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Preview: Birmingham Legion in town

The last time the Hounds were set to play Birmingham Legion … we didn’t. Pittsburgh was supposed to take on the Legion in November last year in the first round of the playoffs. Of course, the team had a Covid outbreak and had to forfeit instead, ruining yet another playoffs for Hounds fans. In the past four years, the Riverhounds have been a top team that, for various reasons, hasn’t found playoff success. It’s starting to get irritating. Maybe we can use that frustrated energy and take it out on Birmingham. Maybe I’m projecting.

I’m mad at Birmingham mostly because I wrote this really great preview for them last year which of course nobody read because the game was cancelled not long after the article dropped. So some of that preview is going into re-runs, much like episodes of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ when I was a kid. Man, that show sucked. Hopefully this preview sucks less.

Personnel and Tactics

The Legion tinkered with a few formations in 2021 – 5-3-2 and 4-3-3 – but played in a 4-2-3-1 for the final month or so. In 2022, they’ve used a 3-4-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Last year, their calling card as a team was defense. Here’s a chart:

This chart is care of, 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 in 2021 on 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+ 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’s 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.

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


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.

Birmingham also has former Riverhound Tommy Vancaeyezeele. Tommy’s only started in four matches, all at left center back. You remember what Tommy brings: good distribution out of the back, good defensive positioning, good open field ability to keep up with pacey runners. Tommy’s not as solid in aerial duels or in one-on-one defensive battles, and he occasionally would get pulled out of position by going on the attack. If the Hounds can rip a steal from Birmingham while Tommy’s upfield, they might get a 3-on-2 situation.

It wouldn’t be a Soccer Rabbi preview 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 was the victim of an end-of-season purge. He went back to Charlotte Independence and continued to be a solid all-around playmaker and number 10. Birmingham used him as a striker for the last three weeks. I don’t recall him playing striker much in the past. Before that, against Detroit City, BHM played Juan Agudelo, the former long-time MLS winger who spent most of his career with New England, up top at striker. Enzo’s total minutes have been declining the past few years, and he’s lost a step, but he can still put a ball through a mail slot from 30 yards out on a dead run if you let him, so… don’t let him.

Lastly, 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 tamp things down a bit. In 1,403 minutes last season, Lapa had 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.

Hopefully we’ll have a nice crowd for this match like last time. The rain is forecast to stop this afternoon, finally. Hopefully Hounds fans will feel like coming out after bailing water from our waterlogged basements for this game.

Last Week’s Starting XI

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

Match Info

Riverhounds (5-2-1) vs. Birmingham Legion FC (3-3-3)
Date: Saturday, May 7
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds +102 / Draw +260 / Birmingham +195 (Bet Rivers)
Tickets: Ticketmaster
TV: 22 The Point
Streaming: ESPN+
Live statistics: 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, 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

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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