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Pittsburgh Riverhounds

Preview: Choo! Choo! Welcome El Paso Locomotive

El Paso is in town this week to take on the 6-1-2 (WTL) Riverhounds, and to my mind the teams have one big thing in common – underperformance.

It’s hard to say that the Hounds, who sit comfortably in second place in the Eastern Conference, have underperformed. But I believe they have. They lost a head scratcher in Las Vegas. They looked totally outclassed against Louisville two weeks ago. They fell apart after the 60th minute in Cincinnati in US Open Cup play. They are an incredibly good team – perhaps, talent-wise, the best team in Riverhounds history. But they’ve had some scuffling, unconvincing wins, and some losses that seemed unjustified.

For El Paso, I say they’ve underperformed based simply on the numbers. Locomotive sit eighth in the USL-C Western Conference table after 10 games with a 4-1-5 (WTL) record. Meanwhile they lead the league in goals scored (24), have a goal differential of +7, and have the best player in all of USL in terms of the advanced metric Goals Added. Diego Luna, the soccer player, (not to be confused with the devastatingly handsome Diego Luna, the actor, who starred as Miguel Felix Gallardo in ‘Narcos: Mexico’ or Cassian Andor in ‘Rogue One’) has clocked an outrageous +2.62 Goals Added (aka G+) so far this year, according to advanced stats website American Soccer Analysis. That’s 0.96 G+ higher than the *second best player on the list*. He’s paired up in midfield with the ninth best player in USL on G+, Dylan Mares. See what I mean? On paper, El Paso are world beaters. In reality, they’re a .500 ballclub.

This is yet another game in which the Hounds are playing a team they’ve never faced before. Which used to feel like a big deal. Except it’s the USL, so new teams, conference re-alignments, teams dropping down a division, moving up a division, or folding altogether is pretty much an everyday thing here. I’m starting to think it’d make more sense to note when we’ve actually played a team before, rather than noting the noobs.

Tactics and Personnel

Two things to know about El Paso from a tactical standpoint.

First, they play in one of the most aggressive and attacking formations in soccer, the 4-3-3. For folks who aren’t addicted to playing EA Sports FIFA … (soon to be renamed EA Sports FC, because EA realized the video game will succeed even if you call it Dog Poop Soccer Unlimited as long as you pay licensing fees to leagues to get teams and players – they do not need to pay FIFA $150 million for the rights to the name ‘FIFA’ and the name ‘World Cup’. That’s right. For a cool low 9-figures, they got zero teams and and zero player names) … sorry, long digression, where was I? Right. If you’ve ever played video game soccer, you know that the 4-3-3 allows you to overload the central midfield with three mids, which is nice when you face an opposition in a 4-4-2. The 4-3-3 also gives you two wide attacking wingers, which allows you attack down the wings with speed, or play lots of crosses, or push six men or women into attack. If you’re using modern, high-flying fullbacks, teams in a 4-3-3 will regularly have as many as eight players  just going gonzo in an open play attack into the final third. Very aggressive, but of course, all that offense can leave teams exposed in defense.

Second, El Paso play possession soccer. In every game this year, they have more than 50% possession, and in 6 of their 10 games, they had more than 60% possession.

That’s *very* high. They *lost* 5-4 to Las Vegas and had 73% possession, which kind of boggles my mind a bit. It means that there are three clear ways to be them. You can be the first team this year to deny them possession, and take them out of their familiar rhythm. Or you can choose to let them have possession, and beat them with blistering counterattacks. Or lastly, you can take the lead early and bunker – let them have all the possession in the world. As long as you keep that lead, it doesn’t really matter. Possession without purpose, as you can tell by their below-.500 record, is not necessarily a good tactic.

Diego Luna, the soccer player, is an 18-year old US Youth International formerly with the Barcelona residence academy and San Jose Earthquakes. The important part of that outrageous +2.62 G+ rating I mentioned above is that it is overwhelming built off of his +1.68 Dribbling G+; again, a crazy high number. He simple slays his foes on the dribble. Simply put, the Hounds have to close ranks in the final third and zonally mark him closely, or double team him. Or he will hurt them. Luna has 3 goals, 2 assists so far this year.

Hounds fans will immediately notice former Pittsburgh forward Christiano François on the pitch. ‘Cheetah’, as he is known, hasn’t found his groove yet with El Paso; he had 11 goals, 6 assists for Miami FC last year in 2166 minutes, but through 488 minutes for the Locos, he has zero goals, 1 assist. Also, I’m gonna say the perhaps harsh thing: François is on his sixth team in six years, despite being a productive player in all six of his stops (Rochester, Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Reno, Miami, and El Paso). We have to assume that there’s … something wrong with a player that never stays more than a hot minute with one team.

Salty veteran Yuma, a Spanish defender, has served as team captain in most of the matches this year. The 36 year old spent much of his career in the Spanish 2nd and 3rd division. He’s been a bit unlucky in that three of his former teams: Ontinyent, Rayo OKC, and Puerto Rico FC, no longer exist. Rayo OKC, you’ll remember, was a short-lived experiment in NASL. They experienced an infamous moment in American soccer history when one of their minority owners literally loaded up the turf field and drove off with it in the middle of the night in August of 2016. Yup, that was Yuma’s team.

And once again, there’s a former Colorado Rapid in a Soccer Rabbi preview, as El Paso have former ‘Pids former Luis Solignac on the squad. He was mostly a dud for the Rapids, although to be fair, he was in  Colorado in 2015, when nothing was going right, before moving on to Chicago Fire and then to the USL. Solignac is a big, strong former winger with a crisp, accurate delivery, and he’s still pretty quick at the age of 31. Lucho has 6 goals; 5 from open play, 1 from a PK, on an Expected Goals rate of 3.82 – that tells you his finishing is above-average, so watch out. He mostly plays as the center forward these days for El Paso.

Last player to note is goalkeeper Evan Newton. I use the ‘Moonlight Graham’ and ‘Crash Davis’ metaphors a lot for soccer players – those are baseball pop-culture references to ballplayers that almost, but not quite, got a shot at the big leagues. Evan Newton is one of those guys. He’s 34 years old, and he’s officially played for 13 different teams. This year, he’s on loan to Locomotive from Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS. He has on been on the squad for Houston Dynamo, San Jose Earthquakes, and NYCFC. He has 14,869 minutes in USL. He has zero minutes, zero games in MLS, despite being on the bench or the roster for five years. He’s clearly very good, but apparently, juuuust not good enough.

Sigh. Somedays, Evan, I can really relate to that.

Last Week’s Starting XI

Newton; Borelli, Yuma, Bahner, Brockbank; Ryan, Luna, Calvillo; Gomez Gomez, Solignac, François

Match Info

Riverhounds (6-2-1) vs. El Paso Locomotive FC (4-5-1)
Date: Saturday, May 14
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Highmark Stadium
Odds: Hounds -103 / Draw +275 / El Paso +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: #PITvELP

image c/o El Paso Locomotive 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

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