis has filled out the roster with academy kids. I assume they won’t be thrown out on the field to start the season opener against the deeply experienced Riverhounds, but you never know. Perhaps the likes of guys like Matthew Brucker (18 years old), Aaron O’Malley (18 years old) and Max Talley (17 years old) are ready to be this team’s babyfaced assassins, right now.

If my description of the underwhelming goal and minute tallies and my lukewarm assessment gave you the impression that I’m not super high on this team, then we’re on the same wavelength, my friend. I’m not really impressed with any one player on this team, let alone all of them together. The front office seems to be hoping that they’ve found some diamonds in the rough or some potential breakout stars who just need a chance. On the face, I see a lot of guys that other teams took a look at for several years and passed on – and I think that bodes ill. They definitely haven’t played together as long as the core of the Riverhounds team, and so these Memphis-ians look overmatched for the season opener.

A last note before we go – or more specifically a reminder. Memphis play in a triple-A baseball stadium, and that’s never really ideal. The pitch can be pretty ugly in the ‘we covered the dirt infield with some really crappy sod’ end, and all baseball stadium pitches tend to play narrow, which can result in a lot of headed balls and ugly, tight, kick-in-the-shins type scrums. So even if the Hounds dominate as I expect them to, it probably won’t be pretty. Also, there is no indication that Memphis has plans to move into a soccer specific facility at the present moment.

Sigh. USL gonna USL.

And we absolutely love it.

Predicted Lineups

Memphis 901:

Berner

Seagrist, Carroll, Logue, Buckmaster;

Kelly, Boyce, Paul, Kissiedou;

Egbo, Dodson

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

Silva

Rovira, Wiedt, M. Williams, Peters, Dambrot;

Griffin, Forbes;

Ciccerone, D. Kelly, Dixon

Match Information

Date and Time: Saturday, March 12, 7pm EST

Location: Autozone Field, Memphis, TN

Streaming: ESPN+

TV: 22 The Point

Live Updates: PittsburghSoccerNow.com

Image of Memphis 901’s Leston Paul c/o Memphis 901 via twitter

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* That all sucked.

** If you’ve never read a game preview by the rabbi before and you are currently wondering ‘What is he rambling about? Is this normal?’: the answer is ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Yes. Get used to it, bubbeleh’.

*** There are two other goalkeepers on the Memphis roster – Trey Muse and Drew Romig – and Muse was added in just the last few days. One might argue that Romig, a former UNC-Chapel Hill keeper, might be a very good candidate to start between the pipes this season. Or at least, a better candidate than perennial backup Berner. Yes. That thought has crossed my mind, too.

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

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