After a decent campaign in 2020, FC Tucson started off the 2021 season at a snail’s pace. Languishing at 11th place after 9 games, things just didn’t look right. Even with averaging 52% of possession per game across those first nine games, their dominance was nominal. Scoring 10 (1.1 per game) goals in those first 9 games, they were only expected to score about 10 according to xG. It’s not like they were very creative and unlucky. The offense was performing as expected. Meanwhile, they were shipping goals left and right — allowing 16 (1.8 per game) in those first nine games. It was quite a rought start for a great coach and great team. Unfortunately, these situations often lead to changes in staff one way or another. Even though these types of situations are unfortunate, it was a pressure release in a team desperate for a do-over. Once Jon Pearlman took over, everything started to change. There was a bit of a transition period, but once they got over the bumps in the road, Tucson really took off. From June 29th to the end of the season, Tucson averaged 1.8 goals per game while only allowing 1.3 — a significant turn around for the Arizona based team. How did this happen though? Let’s take a quick look at how Pearlman helped steer the ship back on the right track to make a play off push for the first time in club history AND become a candidate for HC of the year.
FC Tucson is one of those teams that plays football worth watching. It’s not always clean, it’s not always efficient, and the goals might not always be for them — but it is almost always exciting. Setting up in either the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, the use of vertical passes (whether bypassing the press via long balls or just good progressive passes between the lines, usually the former was a last resort. They REALLY liked to keep the ball on the ground unless it was a switch of play.) gave way to much shorter passing combinations in the opposition half. Tucson prioritized short passes, flick ons, and dribbles between little passing triangles in order to create chaos and disrupt the defensive organization of the opposition. They tried to stay closer to each other in order to create these triangles to overload the defense. Keeping the ball on the ground was a big priority for Tucson in the opposition half outside of the occasional cross or switch of play. They were all over the pitch, but I circled the areas in which they were most prevalently used. This chaos, especially in the final third created a lot of great opportunities for the offense to work in the box.
There’s a HUGE emphasis on dead ball situations out in the desert of Arizona, with no team currently in League One scoring more from them i.e. Penalties, corners, free kicks, etc (North Texas is the only team in League One history who has scored from dead ball situations more often — by 1 goal). They scored 15 goals from dead ball situations alone last year! Tucson was also home to some of the best dribblers in the league and their ability to win fouls and get dead balls in dangerous positions made it easy for them to score from these situations.
All this promise in their play! So what went wrong at the beginning of the 2021 season? I’ll start out of possession since it was the more pressing issue.
First off, I’d say their biggest issue was defensive organization. The spacing of the last line of defense was constantly being exploited, the midfield trio seemed somewhat lost in transitions and they didn’t do well defending their own box. Seam runs between the FBs and CBs were especially prevalent for teams wanting to score against FC Tucson in the early stages of the season. The back line really struggled with tracking off ball runs. It didn’t seem like the players really knew whose job it was to take care of the runner — or they just didn’t see them. You can see some examples below. Some of this had to do with the tactics themselves: the use of overlapping fullbacks inevitably leaves the space they vacated open. While this was some of the issue as you will see below, the need to close down these spaces and push attackers towards the sideline was very evident. I want to be clear that I feel that this is an issue that was largely fixed later on. Communication was better and it got a lot harder to play through the seams both in terms of making those passes and in terms of players receiving those passes as the season progressed. I just note this because it was an area teams clearly felt they could exploit early on. Attackers were able to be relatively anonymous in an area where they needed to be the opposite.
9 (10, if you count a shot off the woodwork created by a seam run that rebounds to another player who takes another shot and scores) of their 16 goals scored against them in the first part of the season came from seam runs on or off the ball. They really struggled with their defensive positioning and this was only exacerbated by an inability to cut out line breaking passes. They seemed to have no good solution to this problem. Even in their wins, this space was exploited and they suffered because of it.
In attack, they were average early on. They dominated possession in most of their games and even created a decent number of chances. It wasn’t like they were inept here. Really, their attack was FINE, but it was very much overshadowed by struggles off the ball. They did struggle to build from the back from time to time and it forced errant long balls. That’s not to say that long balls weren’t one of the ways they progressed the ball. They were able to bypass pressure with these long balls (They were pretty accurate with these passes too), but they had a hard time building the way they wanted to afterwards because of how spread out they were on the field. While they stretched the defense well, they also stretched themselves and made it harder to engage in their desired short passing game. That being said, players like Calixtro worked very hard to try to rectify this situation.
On the attack, Tucson operated with a front three — A #9 who was heavily involved in the build up (throw back to the days of Dennis and Godoy as “Striker”) and two wingers making runs in behind, holding width, or dribbling into the box. Calixtro was adept at receiving the ball and driving forward or laying off passes to nearby teammates. I’ll touch more on this later, but as the season progressed, the front three of Adams, Corfe, and Calixtro/Perez/Uzo was one of the hardest to deal with offenses in USL League One. The 8s/CMs often made forward runs in behind the #9 as well. FBs would push up into dangerous areas to support on the overlap. Franke and Schenfeld were instrumental in building attacks on the wings, often combining with a CM and winger to quickly move the ball down the field. Below, you can see Calixtro taking up this sort of false nine role mentioned before, allowing Delgado to run in behind and score. This is where you saw glimpses of how dangerous Tucson could be.
When Tucson had players like Calixtro situated between the lines of the defense, you knew something good would happen. Tucson had so many players good in tight spaces, which became a big part of their game plan. The problem for Tucson early on was replicating these offensive patterns on a regular basis. They weren’t particularly dangerous on the dribble (their main strength, in my opinion) and the support runs weren’t often as effective as they could be.
The “final straw” was against Union Omaha on June 26th, when 11th placed Tucson lost 1-0 to Union Omaha. Frustration was clearly setting among the squad with 2 red cards in the previous game alone (6 of the 8 regular season red cards against Tucson came before Pearlman was appointed coach) and a frustrated squad looked like they were running out of ideas against a solid Union Omaha side. They again controlled possession but it didn’t lead to anything, despite the high number of shots they took. After this loss, Pearlman was appointed as head coach on 6/29.
When he came on board, there wasn’t any huge tactical change. They didn’t change formation, most of the same players were still in the starting 11, and even style of play was similar. That being said, there were some key points that made them a more formidable opponent.
OUT OF POSSESSION
Despite still being scored on slightly above league average after Pearlman’s appointment, the defense was significantly improved. The 4-3-3 can inherently be a risky formation in transition moments, especially when your rest defense is often just 3 defenders and 1 midfielder, at best. Even so, losing the ball was much less of a scary thing for Tucson after tweaks were made to defensive spacing and positioning. Obviously things don’t change completely overnight, but you can see in the clips below how much better Tucson dealt with losing the ball and how players sitting in the seam were given much less space to work or forced towards the sideline. Even with the goal by Omaha, I don’t think it would have been a goal except for the goal being wide open. Even though Hurst does a great job of making space for himself, it’s not exactly a cannonball of a shot. Even when shots are taken, they look a lot less dangerous.
In the first phase of opposition build up, one of the wingers would push up into almost a second striker position to put more pressure on the opposition back line while the strong sided winger would drop back to protect space. It was effectively a lopsided 4-3-3/4-2-3-1. You can see in the videos below how much they threw at the ball side of the field, almost leaving the space between the pushed up winger and the FB wide open. The key here is that the “second striker” has to do a good job of blocking passing lanes to switch play – and generally they were successful. Not only that, but the starting point of the strikers was so much more aggressive as the season progressed. Before, the 4-2-3-1 defense kind of sat back and wanted to force teams to play around them. The idea is similar here, yet far more aggressive.
The 4-3-3 can inherently be a risky formation in transition moments, especially when your rest defense is often just 3 defenders and 1 midfielder, at best. After the appointment of Pearlman, you could see the fullbacks operating under the “steering wheel” tactic as popularly phrased by Louis Van Gaal, which basically means that you treat the back line like a wheel. If one FB goes forward, the other stays back. If both FBs want to push forward, a midfielder has to hold the space left behind. While this didn’t always happen, the goal was to provide a solid foundation to protect against the counter. This allowed them to regain or retain possession alot easier. It also allowed them to be more aggressive with their build up passing.
Because Tucson’s structure was just slightly sturdier, it really opened the game for them to be more aggressive in their passing. As Tucson grew in confidence as a unit, you could really see them come into their own. Incisive, quick passes and aggressive dribbling were key components of a reinvigorated Tucson that suddenly became LETHAL in the final third. From the time of Pearlman’s appointment, until the end of the season, no team scored as many goals as Tucson did. They ended up level with Union Omaha for goals by the end of the regular season.
When FC Tucson was on, it seemed like they could always find a goal. They could disorganize opponents with their passing and dribbling, pulling defenders towards the on ball player. This opened up space for CMs and weak side wingers to make runs into space and take shots on goal. They did this so well against Greenville when Dennis makes an untracked run into the box after some great work from Adams and Franke. I’m not sure there was a collective team in the league that was as good at pulling opponents out of position via on the ball actions/dribbling as Tucson was, except MAYBE North Texas. Tucson’s dribbling and combination added so much value to their attack and honestly this lethality in attack took alot of the burden off the defense. Against Omaha, Corfe, Dennis and Uzo literally drag half the defense before Corfe makes a simple pass across goal that Adams is able to get on the end of and put in the net.
Not only did their dribbling pull people out of position, it’s what helped get them in dangerous situations for them to work with dead ball situations. Schenfeld’s dribbling in the box pulls 3 defenders his way and results in a penalty. They were so good at drawing fouls in tight spaces, being awarded 6 penalties, 5 of them coming after Pearlman arrived.
A LOT more could be said about how Corfe and Adams were able affect play through dangerous runs and dribbling, how Dennis’ foot is probably an actual cannon, and how influential the defenders were despite the rough start. Pearlman came in, gave the players belief and made some small tweaks that launched the 11th place team to their first ever playoff berth — and won a playoff game. Despite losing to Omaha, you really can’t look at the progress of this team under Jon and NOT be amazed. Even with Adams and Dennis leaving, impact players like Calixtro, Fox, Delgado, and Corfe are returning for another great season in the desert while newcomers like Tyler Allen will be ready to make an impact as well. If the second half of last season is anything to go by, there will be goals… and there will be A LOT of them. Jon Pearlman and FC Tucson will be a team to watch in 2022.