The Pearlman Effect: How a Mid-Season Change Pushed FC Tucson Into The Playoffs

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.

This is *not* per 90, so results are slightly skewed. That being said, it’s not hard to note how Calixtro behaved in this Tucson setup. Heavily involved in the progression of play instead of trying to get on the end of goals.

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.

IN POSSESSION

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.

Players that Can Make the Jump to The Championship Pt. 5: Why Do We See So Many Long Balls in L1? Why Awareness and Decision Making is Such An Important Part of A Great Player

The beauty of soccer/football is that there is no one “right” way to play. Some teams like to defend high and press intensely, some like to sit deep and force opponents to break them down. Some like ground possession and progression, while others use long balls and aerial duels as a means of moving the ball down the field. I could keep going, naming different tactical decisions but the point I want to make is: they’re all valid. They’re all a means to the end of denying space to your opponent and maximizing space for yourself… oh and for winning. That being said, not all good things are good all the time. Today, John from @USLTactics on Twitter wrote a great article about the gap between L1 and the championship and the implications that has on players trying to move up which you can read here.

The question I wanted to ponder and MAYBE answer today is “When is something that can be tactical… not?” John brings up playing style differences between the leagues in his article and notes that League One averages 5% more long balls and a 2% lower efficiency in saves among goalkeepers. One of these can be tactical and one probably isn’t – but still very much applies to what I want to talk about today. That being said, long balls are a tricky subject and I wanted to expound upon some reasons for the gap in quality and why the long ball metric is actually very telling.

So what is a long ball? Basically, a long ball is a long pass, usually off the ground (I believe it HAS to be off the ground to count statistically), that typically skips the midfield in order to quickly get the ball into a more dangerous area. I wrote a little bit last week about how Greenville uses long balls in their build up frequently here. They can be valuable tools for teams that defend really deep or they just be a good idea when a player in possession recognizes dangerous spaces to pass into to put the defense in danger. Even so, long balls aren’t always a great idea — and I don’t mean that from a tactical perspective.

On October 3rd, Man City and Liverpool played quite possibly the best game of Premier League football in 2021. The game ended in a 2-2 draw after a thriller of a second half in which all four goals were scored. After the game, Jürgen Klopp was interviewed and he gave an honest review of the teams performance, specifically in the first half, saying this: “[Man City] had chances, they didn’t score from that but what that gives you is a bad feeling, this bad feeling leads to not playing football, so then we had those long balls which made no sense, one or two of them maybe made sense – all the rest I didn’t see the reason for.”

Klopp makes an interesting admission about his players’ decisions — the long balls weren’t his idea and they came from an insecurity on the ball, a lack of ideas, and frustration. Once they got their heads back in the second half, Liverpool took off and what a 2nd half that was. So how does this apply to League One? While long balls were prevalent tactical decisions for a couple of teams, they weren’t necessarily the go to for the League in how teams wanted to build up their play. While yes, there is a part of this that involves defenses not being able to deal with these runs/passes as well as higher level defenders, there’s also the truth that things like long balls, clearances, etc. aren’t always helpful decisions and come from a place of insecurity, lack of confidence, or just not knowing what to do next. This is why it’s so hard/next to impossible to scout defenders primarily based off of stats. A clearance just means you kicked the ball out of the penalty area. Did it get your team some rest/safety or did you boot it out of bounds or to an opponent and give the ball right back to the opposition? Just because a player clears the ball a lot, doesn’t mean they should. Same for long balls. Okay, you passed the ball long a lot. Was it helpful? Did it actually help move your team up the field or were you just out of ideas and flustered? Even if this ball was completed, did you put a teammate in a bad position when you had better options to progress the ball, possibly closer to you? All of these are questions to consider when thinking about the viability of the decisions players are making. Stats are a great way to get an idea of a player’s skill set within a tactical set up, but they don’t tell the whole story.

This is where I think a lot of the gap in quality between the leagues is most prevalent. It doesn’t lie in technical ability or goal scoring ability. It doesn’t lie in passing range or your ability to make tackles. The gap is largest in the quality of “decision making”. Many really talented players never make it as high as they could because they don’t seek to take in their surroundings or make good decisions. This is why players like Aaron Molloy and Greg Hurst in particular deserve their moves to the championship. It’s clear that they are good soccer players. The difference between them and many other REALLY GOOD soccer players in League One is their ability to consistently make good decisions on and off the ball and make them quickly. The best players and teams are aware of what they need to do, aware of their surroundings and can make good decisions quickly to have an advantage over the opposition.

Can this be fixed? Of course—if a player wants to do so. When players are younger, many players can get by on their technical ability, speed, and strength to make them seem better than their opponents. But as the level gets higher, players can no longer simply rely on these traits and expect to play on the same level. Many L1 coaches do an incredible job of preparing players to move up to higher levels by helping them to make better, quicker decisions. Taking a look at the three coaches who were up for coach of the year and how their teams performed (not just on the table, but as cohesive units on the field), you know that we’ve got people who are able to help players improve in ever facet of their game. John Harkes, Jay Mims and Jon Pearlman are just a few of many coaches who are seeking to grow players to be all they can be. As we get more quality coaches like these men, the future continues to look bright.

The great Xavi Hernandez puts it this way: “Most of (my opponents) were quicker and stronger than me. Decision-making is what controls our actions. Some players have a mental top speed of 80 while others are capable of reaching 200. I always tried to reach 200.” The implication i want to make here is not that some players are dumb, but simply they rely more on their ability than their brain. The ability to make good decisions more quickly comes from just knowing the game more, trusting your abilities, and seeking to understand everything that is happening around you. I want to be clear, I don’t think League One is full of dumb players. If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, you know I think quite the opposite. That being said, even the most intelligent players have to grapple with the reality that in order to be better, they must think more quickly. Knowing what you want to do next or what your opponent will do gives you an edge when you literally have half a second to make a decision most of the time. The key thing I want to nail home is that players who learn to think quicker, constantly having an understanding of their surroundings and how they might change, get better. As players get better, the game gets faster. As the game gets faster, you again have to work hard to think more quickly with accurate information. The cycle continues on and on.

What am I trying to get at? I’m not really sure… I do think the championship is a place where players who have learned to think more quickly will thrive because that’s what most other players are doing. As League One grows, this will change slowly but surely. For now, I think this is the greatest issue facing players if they want to make a move to the championship. Not their technical ability, goal scoring ability, or I’m even base game intelligence— but their ability to use their game intelligence to their advantage by just being able to make decisions faster. That sounds easier said than done, especially coming from a guy who has the coordination of a giraffe. But I truly believe the key to good soccer is empowering players to trust their intelligence, holding them to a standard of understanding what is happening around them and what role they play in that, and what happens next. Just like anything else, the only way this changes is by doing it — over and over again. Coaches with high expectations and ambition are taking over League One — namely people like Eamon Zayed who was featured in John’s article. As more coaches consistently hold players to higher standards and empower players to believe they can hold themselves to these standards, League One will continue to grow. To this end, I can’t wait to see how our communities and the players who make our teams what they are are impacted as they seek continued excellence. I hope this made sense and wasn’t just simple rambling. If you want some examples of quick decision making combined with intelligence, take a look at the linked articles throughout this blog.

Greenville Triumph Tactical Analysis: The Two V’s of Triumph Soccer

Ron Atkinson, John Harkes’s former coach on two occasions, was a very successful coach before the turn of the century. Coaching teams like Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, West Brom, and others, Atkinson created quite the coaching legacy. Harkes enjoyed a good spell with him at Sheffield Wednesday in the early 90’s, reaching the league cup final by upsetting Manchester United, winning english goal of the year, and helping his side win promotion to the first division. One of Atkinson’s (Fun fact: he’s otherwise known as Mr. Bojangles. As a person from the south, this feels like a name to strive for) most famous quotes is this: “Well, Clive, [Football] is all about the two M’s: Movement and Positioning.” While this is slightly infuriating to read, it’s sort of true. Football tends to rise and fall on these two things both in and out of possession. These are what might be considered paramount principles of the game. As I was thinking about what some “paramount” principles were for Greenville, I realized there were two V’s that made Greenville what they were: The Gregg Berhalter Passion Project (Verticality), and Pressure. Now as we start, I want to make my regular disclaimer: I am not John Harkes, Rick Wright, or Alex Blackburn. So, I reserve the right to be totally wrong or even just kinda wrong. This is me trying to understand what I see in GVL’s game and putting it on paper.

Obviously, when thinking about a team’s tactical set-up across a season, it’s unlikley that you can be specific. This is because every team/game presents different tactical issues, different personnel within your own team have different strengths, and your team will inevitably have to find new ways to affect the game as other teams figure them out. Due to injuries and a man fresh off completing that PRO LICENSE (Congrats John! Also, it’s probably mostly the injuries part.), we saw a lot of adjustments across the season. Greenville played in 7 (SEVEN) different nominal formations with a ton of player rotation. So today, I obviously won’t be giving specifics about how Greenville play, but rather some basic principles and things I find interesting about their play style. I’ll break it up into two parts: In Possession and Out of Possession. We’ll look at the positions players tend to take up, how the play is built, how we get the ball into the final third/create chances, and how we recover when losing the ball. One thing to note about Greenville is that “positions” in a greenville set-up are not an “I” thing, but a “we” thing. In and out of possession, players rotate and take up different positions to force different looks on opponents. It can be quite the task to deal with the chaos of a Greenville side on any given day, but especially on good ones. That being said, in the midst of the chaos, there are all kinds of tactical instructions that actually make Greenville feel remarkably simple. I want to look at and highlight THOSE things, because they are what give Greenville some of their identity. Things like verticality (i’ve heard that if you say verticality in a mirror three times, Gregg Berhalter shows up for a press conference. I want to be clear: I don’t hate or dislike Gregg, I just can’t hear or see the word verticality without thinking about the behind the back pass extraordinaire), numerical superiorities, and the denial of central spaces to the opposition.

In Possession

From goal kicks, Greenville is pretty unassuming. You look at their formation and think “great! looks like a pretty standard back four. I can deal with that.” It doesn’t last, my friend. In the first phase of possession, Greenville generally will do one of two things: A short pass to the cb’s just on either side of the GK to start building from the back or a long ball out to wide to move the ball down the field more quickly. These aren’t the exact shapes that Greenville take up in this first phase, but you can generally bet that Greenville will look to get the ball wide as quickly as possible to move down the field. This is true even in other nominal formations. I’ll use the Toronto game from July as an example a good bit as it shows the simple intentions of Greenville despite the fact that the nominal formation was a 3-5-2 with Gavilanes as one of the three CMs. This game had Polak and Murillo playing as the wide CBs with Fricke in the center of a back three. Even with the nominal back three, Greenville played with Polak and Fricke as the two CBs while Murillo and Goodall took up the usual fullback positions in the first phase of build-up. While this was usually true, there were times when midfielders or fullbacks would drop into the back line to create numerical superiorities with three players, especially against formations with 2 strikers. This is meant to be a way of preventing the press by always having a free man available to receive and progress the ball into the next part of the field. Next is when things start to get weird whether we’re in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, or the 1-1-8 of the good old days.

Now we come to what Greenville is known for — Long balls and verticality. Greenville LOVED to stretch the pitch with their forwards and wingers pushing defenses back, forcing them into uncomfortable situations. Whether through long balls or line breaking passes, Greenville was consistenly able to move down the field quickly as a unit to put pressure on opponents. This stretching of the pitch allowed for some very interesting things: 1.) CBs were able to drive and carry the ball into space, typically into the halfspaces of the field in order to put pressure on the opponents defensive shape, which was already pinned by overloading/creating even numbers on the ball side of the field.

2.)In transition, this allowed for alot of space to open up in the midfield, allowing the ball to move from central areas to wide areas or vice versa very quickly. There were a lot of in to out/out to in patterns in Greenville’s ground passing game that stretched defenses horizontally after they were already stretched vertically, not unlike a taffee machine.

And 3.) Greenville’s long ball game required them to be good at winning the second ball after an aerial duel, even if they didn’t win the first. Dynamic movement and positioning (ATKINSON FROM DEEP) enabled them to close down and win those second balls to keep possession alive. This is also how Greenville scored the only goal in their October away game to Omaha.

Let’s be honest, sometimes the tactic was just “punt that sucker long” — and it worked. If you can’t tell, I love to over-exaggerate my generalizations when i’m writing. It’s my passion.

Despite the fact that Greenville can be very quick in transition, they’re not your average lob it up field and hope kind of team, even though it can sometimes feel that way. Greenville actually used their long balls really effectively to put pressure on opponents in possession, creating overloads and making the pitch small for oppositing teams. This allowed them to have dominant periods of possession that forced teams into low blocks and tough defensive scenarios. I’ve charted out some basic ideas of what a Greenville formation looks like in possession. It changed from time to time, when home or away and based on changing personnel, but the basic shapes of 3-3-4/2-4-4 and 3-2-5/2-3-5 were very common. As I said earlier, you saw 3 at the back when it seemed like they would be under a lot of pressure from the opposing forwards, especially when the opposing team pressed with a front two.

These three pictures sort of denote some formational set-ups seen when Greenville have possession of the ball (I do think the LCB is a little too far over in the middle picture, but when a member of the back 3 pushed forward, this was possible so I left it).There were little triangles and squares of players all over the field to help aid progression forward. On the ball side of the field, A couple of things tended to happen. There was always had someone holding width or running on the overlap while the other drove or held possession inside. This was very common between Ibarra and Mohamed later in the season. They rotated well and caused all sorts of problems for opposing defenses with their runs/carries. Not only did you have those rotations out on the ball side of the field, but the middle three players tended to gravitate towards the ball side to help with switches of play or facilitating incisive passes into the final third. Sometimes, the CMs would make runs in the space between the width being held and the strikers to help create overloads.

As you see above, it’s kind of rinse and repeat on switches of play. Lee does a great job skipping passing options to move the ball across the field more quickly while Ibarra and Polak combine quite nicely (Side note: This video is still so funny to me. Our Left Back is literally out here rouletting like Zidane in the final third before putting in a nice ball for the chance to be created. Kind of elite to be honest.) The defense is still trying to shift over to take care of them, which they aren’t able to do quickly enough. That quick pass from Lee is what opens up the defense to this weak side attack from Ibarra and Polak. You see again the principle of winning 2nd balls with good positioning. You might say, everyone wants to win the second ball after a duel, but not everyone has the highest number of completed Long Balls per game in the league while having the 4th highest percentage. Winning those second balls is essential for a team that so often makes use of the verticality available to them even if they’re good at winning them the first time. I’ve talked a lot about other facets of possession, especially how our fbs positioned themselves this season, which you can see here.

One bonus clip of possession with the goal against NC, which will forever be one of my favorite goals. Abdi crossing from the “Alexander Arnold” part of the field (as it should forever be known) into Gavilanes with the chip. Footy Scran would do anything to have that chip shared on their account (this is a joke about English people loving potatoes *insert laugh track since no one will laugh*). Everyone does such a good job here of ripping apart NC’s defense.

What makes the goal so great to me is that not only is the overload done so well to make the RB second guess before losing Gavilanes, but Lomis is wide open as well, which splits the mind of the defenders. Since Ibarra has pushed up and the LM has no idea where he is, the LB is forced to keep an eye on both Ibarra and Lomis. He’s too wide on the ball side to really do anything meaningful if Lomis gets the ball. You can’t let the second highest goal contributor in 2021 have this much space in the seam to just — hang out in. With McLean showing deep and pulling the RCB out of the line, there is effectively 1 defender that has any meaningful way of recovering this ball. Anywho, I love this goal. Moving on.

Out Of Possession

Even though possession and goals are all kinds of fun to talk about, all good things must come to an end. And for Greenville, not having the ball was more likely than having the ball. Possession was a means to an end for Greenville, not the end itself. Always content to move quickly up the field to create chances, there wasn’t always a guarantee that it would be held onto for long periods of time. So what did Greenville do when they lost the ball? Obviously it would depend slightly on the opponent, but often they simply sought to win the ball back as quickly as possible. Their counterpressing was generally good, seeking to have as many people as possible ready to jump on the ball after a loss of possession. With the 2nd highest amount of possession regained in the final 3rd, you could see that their goal with these long balls and pressing was to create chances by constantly keeping the back line on their toes.

Typically, Greenville players are only tasked with pressing upon loss of possession and not so much in the first phase of the opposition build up, but not always. This ball oriented press forces quick movement of the ball with players available to help get the ball out of danger. You’ll see this press all across the field, but it’s most potent in the opposition half. The thing about defense or being out of possession is that it’s just as much part of your attack as your passing combinations to move the ball down the field. Positioning players in good positions to win the ball back and transition quickly or pounce upon loose balls was key to a pretty annoying Greenville defense. Here, the press forces a dangerous turnover that McLean easily puts away.

What if they can’t win the ball quickly though? Greenville was not afraid to “abandon” the ball oriented press if it wasn’t working, quickly dropping into their mid/low block 4-4-2. There were a couple of notable exceptions like the beginning of the above Madison game in which Greenville started out defending in what I believe was a 4-2-3-1 shape and the final against Omaha that was more of a 4-1-4-1. The one area where Greenville tended to struggle was in recovery transitions. Because of the intensity of the ball oriented press, it could sometimes leave players out of position. This allowed opposition teams the freedom to launch forward into space if Greenville doesn’t execute properly. I think the most notable example of this was the Charlie Dennis goal at Legacy Early College. Our new fullback, Noah Franke gets on the ball for the “bad team” (it’s okay, he’s on “good team” now), drives into the space left by the pressing left side and puts a cut back into the box for Charlie Dennis who aptly lost his marker and puts it in the net. That being said, if Greenville execute well and deny quick progression you would TYPICALLY see something like below:

If they weren’t going to win the ball back, they were going to go ahead and tend to their defensive responsiblities. Greenville often set up in this man to man oriented 4-4-2 with one striker staying high along the shoulder of the last defender while the other, who was sometimes the AM or a winger or CM, would drop a little deeper. They compressed the field, marking all players on the ball side aggressively, content to leave the weak side players open. They were confident in their ability to shuttle their defense over quickly enough before the weak side wide player had time to do anything significant.

Below, I’m going to refer back to the bizarre 3-5-2 base formation game against Toronto FC II. Greenville moved back into the 4-4-2 out of possession with the WB/midfielder (Goodall) becoming the LB and the RCB (Murillo) becoming the RB. Gavilanes moves wide into the LM spot while Ibarra and Lomis stay up top — unless they rotate (they do it a lot so I mention it a lot). They man mark aggressively, attempting to force bad passes and keep the ball wide. If the ball gets inside, it’s closed down aggressively by the CMs or CBs. Greenville were comfortable to keep their shape and prevent the ball from progressing into the penalty area. They didn’t do this as well as they have in previous years, but that is largely due to the fact that we had to play people out of position for an entire stretch of the season.

Despite facing fewer shots, GVL was about as likely to be scored on as NCFC. I guess it’s a good thing they didn’t allow 452 shots to be taken.

Obviously the 4-4-2 has it’s weaknesses. Despite the fact that the whole point of a 4-4-2 is to deny central progression in the first phase of build up and move people into wide areas, it’s pretty easy to overload the wide areas if you pin the right people. This is why Greenville had to be more aggressive in closing down balls and keeping numerical superiority. In moments that they weren’t able to do this, they tended to be punished. Above, Toronto does a great job of rotating with passes out-to-in that were much easier because the man marking wasn’t successful/tight. It gets them a free kick in a dangerous area.

All throughout Greenville’s play you see the desire to move forward quickly, stretch defenses, and put pressure on opponents in and out of possession. This the two V’s of Triumph Soccer: Verticality and Pressure. If Greenville are able to win the ball back, you can refer back to the beginning of the “in possession” section. This is the cycle of soccer. possession, transition, attack, we lose it, transition again, get attacked, recover the ball, so on and so forth until the final whistle. When it comes to Greenville, i’m always going to be biased, but what the coaching staff and players are building in Greenville is so fun and i’m so excited for the future. If you’ve got any feedback, i’d love to hear it. I’m not the Head Performance Analyst at Man City or anything like that, so I’m not opposed to feedback from anyone and everyone. I’d love thoughts, questions, corrections, etc.

One last note: Does this play make Fricke the *Second* outfield player to play goalie and make a save or are we not going to allow it since Christensen was still on the field? I guess we’ll let Hemmings and Christensen answer that one.

Greenville’s Right Back Conundrum

The departure of Abdi Mohamed is a big loss coming into the 2022 season for the Triumph. I’ve written about this before, but the fullbacks were a huge part of Greenville’s system last season and Abdi played an important role both in getting the ball to the final 3rd/into the box and in defending in a stout Greenville Defense. You can read about that here. 

Abdi in this situation is the high and wide circle on the right side of the field. He often held width or rotated with wingers to create chances in the final third.

Abdi truly did it all from that Right-back role, sometimes filling out a back 3 in longer periods of possession and more often than not, interchanging with the winger along the last line of the opposition to create chances in the final third. While he was quite solid in possession, he was just as strong when defending that right side of the field. Abdi Mohamed even rescued points for Greenville on multiple occasions last season, most notably the last second headed clearance against Omaha to secure the 3 points. Free kicks and corners from the left side of the field were also important things that Abdi took care of ( Greenville pretty consistently used in-swinging corners and free kicks upon the introduction of Gavilanes to the squad regularly, but I’ll cover that another day) and that’s another area that has to be filled in the squad, though not necessarily by the incoming right back. 

I want to highlight four right-backs who could bolster the backline of the Triumph. One championship option, two proven league one players, and a quality MLS drafted player who needs a fresh start. Greenville still has 2-3 more international roster spots available, so I’ve included 2 Americans and 2 international players that could end up in the green and blue. Who can fill the shoes of the incredible Somali right back that will be lining up somewhere else this season? Let’s find out:

*I’m including links to highlight videos for each player rather than film on this site to give their Youtube pages a boost and more people can see the qualities of these players from the players’ perspectives!

Zachary Ellis-Hayden 

Photo Credit: Steve Christy

*highlights can be seen here*

Ellis-Hayden lined up for the now-defunct OKC Energy in the RB spot and logged about 1600 minutes for the Championship side in 2021. With the OKC Energy taking a break, you can bet that a lot of the players on their roster will be looking for new teams to ply their trade this season. The Canadian Right Back was quite good for a lackluster OKC Energy side this season, defending well, helping in the build-up, and creating chances. Combining strong runs, technical quality, and defensive intelligence, Ellis-Hayden would be a high-quality option to replace Mohamed on the right. 

Jonathan Ricketts

Credit: Jonathan Ricketts Youtube

Key Stats: 

Total Duels Won % – 61% (GREAT in the air)

Chances Created – 31

Dribbles completed % – 70%

Long Balls Completed % – 37%

*highlights can be seen here*

I don’t think I’ve kept it a secret,  but I think Jonathan Ricketts was one of the best fullbacks in USL League One last season. An incredibly strong and brave defender that somehow also has great attacking ability, I’d love to see Jonathan Ricketts stay in League One another year to bolster Greenville’s back-line. While he does have the ability to make good runs with the ball, his best quality is his ability to receive the ball in dangerous areas and get it into the box. A lot of this had to do with Chattanooga’s tactical setup, which you can read about here. Ricketts’s defensive strengths combined with his attacking prowess make him a perfect candidate for the role in Greenville. While he’s likely to be pursuing a move to the Championship, he’d be very welcome in the Upstate of South Carolina!

Noah Franke

Photo Credit: USL

Key Stats: 

Total Duels Won % – 54%

Chances Created – 25

Dribbles completed % – 70%

Long Balls Completed % – 36%

*highlights can be seen here*

Noah Franke had a solid season at FC Tucson last year after a spell with the Riverhounds in the USL Championship. Noah was a slightly different type of fullback, much more attacking in nature with an incredible dribbling ability to take on opponents. Much more content with 1-2 pass combinations, he’s really good in close quarters and good at getting the ball into the box. His strengths lie in his attacking prowess rather than his defensive capabilities, even though he IS a capable defender. The one downside is that his roles within the teams he’s played in don’t seem to jive with the long passes and longer defensive periods that are typically associated with Greenville. Even so, I’ve included him here because I think he has a lot to offer going forward, which Greenville also typically utilizes in that role quite often. I’d say he’s the least likely option of the four being mentioned just because of his profile, but he’s a high quality player regardless and I’d love to see him at Legacy. *Update: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE GOT HIM

Noah Billingsley

Photo Credit: MLS

*Not enough data for him from last season, finding it hard to break into a set in stone PHX Rising squad while on loan there. Key stats will be from 2020 during a 9 game stint at LV Lights.*

Key Stats: 

Total Duels Won % – 57%

Chances Created – 2 (did not venture forward very often in this setup)

Dribbles completed % – 38%

Long Balls Completed % – 30%

*highlights can be seen here*

You’d be forgiven for not knowing this name, but Billingsley is a high-quality right back that could use a fresh start. Hailing from New Zealand, Billingsley was selected 18th overall in the  2020 MLS SuperDraft by Minnesota after a great collegiate career at UC Santa Barbara. Loaned out by Minnesota to the USL Championship twice, the 24-year-old right-back is now out of a contract for the 2022 season and in need of somewhere to call home. Having started his career as a forward/winger, Billingsley has done well in his move to the right-back position over the past few years. He also has 3 caps to the New Zealand National Team under his belt.The 6’1 defender is strong in the air, good going forward, and positionally disciplined. There are some raw aspects of his game to work out, but I think he’d be a great fit for the Triumph both defensively and going forward. I have no idea what’s next for this guy, but a reboot for a year or two might be exactly what he needs to be the quality player everyone knows he can be.

I don’t have any special knowledge in terms of where these players are going, but I would LOVE to see any of these players put on the Green and Blue in 2022. If you know them, get to talking to them so that they can take up this vital role here in Greenville.

Bonus Players:

Jonathan Dean

Hey Dean, I see you haven’t committed to another season with the Birmingham Legion yet… Just know that even though you wouldn’t be any closer or farther from home, you’d be absolutely adored in Greenville. You balled out in the championship… don’t you think it’s time for a new challenge? I’m just out here trying to speak the impossible into existence, but you know where to find us if it’s working!

Toby Sims

Photo Credit: GVL FC

This one is SO serious. Toby Sims is a quality CB/RB that would make an outstanding addition to the Greenville backline. Dude’s won so many awards I don’t even have the time to list them all. The 2021 USL League Two defender of the year has plenty of experience playing here in SC and is absolute quality. He’s going to be quality and he’s available… so Triumph offices… you know what to do.

*Highlights Here*

Climbing The USL Ladder: 5 Players Who Could Make The Jump to The Championship (Pt.4)

What do you think of when you hear the name “Forward Madison”? Wait! Sorry — let me clarify: What do you think of when you hear “Forward Madison”, but you’re not allowed to say “Kits”? Last season, you’d probably say Aaron Molloy. The Irish holding midfielder just completed a well-deserved move to Memphis 901 FC, and honestly the championship — or higher— is where the guy belongs. I initially wanted to write about Aaron back in early December but removed him from the queue when he re-signed with Madison. Now, I get to write about one of the best players to come out of USL League One last season. Let’s take a quick look at just how ready Aaron Molloy is for his new digs in Memphis.

Molloy was an essential cog in the Forward Madison machine. Just how essential was he to this Madison side? Here are a couple of stats to start us off: Molloy led the league (All positions) in accurate passes per 90 with 61. Only Ricky Ruiz and Damia Viader were able to create more chances than Molloy in 2021 with his 57. He won almost 58.5% of his ground duels per 90, and he scored 3 open play goals (1 penalty), all of them outside the box, and assisted 3 more. This man was well and truly all over the field this season, with basically the entire field being covered by his heat map. There are so many things to like about the former Forward Madison man and I want to cover some of my favorites below.

Essentially, Molloy could be called a “deep-lying playmaker”, tasked primarily with controlling possession, spraying passes to those in more advantageous positions, and getting the ball forward. In possession, he was instructed to drift to the “ball-side” of the field to help keep possession going and pick out switches of play or pass incisive balls between the lines. Defensive work for a player like him is important but often considered secondary. While Molloy was pretty good defensively, he was primarily concerned with what to do with the ball once it was won. Even so, he was averaging 2.7 tackles per 90 at a success rate of 70% and 1.32 interceptions per 90. The one downside is that he was dribbled past somewhat often (1.57 times per 90) — some of the reasoning for that may have been that he was already thinking about what he was going to do when he or a nearby teammate won the ball. Molloy also has surprisingly good recovery speed for a holding midfielder and swept up well in front of the defense when needed. He also has a decent understanding of space, always scanning the field to get information about his surroundings. He recognizes danger well both in and out of possession, giving him a leg up when receiving the ball or defending (we’ll see more about this later).

To understand Molloy’s role better in possession, you need to understand how Madison set their team up (see above). Madison essentially played some version of 3-1-6/3-1-4-2/3-1-3-3 in possession for a good portion of the year*, making Molloy a sort of anchor for the team in the middle of the field. As a deep-lying playmaker, taking up these positions allowed him to spray passes to the plethora of choices he had in front of him, whether out wide or between the lines of the opponent’s defense. While he wasn’t close to goal very often, having so many options in front of him played to his strengths and helped the team create dangerous chances. That being said, he didn’t turn down a chance to run at the defense as another method of chance creation. His marauding runs forward put a lot of pressure on back pedaling defenses in transition.

Despite often being the furthest player back besides the defense, he created so many chances for this Forward Madison side because of his slick and precise passing, with 54 key passes and 57 total chances created on the season. He managed 86% passing accuracy on the season and completed the second most long balls of any midfielder in League One. He also ranked 6th in distance per pass when compared to other midfielders in the league. While many of his long passes could be described as “switches of play”, he was not a “safe passer” by any means. While keeping possession via short passes was a huge part of his game for Madison, he was quite capable of breaking down opponents with incisive passing. Here are a few pass maps and videos, highlighting his ability. (whichever direction the red “incomplete passes” are going is the offensive direction of play)

Aaron has great concentration and anticipation which aid his shooting and passing ability significantly. While he was never going to score 10 goals from the positions he took this season, he added dynamism to an attack that needed all the help it could get at times. His three goals outside the box were all things of beauty, usually scored by arriving very late outside the box to pop one in from range.

One last quality I want to highlight is his ability to sense danger and take in information about his surroundings. When you watch Aaron play, you can see that his eyes are always up and his head is always moving, scanning the area around him for danger, potential passes, or lanes to run into nearby. This made him so good at evading danger from pressing opponents when receiving the ball. So often, he was able to escape danger simply because he knew what was around him. His scanning combined with great vision, technical quality, and strength made him a force to be reckoned with in the midfield.

Aaron Molloy was always a player destined for a return to the Championship. From the moment he arrived in League One, you could tell that he was different gravy and spent a whole season proving it. Now, Aaron is going back up and is ready to prove that the Championship (or more) is exactly where he belongs.

*even when their base formation was 4-3-3, someone would often drop into a third defender spot initially before pushing up slightly as the ball moved further up the field.

Chattanooga’s High Line Dominance: Nowhere to run

The USL League One can be an unpredictable place: Two teams who are most comfortable on the counter attack played in the 2021 final (imagine Burnley winning the Premier League. Omaha fans, before you come for me: I don’t think Omaha is the Burnley of L1), at least 4 teams changed formations every week like it was FIFA Ultimate Team, and defenders will probably end up playing as forwards at some point in the season. This can all be very scary for your League One soccer teams that don’t like chaos around them. The Red Wolves are NOT a fan of all that “unpredictability” mumbo jumbo — unless it involves a last minute Galindrez goal. Instead, they use whatever means necessary to make sure they have control of the game. I wanted to take a few minutes  to take a look at what makes Chattanooga’s control such an effective tool for winning games. A couple of weeks ago, I posted this graphic (see below) showing the xG per shot (basically, how good of a position in relation to the goal were they in for each shot on average) of players in the USL League One and I noted the very high xG per shot of many Chattanooga players (Even Jonathan Ricketts was on par with some of the strikers and wingers in League One).

Left alone, this is an unhelpful bunch of data points smashed together. When they’re paired up with tactical insights, we begin to get a better understanding of what’s going on. To be clear, this won’t really be a Chattanooga tactical explanation piece because I’m not Jimmy Obleda (it’s actually me and two other friends in a trench coat that make up Obleda and my friends aren’t with me while I write this) and don’t think it would be fair for me to try to tell you what he’s thinking. Instead, I’m just going to give you a simple version of what I see and what effects it has on those who encounter them. 

I think the word mentioned earlier, “control”, is the best word to describe the desire of Chattanooga’s tactical set up. Whether they’re in possession, out of possession, facing set pieces, or taking set pieces, their man goal is to control — the ball sure, but also the field. This season, Chattanooga had an average of 53.2% possession, the second highest in the league. Chattanooga’s main goal was to have the ball, and when they had it, control the space on the field. Why? The smaller the size of field your opponent has to work in, the harder it is for them to string together any sort of meaningful possession. How did Chattanooga limit teams from possession? Two main things that are really one thing: Their defensive line sat REALLY high while their team had possession, sometimes you’d even see Jason Ramos sitting in the opposition half ready to receive the ball or make a tackle.

The second thing was their high press. In order for a high defensive line to work (this is a generalization of course, but it’s definitely harder if you don’t do this), you have to press high to keep control of the ball if you lose it. In other words, Chattanooga gained control of the ball by making the field as big as possible for them, but as small as possible for defending teams. Chattanooga was incredibly good at keeping the ball where they wanted it and pressing high, winning the ball in the final third more times than any other team in USL League One (169 times!!!!). If they didn’t have the ball, you best believe they were going to work to get it back as quickly as possible in order to retain control.

This allowed Chattanooga free reign to work pretty much anywhere they wanted on the field. They often pushed their full backs very high and wide and allowed their wingers to tuck inside to create more problems for defenses in central areas. Below is an example of the different options Chattanooga had when they had possession. You can see that they were pretty much able to control the central areas without much hope for opposing defenses. They rotated A LOT, but this gives you a basic idea of the Chattanooga offensive structure as they sought move the ball forward. You can see why Chattanooga strikers might have better looks at goal as well. If you’re constantly trying to win the ball deep in your own half and trying to get down the field, you likely will have a harder time getting closer to goal. On the other hand, if your team pretty much owns the field, you don’t really have to go far to get close to the goal. Juan Galindrez had an incredibly high xG per shot of 0.21 this season, meaning that he was expected to score 1 from every 5 shots on average. Chattanooga was the joint highest creators of big chances with 60 and were expected to score well over 40, but not quite meeting that mark. Chattanooga took over 13 shots per 90 on average but only had a goal conversion rate of just under 10%. Some would say they were incredibly unlucky, striking the woodwork a league high 18 times. Even with these good positions, you can see that these chances didn’t always work out for them like they hoped.

This video is kind of long, but I wanted to highlight how this control that Chattanooga wants to have is exerted on teams to force chances and goals. Some would call Chattanooga incredibly lucky when it came to late goals, scoring 12 in the last 15 minutes of the game last season. I don’t think they were lucky. Putting this much pressure on a tired opponent isn’t luck, it’s hard work and solid execution. They were superb in this stage of the game (I do not have stats to back up this next statement, but I believe it meets the eye test), and it seems like they pressed harder and sat higher in this phase than any other. Here’s a clip from their 87th minute goal against Tormenta.

As mentioned in the video, Chattanooga’s structure makes it very hard for opponents to break free when they regain possession of the ball. In central areas, Chattanooga create a block to prevent central progression up the field. People like JCG, Ualefi, and Villalobos were instrumental in helping Chattanooga retain and win back possession centrally. This forces teams to try to play the ball wide, giving Chattanooga extra time to make recovery runs into a more defensive shape. Chattanooga were excellent at preventing shots because of this, allowing the fewest shots per 90 of any team in the league. The one problem with a high line is that execution is KING and one mistake can cause so many problems (see Playoff video below).

Long story short, Chattanooga’s desire was to have control of the ball, and the field as much as possible. The only chaos or unpredictability that Chattanooga wanted was the chaos and unpredictability created by them. By and large, they did a good job of making sure that happened. This year, you can see that they’ve already secured many important pieces that make this formation work in the lineup, but they’re not done yet. With Navarro is there only center back returning so far, they’ll probably be looking to bring in another ball playing defender that allows them to exert the control they want. They also hope that they don’t hit the post as often this coming season! This will probably dramatically increase their goal scoring as long as it’s in the back of the net and not off target (tongue in cheek).

I feel as though I’m rambling at this point, but I hope this makes sense and you enjoyed it! It will be interesting to see how Obleda continues to use this tactical set up as I’m sure they’ll be looking to take another crack at the playoffs this coming year. Only time will tell!

Player Report – Venton Evans

Nationality: Jamaican (capped at U22 level)

Age: 23

Birthday: 6/19/1998

Height: 6’0

Weight: 172 lbs

Current Club: Greenville Triumph (Transfer from Fort Lauderdale)

Position: Winger

Alternate Position(s): Central Midfield

Preferred Foot: Right

Venton Evans came into the USL League One season with a bang, scoring a beautiful header from close range in the 14th minute of his debut. For many people, his was a name that hadn’t been heard before. Having just transferred from Jamaican Premier League side University of West Indies FC, the relatively unknown right winger made sure people would remember his name. Despite the strong start, it was still very much a big transition to a new league and it was an up and down year for Evans. Evans’ switch to the right wing was also very recent, which made the transition to a new league even harder. Averaging 69 minutes per game, he played in 21 of Fort Lauderdale’s League One matches. Even with 21 matches under his belt, he only got 6 full 90 minute runs. I don’t know if this is an issue of stamina or just the academy conundrum (more likely the latter), but he’ll definitely be looking for some consistency in 2022.

Heatmap Credit: SofaScore

Venton’s primary role for Fort Lauderdale was on the right wing, but he tended to move between both wings throughout the season, even switching wings during games on a frequent basis. This was a big shift for Venton as he tended to play as a CM/DM for one of his more recent clubs and at the international level. You can see a lot of that desire to play centrally in Venton’s game, even when he’s playing out on the wings. His ability to drift inside and rotate with other members of the front line and midfield caused a lot of problems for opposing defenses and his positioning, even if he didn’t score or assist, tended to help open up space for FTL to work the ball forward. It will be interesting to see how Greenville decide to deploy Venton Evans in 2022 with the needs they have. They were desperate for more versatility in attack at some points in the season, but they also only have 3 central midfielders as of the publishing of this article. Will Venton move back into that space or will he continue to develop his skills as a winger? Only time will tell and honestly, I’d be pretty excited about both.

MOVEMENT/POSITIONING/BALL CARRYING

One of the particularly threatening aspects of Evans’ game this season was his ability to attack dangerous spaces and specifically attacking the seam between the Fullback and CB. He made all kinds of dangerous runs through that space when defenders gave him an inch and it resulted in some dangerous chances and even some goals. Even when it wasn’t through the seam, if Evans made a run behind the defense, there was likely some uneasiness along the back line. You can see in both of the shots below, he pounces on any space you leave in between defenders. Ironically, a lot of the intelligence and awareness to move into these areas comes from typically being the person to pass to people making these runs. He made passes like this quite frequently for Jamaica at the Lima Tournament in 2019.

It wasn’t just runs in behind that aided in the FTL attack though. His awareness to drift inside, pick up passes, and keep progressing the ball forward were important when he was on the field.. You can see from these passing and heat maps that he spends a lot of time within the width of the penalty area. Part of this was the tactical set up of FTL as they moved into the final third and some of this is just that Evans seems to feel more at home the more central he sits.

Credit for all four pictures: USL League One Match Center/Opta

In this game against NCFC, he didn’t light up the field, but he put in a good shift for his team. He worked hard to win the ball back, helped progress the ball, and drifted into the center of the field and sets up a nice goal with the pre-assist. you can see in this play how he’s within sprinting distance of breaking up a wayward pass before drifting inside to help build play into the box, before making a beautiful pass that helps contribute to a goal.

Credit: USL League One

While Evans isn’t the most flashy player who’s lighting up the stats boards, he’s efficient, reliable, and good at interrupting attacking plays. In a team that was easily dribbled past, Evans was the 3rd lowest member of the FTL team in the “dribbled past per90 stat. The only players who were dribbled past less were Hundaal and Curry, who played striker (CBs aren’t typically looking to McGeady spin a pressing striker). Evans broke up play well, completing as many tackles per 90 as Max Hemmings and Don Smart and a good bit more than any winger on the Triumph. A lot of this had to do with his propensity to track back quickly and work to pressure and recover the ball. You can see on his heat maps that he had a lot of action in FTL’s own half most games, both in and out of possession. On the dribble, he’s quite efficient, completing 59% of his dribbles, which was a higher percentage than anyone on the Triumph other than Don Smart managed last season. The caveat to this is that he’s not a particularly progressive dribbler on the wing, but he’s good at keeping the ball. He often used his dribbling ability as a safety mechanism rather than to take on defenders 1v1 (he has done this, it’s just not quite his forte as of yet. I think it may have more to do with learning a new position rather than his ability) and it typically works, rarely being dispossessed or losing possession in any way. Even so, there were some flashes of confidence in taking on defenders and it could be exciting to see that continue to develop. He’s also got a pretty good first touch, securing the ball at his feet quickly to help keep play moving.

Another point to highlight is his strength, which is a big part of his ball carrying and retention. You can see in the clip below how he receives the ball, gets his back to the defender, helps progress play via the overlapping full back, and it ends up resulting in a goal.

Credit: USL League One

PASSING AND CROSSING

Venton definitely looked like he had a tough time adjusting to the new position from this perspective. He has the 4th lowest cross percentage in the league of people above 0% with 9%. This is an interesting stat when thinking about Greenville’s play style for portions of last year, though this could indicate a change. Outside of crosses though, he had a very efficient passing display being well above average in the opponents half as seen in the radar at the top. I really think that Evans is far better at progressing the ball centrally than he has shown out wide so far. I could watch his Jamaican U22 highlights on repeat forever because of this reason. See below:

Credit: Venton Evans Highlight Reel, see bottom of article for link.

Venton has a great passing range on him and looks far more comfortable when he’s in the middle of the park. You can see this going back to the goal against NC. His passes, while accurate, were far less progressive out wide this season compared to other wingers and again I think this has more to do with learning a new position than it does him being capable of executing passes. Expect him to improve on that in the coming season if he continues to play out wide.

SHOOTING

This section is an interesting one, because in my opinion (does my opinion REALLY matter?) he has somewhat poor shot selection, BUT most of his shots look super fun. Like do I want him to take them… not ALL the time, but do I want to be entertained by a beautiful curling shot from the outside edge of the box every now and then? Surely. Even when his shots were on target, a lot of them were too far out to trouble the keeper. He’ll definitely need to use his vision more to pay attention to better available options. That being said, he wasn’t a BAD shooter. When he got into good positions, his shots were typically executed well. He scored 4 goals from dangerous positions and really unsettled defenses. It’s just a matter now of looking to better positioned options rather than taking really low quality shots, even when they’re DOPE looking (this isn’t an official scout report, so I can word things however I want).

Editors Note: while his shot selection at FTL wasn’t perfect, you can see how he can be absolutely lethal when afforded opportunities. His two-footedness really makes it hard to contain him in front of goal.
Shot Map against NCFC. You can see that even when shots are on target, they’re often at wider angles or from quite far out, neutralizing their venom. He’s scored from these positions, but probably could’ve provided more had he looked for better options. Credit: USL League One Match Center/Opta

Venton Evans is an incredibly versatile player with huge upside no matter where he plays. Secure on the ball, progressive, and quite intelligent, we’ll likely see a good season from the Jamaican midfielder. I’d expect his trajectory to continue upward as he adapts to a new league and position (if he continues as a winger). As a Triumph fan myself, I’m quite excited about the signing’s possibilities. Welcome to Greenville, Venton!

You can view some Venton Evans Highlights Here: PanAmerica Highlights, FTL 2021

Go give them a look and a like!

*Featured Image Credit to Inter Miami CF*

The 11 Days of League One-mas: The Biggest Needs For Every Team Coming Into The New Season

Merry League…One…mas (eh)? Name isn’t important. It’s just a great time for fans to get ready for the new season, prep to be loud and proud at next season’s games, and make cookies in the shape of your favorite team’s logo! The schedule is HERE. It’s four months until the new season and all through the league, not a team has finished their roster, not even the Red Wolves. So let’s take a look at each team’s needs from goals, to humans, to midfield solidity. So here we go, 11 day of League One-mas (still don’t like it, but fans can workshop something better later)!

On the first day of league one-mas, Central Valley Fuego FC really need: A human

A soccer player – like, anyone. If they have a warm body on their roster by the new year, we’ll call that a HUGE dub.

On the second day of League One-mas, Charlotte Independence really need: a chance at Rebuild FC

Any time a team ends up dropping down a league, you can expect a lot of turnover to happen. As to how much, we’re yet to find out. Moving to the USL L1 was not under the best circumstances with off the field issues (racism, conspiracy theories, and no money, OH MY! All of this has been regularly reported on and can be found by simply typing “Charlotte independence” into the news section of google) plaguing the organization, and their fans definitely deserve better. The supporters groups in Charlotte have been working hard to fight for their team, so hopefully we’ll see some good come out of all of this. It’s likely to be a full or at least extensive rebuild, so adding some reliable players who know League One to the roster would be smart. We’ll see what happens and even under confusing and shrouded circumstances, a big team is joining the league.

On the third day of League One-mas, Chattanooga Red Wolves really need: To Solve the Striker Situation

Chattanooga has got a lot of really good depth across the field, but one area that they really struggled in was the “striker” position. Now at the risk of framing Obleda into a L1 Guardiola, they NEED to make a striker decision: Are they going to sign another striker or are they going to start Galindrez more? Because they need a striker who can start and affect the game for them week in and week out (*Obleda proceeds to start Villalobos up top and Galindrez on the wing and somehow it works*). Some of their options this season didn’t strike a ton of fear in opposing defenses, and that needs to change. Juan Galindrez was an incredible super sub, scoring 9 of his 11 goals from substitute appearances. He’s absolutely a proven goal scorer, but wasn’t involved in the build up nearly as much as his counterparts. Will Galindrez be their man this season or will he continue to play the ever important role of last second day-spoiler? It really depends on what else Obleda expects from his starting man and if Galindrez can make it happen. Either way, you can expect him to be heavily involved in his team’s success. Hopefully we’ll find out soon.

On the fourth day of League One-mas, Forward Madison really need: Offensive Efficiency

Forward Madison was a curious case of underperformance this season. Shooting many more times per game than average in the league while simultaneously having the joint lowest goal tally (I don’t include own goals in offensive performance numbers, but second lowest if you’d like to include them), is a big problem. Glaeser is coming in to work on a big task and his ability to get this team firing will be the main factor in their success. They just lost their leading scorer/assist leader to a return to Greenville, so they need someone who can get good looks in front of goal and QUICK. Glaeser is putting together a good squad but will need someone who can inspire confidence in their offensive production this season. They didn’t do THAT bad on defense, but when they did go behind, there wasn’t that much confidence on getting back in. The good news is that Glaeser’s philosophy seems very attacking, citing Carlos Carvalhal as one of his inspirations. Carvalhal has been previously quoted saying “Clean sheet? We don’t use this word in Portugal. It does not make sense to me. I want my teams not to let in goals but between 1-0 and 5-4, I prefer 5-4 because I love football.” If this is any part of Glaeser’s philosophy (this is pretty funny when thinking about Glaeser, the former goalkeeper), Madison has a much better chance of doing well in League One next season. Score more and their decent defense will feel a lot less pressure. More goals, more wins, more vibes=more jerseys, I think.

On the fifth day of League One-mas, Greenville Triumph really need: Goals, Goals, and more Goals

Just like Madison, my beloved Triumph is in need of some help on the offensive side of the ball. This season, there were not many teams who struggled in front of goal more than Greenville. One of the worst teams when comparing the number of goals scored to their expected goals (third worst in the league), Greenville would have been (and they were at some points this season) caught up a creek without a paddle if it hadn’t been for Marios Lomis (scored or assisted 42% of all goals last season). Teams like Greenville, who are expecting to challenge for the title, can’t stay on top if they continue to under perform offensively. The signings of Coutinho and Keegan are positive declarations of intent, but Greenville will likely be hoping to add one or two more goal scorers to the squad. They’ll also be hoping that Gavilanes and Brown can add some more goals from the wings this season and they probably will. Even so, it’s hard to see improvement upon last season without one or two more goal scorers. Greenville’s defense will likely be stout as always, but the mantra “defense wins championships” is only true in so far as you can reliably take the lead, which wasn’t always a sure bet last season. Even so, John Harkes has shown he can get the absolute best out of the players he has, so it’s gonna be a good year!

On the sixth day of League One-mas, North Carolina FC really need: Midfield Solidity

This season, no defense faced more shots than NCFC. They were run ragged, always being forced into clearances, blocks, and last minute tackles. When you concede 50 goals in a season, you assume that your defense was poor… right? Well, that’s not really the case for NCFC. In fact, it was no easier to score on NCFC than it was to score on Greenville. They actually lost the ball fewer times per game than almost anyone in the league. The difference? The path of least resistance at NCFC led straight to their goal. You could practically walk up to their back line at times, which put so much pressure on a relatively young/new defensive core. They rode the storm well, but you can bet they won’t want to do that again. NCFC has already made some smart moves with the re-signing of Pecka and the acquisition of Sommersall, but I’d bet they bring in at least one more for good measure. Put people in front of that defense who can hold onto the ball and protect the back line well and I think NCFC will look a whole lot better than we thought they could.

On the Seventh day of League One-mas, Northern Colorado Hailstorm really need: MORE

I mean… a lot. And that’s no knock on them. They’ve made some statement signings in Rob Cornwall and Lachlan McLean, but fielding two players will get you disqualified from a match every time. That being said, If they keep signing the level of quality they have so far, expect a big season from the Snow boys.

On the eighth day of League One-mas, Richmond Kickers really need: An Ivan Magalhaes Replacement — if that’s even possible

Richmond’s defense was incredible this season with all of the pressure they were under, the only team facing more shots than them was NCFC and they held strong with the help of a TOTY goalkeeper in Fitzgerald who’s returning and a solid defense. One part of their defense was particularly stout and that was the man, the myth, the legend: Ivan Magalhaes. Ivan won 70% of his ground duels (62% ground + aerial) across the entire season, which is ridiculous, and swept up just about anything that came his way. His presence in the back line was so reassuring for a team that seeks to soak up pressure and he will be sorely missed. If they want to be successful in the same way they were next season, either the entire defense is going to need to do a lot of stepping up or they need a really solid replacement who can get close to replicating the work he did.

On the ninth day of League One-mas, Tormenta FC really need: Mayr-Falten Replacement

They declined options for A LOT of their players. With all of the turnover, it’s really hard to tell what they’ll need. It really depends on how they decide to set up next season, but they probably need a replacement for Mayr-Falten. Previously an attacking midfielder, he played as a “wingback” for much of the 2021 season to really good effect. Finding an offensive wing back who can affect play in the final third but defend as needed will be key moving forward if they plan to continue with a back 3. Falter was tied for 2nd with Jay Tee Kamara for Big Chances Created with 11 and was such an important part of Tormenta’s game plan. Replacing him will be essential to success in 2022.

On the tenth day of League One-mas, FC Tucson really need: Defenders Who Won’t Get In Trouble

Fc Tucson scored a ton of goals this season. They were such a threat going forward and their spot in the playoffs was deserved. The problem they faced was — dun dun dun— the consequences of their own actions. Their back line alone accrued 7 red cards this season with two more against forwards and it put them in so many bad positions. Their high flying offense was good enough to go far, but a lack of discipline will always keep you from getting where you want to go. The signing of Jacob Crull is already a step in the right direction, but they’ve got a few more spots to fill. Expect to see some squeaky clean card records among their new defensive signings. This season, don’t wear Christmas sweaters around Tucson fans — they’re probably sick of the color red.

On the eleventh day of League One-mas, Union Omaha really need: To Keep As Many Players from 2021 As Possible

2021 was a great year for Omaha, playing incredibly good team soccer and winning the title to boot. In my opinion, their strength was in their team cohesion and structure. They were completely unified in purpose and tactical understanding and it made them incredibly hard to play against. Even so, there were some stand out players that probably put a lot of teams on notice and they might just be on the move. They’ve already had some returnees, but they’ll definitely want to keep that winning feeling alive in 2022 and a lot of that will be down to their personnel. The loss of Jacob Crull will sting a bit, but there are some decent defenders available and we’ll likely see that hole get plugged either internally or externally very soon. How many players will Omaha keep? That’s yet to be seen, but keeping their best players will be a huge wish coming into 2022 to keep their dominance alive.

It’s gonna be a great season for the league with the two extra games and I could not be more excited to be in the thick of League One soccer. Enjoy League-One-Mas (still bad) and may all of our teams be awesome!

Climbing the USL Ladder: 5 Players Who Could Make the Jump to the Championship in 2022 (Pt.3)

With every team having announced at least SOME roster news (or two teams worth of roster news if you’re Chattanooga), we’re starting to see some teams take shape and some VERY interesting omissions. Some league stalwarts have yet to sign returning contracts and there will likely be some great joy and gnashing of teeth for every team across the league. With all of this uncertainty still rampant, I wanted to take a moment to talk about a player who is a sure deal when it comes to time in the championship.

Jay Tee Kamara

Jay Tee Kamara, yet another exciting young player from Louisville City, spent the 2021 season on the loan with North Carolina FC. A loan move that surely gave him some very important experience will be good preparation for getting closer to or even being included in the Louisville City First Team. Not only was it good experience, he got to spend a full season with a USL stalwart in Nazmi Albadawi and likely got to learn a lot from him. This is no offense to NCFC, but he was quite clearly the best player on the team when he was on the pitch. When he was out there, you could bet that the best moves NCFC made would likely come through him.

Stand out Stats: 3.49 Dribbles per90 (most in the league by a mile), 11 big chances created (2nd in League One), 4 goals and 5 assists

Jay Tee Kamara is a fascinating player who has an incredibly bright future. Like every kid who can dribble at defenders, he’s been compared to Messi at some point growing up. His left foot, truly elite ball carrying ability, and creative talent make it an easy comparison. Jay Tee always looks like he’s having the time of his life when the ball is at his feet. He toys with defenders, dribbles the ball like it’s glued to his feet and always manages to execute a ridiculously difficult pass. He makes soccer fun, even for those watching. Honestly, I find myself giggling from time to time when I watch him play because it’s just SO. FUN. Now, at almost 20 years old, you can see some real quality that is sure to get the attention of the championship and beyond.

Heatmap from: SofaScore

Jay Tee primarily played Right Center mid or attacking mid or whatever you want to call the role of the two midfielders that played in their 4-1-4-1. He also played AM in the 4-2-3-1 here and there and even played as a striker once! Jay Tee is an attacking midfielder by trade, but by no means a traditional #10. The heat map makes it clear, Jay Tee LOVES to drift wide, opening up space in the center. His ability to find open spaces pulls so many people out of position and then uses the vacated space and a tiny flick of the ankle to make everyone look silly. His play style is very high risk-high reward, and when it comes off, everyone on the other team is in trouble. He can work in the tightest of spaces moving the ball down the field with composure and flair. He’s not the fastest, but he’s got a good burst of speed to escape defenders.

His vision and intelligence make him lethal in the final third and honestly he’ll feel hard done by for not having gotten more assists this season. His eye for a pass was unmatched in the NC team and the 70.4% completion rate does not do the quality of his passes justice. His precision was remarkable at times and it was infuriating at times to watch some of those passes go unreciprocated. In only 1500 minutes on the field, he created more than anyone else on the team with 33 key passes, 11 Big Chances created, and 38 total chances created.

Many people would cite his size and physicality as an obstacle to being able to make it at an upper level, but I think what could keep him from going upward if it doesn’t change is how he uses his body. You don’t have to be a tall or physical player to be great (see: Messi, Hazard, Insigne, and like half of the footballing world), but you also can’t expect to bulldoze big defenders or escape intelligent midfielders. His size and physicality certainly will not stop him as long as he uses it to his advantage. Kamara always bets on himself — and for GOOD reason, but sometimes he overplayed, hit a wall of being double covered, or just a well positioned defender in his way. Even with negative body orientation, he would try to round defenders and that got him in trouble from time to time when he could just lay it off and better position himself between the lines. The awareness he has on the ball wasn’t as good when receiving a pass, especially with his back to goal. True to Kamara form, he had to lead the team in as many stats as possible, leading the team in how many times he was dispossessed per 90. Every 3 touches he lost the ball and sometimes his risky play got him and the team in tough positions.

Kamara is an incredibly talented young player who is destined for greatness. If he continues to develop, Jonathan Gomez won’t be the only name famous for leaving Louisville City and making that city proud. All of that talent needs to be harnessed and I would hope that if he stays at Louisville city this year, they give him enough game time to continue developing at a high level. With some more coaching and more game time, they’re looking at a super talent. He’s earned it and he’s ready. PLAY THE MAN!

Likelihood of an upward move: 5/5 (because… duh)

Climbing the USL Ladder: 5 Players Who Could Make the Jump to the Championship in 2022 (Pt.2)

Coming into this series, I swore to myself that I, a Triumph fan, wouldn’t write about any Greenville players until we got roster news. With no roster news, I simply cannot write about players leaving without feeling sad. You know what doesn’t make me sad? Writing about Union Omaha players leaving (I kid, I kid)! So that’s what I’m going to do! In all seriousness, the second player on my list is one that I feel pretty confident in, even without roster news from Union Omaha. This guy has been a hot commodity since he arrived in the USL and his motivation to reach the top will inevitably make him a feared goalscorer no matter what level he plays. If you haven’t figured out who I’m talking about yet, it’s none other than the Scottish striker phenom, Greg Hurst.

Striker: Greg Hurst

Greg’s journey to the USL has been a fascinating one that included stops in the Scottish third division, the English Premier League, and the Scottish Premiership. I found a fascinating article about his story and if you want to read that, you can click here. Eventually, his footballing journey brought him to the United States when he signed for the Chattanooga Red Wolves in August 2019. Greg had a good stint with Chattanooga scoring 10 goals across 21 total appearances. Upon the end of his contract in 2020, it seemed like Hurst was already getting looks from the Championship before he decided to line up at Union Omaha for 2021. Greg was instrumental to the success that Union Omaha achieved this season, with 16 total goal contributions. Coming off another great year, there are sure to be A LOT of people clamoring for his signature and Union Omaha will be in for a fight if they want to keep the Scottish half of their star striking duo. Let’s take a look at what makes Greg Hurst such a good candidate for the Championship.

Union Omaha’s defense was suffocating this year, allowing 23 goals (the best in L1 by 9) and it’s largely down to how organized Union Omaha were front to back. Greg led the league in possession won in the final third this season, averaging almost 1 dangerous turnover per game (turning two of those into goals), more than any other striker in the league. Out of possession this season, Greg was an essential cog in the Omaha unit. PWF3 doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story about Greg’s ability off the ball. He was constantly a thorn in the side of opposing defenders, whether in the first phase of build up or in moments of recycling the ball to defenders. Union Omaha didn’t always operate with a high octane High press, but their pressing structure was incredibly efficient and tactically sound. The strike duo’s press was never for the sake of pressing, rather their pressing triggers kept them in smart positions to put the ball in areas Omaha felt were advantageous. Greg’s ability to use his cover shadow to prevent balls through the lines and switches of play helped Omaha force teams on the back foot. Greg is the right sided striker in the GIF below.

This GIF is a little simplistic and doesn’t show how the entire defensive structure moves in these instances, but it conveys what I see in the front line. Omaha are good about denying space to players who drop in to receive the ball via the two strikers tightening up. Greg’s job in this system is to sit a bit higher and deny switches of play. Here you see the emphasis on denying space to the midfielder that’s dropped in as well as working to deny or limit switches of play.

Their pressing structure was instrumental in how they moved into their low block in the final third, giving them time to get set up as the opponent progressed down the field. Greg generally was the highest positioned player in their low block, always ready to shift into the attack and make himself available to help the team transition quickly. This positioning made Omaha incredibly dangerous on the break. His ability to help his team make quick transitions is a huge reason Omaha were able to feel so comfortable without the ball.

What made Greg truly dangerous is his ability to find space out of nothing and a score. A big reason for this is how unpredictable he is due to the fact that he is lethal with both feet. There’s not much showing this guy onto his weak foot, scoring 8 with his right foot and 5 with his left (1 header). Greg’s 16 goal contributions this season put him among the elite strikers in the league, tying with Lomis for second place. This man was on fire this season (maybe auditioning for a step up?), absolutely crushing his xG (along with Evan Conway). In a team in which Ten different players put the ball in the back of the net, this wasn’t necessary. Greg decided to show out anyways.

Every L1 striker who took more than 30 shots has their goal scoring output measured against their xG. when Greg took his shots, he was expected to score around ten based on the ability of the average striker in the league to score from the positions he took up. He scored 14.

Greg is a lethal striker with a point to prove. His love for the game underlines the sheer talent that runs through his veins (and feet/brain). Greg supposedly had Championship teams looking at him last year, and he followed that up this year by putting everyone on notice that he’s ready. Greg himself holds high standards, stating in an interview that his end goal in the US is the MLS. On his current trajectory, that’s not at all out of the realm of possibility. If Omaha are able to keep him for another year, I’d be amazed at the pull they have to keep a player like Greg (waiting for this statement to bite me in the butt later). Coming off a 1st place finish and L1 title, Greg’s stock is HIGH and we’ll likely see someone make a move for him this off-season.

Likelihood of an upward move: 4.5/5, unless he doesn’t. (again: that’s how my rating system works, get over it)

UPDATE: He did it! Off to Phoenix Rising. They’re getting a great player with HUGE ambition and a bright future.