Tresor Mbuyu: Charlotte’s Offensive Catalyst

Photo Credit: Charlotte Independence

You might not remember this, but 2022 isn’t Tresor Mbuyu’s first rodeo in League One. In 2019, Mbuyu spent 677 soul wrenching minutes playing for League One punching bag Orlando City B. Despite only tallying one goal in the 2019 season, a USL-C team liked what they saw and snatched him up on a free transfer. Mbuyu played 2 seasons in the USL-C as a rotation player for the Charlotte Independence before their self relegation to League One. Now, Tresor is back. He’s back to wreak havoc on the league to prove that you really can take both the guy out of Orlando City and Orlando City out of the guy. Or something like that. Tresor Mbuyu certainly looks like he’s got SOMETHING to prove this season, already earning Player of The Month in his first three games back in the league. Of course, this time around is a little different with players like Miguel Ibarra feeding him balls into the final third, but his progression as a player is evident. Now, leading the way for a dangerous Independence side, the player with USL Championship pedigree only looks like solidifying his spot towards the top of the golden boot race and as one of the most dangerous attackers in the league. With a big string of road games coming up, the Independence will have to be mentally, physically, and tactically strong to prove they belong at the top of the table. If anyone is going to lead them there, it’s probably going to be Tresor Mbuyu.

Taking one look at his radar chart, it’s obvious he has a very unique profile. Not a natural passing whiz by any means, Tresor prefers to receive the ball in advanced areas and carry it in towards the goal. He is INCREDIBLY skilled with the ball at his feet. He’s got a great touch, good close control, and he’s really good at changing speed with the ball at his feet. Ranked first for touches in the box and 2nd for progressive carries (Mentzingen being #1), Mbuyu clearly has one thing on his mind: getting the ball near the net and putting it in the back of it. You can see by his Instat heat map that he does a lot of his best work close to goal in the half spaces. It’s almost like there’s a funnel that sucks Mbuyu towards the goal every time he gets into the final third. Despite being a right footed player, he’s scored 3 goals with his left foot and only 1 with his right. His two footedness makes him a dangerous attacker in the box as he can either run to the endline for a cut back or cut inside onto his right foot. His ball striking technique is really good and can really get some power behind a shot or guide it nicely into a corner. It makes an already unpredictable player even more unpredictable. He’s quick, unpredictable, and is a good decision maker in the final third. He’s *WICKED SMAHT* and it makes him really hard to defend in those dark reds areas below.

credit: Instat

Mbuyu’s game is predicated on 1v1 situations and attacking open space behind defenders. He’s at his best when he gets the ball at his feet and attacks the space behind the fullbacks rather than looking to cross or carry it out wide. Whether it’s on or off the ball, Mbuyu is constantly looking for gaps that can help get him closer to the goal. His positioning off the ball is often inch perfect whether in defense or waiting to receive the ball and it really puts opponents on the back foot. You can see below his preference to either receive wide and cut inside when in settled possession or to make runs into the channels in transition. His tendency is to either shoot or put in a low cutback pass across the face of goal. Something odd to note about Mbuyu and the Independence is despite Mbuyu’s ability on the ball, he rarely wins fouls. In fact, the Independence as a whole are in last place in fouls won for this year. It’s a very odd statistic for a player so incessant on running at defenders.

Charlotte really like to build using as much width as possible to open up space for other to make runs into before narrowing in the final third to help win back possession and create dangerous chances. You can see the far side players drifting inside to take up positions within the width of the 18 yard box. It seems like they rarely have more than one person in the vertical areas outside the half spaces once the ball crosses the halfway line. This has multiple purposes, winning back possession more easily and making it harder for opposition to counter in dangerous areas, but I won’t go into detail on those today. All you need to know right now is that Mbuyu’s work on the ball and off ball movement either opens up tons of space for his teammates waiting in the box or he’s left too open to the other team’s peril. According to American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added model, Tresor Mbuyu is the most effective dribbler in the entire league for the 2022 season so far (must have completed at least 3 90s), which broken down means it’s really silly not to pay the utmost attention to how you defend against him. Side Note: it will be interesting to see how he performs against Greenville this weekend with their tendency to pinch players on the ball with a full back and a winger from behind. It will surely be a huge test for him as a player and for Charlotte to find other avenues to get closer to goal (Tresor accounts for over half of Charlotte’s touches in the box per90). Isolating him in 2v1 situations and zoning him out of the box will be key to negating A LOT of Charlotte’s offensive production.

You can see Opposition half action maps from his two most recent games (Tucson and Tormenta) below. While he’s not an incredibly efficient player, it doesn’t seem like anyone is asking him to be either. His goal is to get towards the goal, unsettle defenses with his dribbling ability, and put dangerous balls into the penalty area or take shots on goal. Working from out to in, he is a key component for the Independence in the final third.

Being out of possession is no different for Mbuyu when it comes to his work rate and positioning. Despite Charlotte being the least intense/effective pressing side in League One, Mbuyu averages 2.3 recoveries in the opposition half per 90 and almost 3.5 interceptions per 90. He does have a bit of a tendency to lunge into challenges that have either kept him from winning the ball at times or gotten him in trouble with the refs. His intensity is still an asset though and it enables Charlotte to create all kinds of problems –whether through actual transitions or artificial ones created by Charlotte’s impeccable off ball movement.

Rocha’s presence behind Mbuyu enables him to push forward and force the ball towards the sideline. It creates that nice pressing trap along the sideline that enables Charlotte to burst forward into the final third.

Mbuyu is surely one of the most dangerous wingers/inside forwards in the league right now and as long as he’s succeeding, so will Charlotte. While that seems like a lot of pressure, there’s a whole host of all star characters backing him up to get him where he’s most dangerous. It also helps that Charlotte continues to bring in incredible players to hopefully help lighten the load. Illia Shevtsov is one such player who seems to have a very similar profile to Mbuyu. It’ll be interesting to see how this dynamic unfolds and will add some depth to an already dangerous squad. Despite the large cast of characters, this looks like it could be a season to remember for Tresor if he continues performing at his current rate. This guy has been a nightmare for opposing defenses and it will likely only continue.

Forward Madison Vs Union Omaha Match Review

In a physical and disjointed game, a possession-dominant Forward Madison drew with the inefficient but dangerous, Union Omaha. Madison looks to be an incredibly physical and possessive force that pressed well when required, while Omaha showed signs of their old ways at times: incredibly dangerous on the counter, a great pressing structure, and long vertical balls that could disorganize opponents. This game had a little bit of everything: physicality, beautiful passes, heroes, and of course a hotly contested penalty. What went well and what didn’t? Let’s take a look!

Key Match Stats

Forward Madison set up in a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1, Omaha set up in a 4-4-2

Possession: MAD 68% – 32% OMA

Pass Completion %: MAD – 80%, OMA – 62%

Touches in Opposition Box: MAD – 13(14 including penalty), OMA – 27

Shots (SOT): MAD – 14(4), OMA – 14(4)

xG (Non-Penalty xG): MAD 1.49 (0.72), OMA 1.17 (1.17)

Heat and Pass Maps:

Review and Analysis

At the beginning of the game, Madison’s 3-4-3 looked really solid progressing the ball against a Union Omaha side not yet in sync with each other. The back three easily bypassed the initial press of the two forwards by keeping the outside CBs wide enough to make it hard for them to press intensely. They also overloaded the strikers centrally with either Leonard or Andrew Wheeler Ominu dropping in between them, forcing them to narrow. This was meant to allow the outside CBs the freedom to progress forward via a carry or pass free of the press, but it was executed at varying degrees of success.

There were some flashes of organizational brilliance from Omaha at times, looking like their old selves by pressing as a unit, isolating players and forcing them into negative decisions. They even tried to match the back three with one of the wingers pushing up at times to prevent the wide progression. In this situation, it creates numerical parity across the front line, but leaves you open to being played around if other people aren’t covered well. Madison often had free access to their wingbacks, which allowed them to progress up the field easily via combination play between the wide areas and the half spaces. We see this exact pattern happen for Madison in build up over and over again throughout the game. Use of half spaces to horizontally stretch the Omaha defensive block in order to gain access to the wingbacks higher up the field.

Again, we will see in this next clip how Madison sought to break down the Omaha block to no avail. Part of the reason Madison struggled is because of how Omaha refused to use their fullbacks to press. There was rarely space in behind. The positioning of Alihodzic and Jiba was critical to stifling the progress of patterns in the final third. They attempt build up down both wings before launching in a cross that is claimed by Nuhu and comes to nothing. Omaha’s block does a good job of preventing space for players to run into in the box and forces that lofted cross that comes to nothing. Edit: After seeing the Tucson-Madison game, this is two games in a row where we see this same “horse-shoe” around the opposition box. They aren’t able to find vertical passes in central areas in the final third. It’s critical for them to find some different looks in order to spend more time in the opposition box and get better looks on goal.

I want to specifically highlight the passing performance of Mitch Osmond, as he was a monster on the progressive front. Spending time in both wide CB positions, he sprayed passes across the field, helping move his team towards the final third. I think what I liked most about Osmond’s performance was his ability to break defensive lines by carrying the ball himself. He was careful, but assured on the ball driving into space and coaxing defenders out of shape. You can find his action map from the game below. He was the target of a lot of Omaha attacks and was simply bested on this day from a defensive perspective, but his role in moving the team up the field is not to be ignored.

credit: USL League One Match Center

From the Omaha perspective, they struggled to find a good rhythm in the first half, partly due to chemistry still being formed and partly due to the physicality of Madison and how solid they were when their wingbacks dropped into the defensive block. Their build from the defensive third was somewhat familiar, though it was largely ineffective. As you can see in the pass map below, their build from the back consisted of launching long balls forward into Madison’s half / final third. The one advantage is that they were, at times, able to win second balls and keep possession alive. Their positioning to win these second balls set them up for chances in the final third and forcing Madison into really tough situations. When Omaha did receive the ball, Madison tried to disrupt any possible momentum because of how dangerous they know Omaha to be in transition / on the counter attack. Through tight marking and tactical fouls, Madison were able to disrupt a lot of the vertical runs and route one soccer that Omaha look to play. Unfortunately, tactical fouls also ended up indirectly being their undoing for the first goal.

The high press and ability to take advantage of plays deep within the opposition half of Omaha could not be kept at bay when they were organized. When they were able to isolate players, force passes back, or long balls forward they were able to win the ball, force turnovers, and create really good chances. Their first goal doesn’t even come from a bout of build up. It comes from a 3 minute period in which Madison are unable to get a ball out of their own third after conceding a free kick from a tactical foul. The Omaha press works perfectly, forcing two throw ins due to quick clearances before overloading areas in the final third to find open passing options.

As I noted above, the first goal was a thing of beauty that highlighted how well Omaha could disorganize their opponents in the final third without the need for long periods of sustained build up. Joe Brito receives out wide and is pressed by two madison players, which leaves an unmarked Conor Doyle in space to receive the ball and put a beautiful little trivela in to Noe Meza. It is hard to say if Meza meant to flick the ball on to Kametani, but Hugo does an incredible job of using his strength to hold off Osmond and put the goal in the back of the net. Even if it is saved, Omaha’s ability to get men into the box at opportune times is unmatched as a man crashes the back post in case of a rebound off the keeper.

Kametani was dangerous all night long, but this goal was a fantastic way to open his Omaha account. He made dangerous runs and passes while growing in confidence all along the way. He’s going to be a problem for oppositon back lines as he continues to grow. Despite missing a big chance, his runs off ball, touch, and understanding of his space really have him looking like a player to watch in 2022.

In the 34th minute, everything changes when Gebhard wins a penalty. It looks a bit soft, but Scearce doesn’t get his foot to the ball and attackers are generally well protected in USL League One in these situations. If anything, this passage of play highlights how frustrating the build up of Madison could be for the compact block of Omaha when it actually penetrated dangerous spaces. Gebhard holds his wide position and it gives him extra time on the ball as the Omaha block try to shift over to cover him, stretching their compact shape and giving room inside. Madison switch the play and he makes a dangerous run in behind the defense. Then, despite Jiba’s deep positioning, Gebhard beats him along the line and it forces his Omaha teammates to act. Regardless of how people feel about this penalty shout, Gebhard wins it and Jepson slots it away nicely to even the scoreline.

Finally, Conor Doyle does it again by putting in a beautiful ball that JP Scearce gets up to put away. The height of the ball is misjudged by the defenders and Breno is unable to get his hands on the ball. Conor Doyle was the creator of just about every good thing from Omaha on the night with 4 key passes, the beautiful trivela that leads to the first goal, and one assist. The marauding midfielder was all over the field, collecting loose balls, making great passes, and helping his team get chances in the box.

The second half was much of the same. Madison bring on Cyrus Rad and Jeremiah Streng in place of Murillo and Bartman, switching Osmond to the right side. Madison continued to try to overload the Omaha block with both wingbacks pushing up, forming a sort of 3-2-5 that was defensively solid but also sought to create trouble in the final third. A lot of the same passing patterns were there, whether it was cb to half space to wingback or cb to cm to winger, etc. Omaha responded to this by continuing to press wingers up to create numerical parity when needed, but preferring to keep structure unless a press could be triggered. Streng’s introduction did offer them a series of new looks as it allowed for more rotations between Thiam and Streng to disorganize the Omaha back line.

Omaha continued to press high, attempt to disrupt and isolate opposition players on the ball while also sticking with their vertical strategy in possession that almost paid more dividends in the 58th minute. Doyle wins a second ball and conducts his team to a beautiful chance that is just chipped over the top bar due to Kametani getting too much under the ball. Even with Omaha completing more passes down field, a combinantion of a re-invigorated Madison defense and an inability to convert chances kept Omaha to two goals.

Finally, in the 70th minute Streng brings the ‘Mingos level with a low shot from the top of the box. The goal was intended to be built from wide areas as was the case all game, but it’s not what actually leads to the goal. A pass from Maldonado can’t be collected by Streng and is cleared but takes what feels like an INCREDIBLY favorable bounce to stay in bounds and is crossed back into the box. A missed header by an Omaha defender allows Streng a second chance and he slots it away nicely. This was one of only FIVE touches taken by Madison in the opposition box in the entire second half. It’s great to have the quality to convert when the opportunity arises, but that’s a worrying statistic if it is to continue to be the case.

Ultimately, both teams can be happy with a draw but will also feel like more is to be done. Missed chances and a slowly growing chemistry kept Omaha from truly clicking while Madison looked to be stuck passing for passing’s sake, leaving them listless in the opposition box. Both teams are dealing with a bit of a rebuild, one from a player perspective and the other from a tactical AND player perspective. They’ll need time to settle in, but you can see why these two teams have playoff aspirations in 2022 if they can take some of their good ideas and turn them into actionable principles.

Omaha Man of the Match: Conor Doyle (Would be Scearce for his defensive performance if not for the penalty given up. 4 tackles, 1 interception, and a 85% duel win rate. No one got past him, not even Gebhard 👀.)

Assist: 1

Key Passes: 4

Passes: 23/33

For me, there was not a better player on the field on this night. Good positioning, great passing, and a steely determination honestly gave Omaha the draw. Without the offensive play of Conor Doyle, this match looks completely different.

Madison Man of The Match: Michael Maldonado

Successful defensive actions: 5

Total duels Won: 60%

Passes: 87%

Dribble success rate: 100% (2/2)

Maldonado combined down the left side really well all game long while also providing great defensive cover on that side. Unsettling the defense on and off the ball, he was a force to be reckoned with. Gebhard was a close shout, especially with winning the penalty but I felt that Maldonado’s overall game is what lands him in this spot.

*all videos and passing maps credit to USL League One. Stats from USL League One and American Soccer Analysis.

USL L1 Week 2 Preview and Predictions

We’ve seen high flying scorelines, big mistakes, fantastic goals, and lock down defense from very unlikely sources… and it’s not even week 2 yet. As this season continues to get started, we’ll begin to see just how good some of these teams are as they continue to find their fitness and cohesion. There are some big match ups this weekend after finishing out the second round of the Open Cup and we’re looking to see some exciting soccer yet again! Count on drama, goals, and hopefully no open letters to soccer fans across the world and ESPN. Anywho, onto the 2nd week of the season!

*USL L1 Review Game Of The Week* Forward Madison vs Union Omaha: Draw 1-1

Forward Madison are getting ready to play their 3rd game of the year after grinding out a draw with the Red Wolves from a last second stunner of a goal. Having rested some of their starters but still putting on an absolute show against Cleveland, they’ll be looking to continue their fine form and prove to people that while flamingos are kinda cute, they are still very dangerous. Nazeem Bartman has been on fire for the Go’s and will surely be someone that Omaha have to keep an eye on. At the same time, Madison will be looking to keep some solidity to their defensive structure as it’s a given that Omaha will look to pepper the Madison goal. In my opinion, it’ll be important that Glaeser continues to come good on the ideals he discussed in pre-season about their solidity in and out of possession. Preventing quick transitions will be key and the rest-defense for Madison has to be *on point* if they hope to stifle the always high powered attack of Union Omaha. They’ll also want to continue their decisive shooting. They’ve looked confident in good positions and are working hard for each other everywhere else as well. This looks like a happy group to start the season, and you know what they say… happy team… happy… scoreline?

Key Player: Mitch Osmond

The defense will have to be switched on for absolutey every second of the 90 because of how dangerous Omaha can be on the break. Osmond will be a huge part of making sure those transitions are snuffed out. Osmond got a rest on Wednesday, so let’s hope that gets his legs ready and that his mind stays sharp.

Union Omaha on the other hand will need to be ready to finish their chances this weekend after taking over twenty shots with only a set piece goal and lasered header of an own goal to show for it and only 7 shots on target. These are great in one-off situations, but eventually you have to start putting more balls on the target if you want to win games. I’m sure they’ll do that soon, but the question is if they can iron out some of this by Saturday. They are such a threat going forward and it will be fantastic to watch them attempt to unsettle Madison and pull people out of position. Coming up against what looks like a really solid defense will be a great first League One test for the boys in black and volt. On the other side of the ball, the nature of UO’s defensive structure makes it almost impossible to break down. It will be interesting to see how the new faces in the back line cope with L1. The tight defensive lines and fast closing of Omaha were big reasons for their title run. They were so suffocating and will likely look to do the same again. Force Madison into mistakes, frustrate their forwards and deny space for passes between the lines. They already looked strong against a tough Des Moines Menace side and are surely relishing their return to league action for a chance of reclaiming that title.

Impact Player: Joe Brito

Brito was so important to the Buhos on Tuesday, creating so many good chances in open play and set pieces, and even contributing effectively on defense, making 5 tackles. Surely Madison see him as a threat, but as is always the case with Union Omaha players the question is not who is a threat, but can you contain that threat?

The home crowd will surely be ready to cheer on the guys on their home opener and I expect this to be one of the most exciting 1-1 draws we will see all season. Come back mid-week next week for the match review!

North Carolina FC vs Chattanooga: NCFC Win 1-0

This past weekend, NCFC proved they might not be the same old team from 2021. Tight defensive lines, good clearances, dangerous breaks, and grinding out a result were not things you ever said about them, but here we are in a new season. They put on a defensive masterclass against Tormenta and will have to be even more ready against the pressure cooker that is the Chattanooga Red Wolves. I genuinely think they will continue with their stout defensive performances and alot of that will come down to Jordan Skelton and the rest of the back line.

On the other end of the ball, Oalex Anderson will be so important to the counter attacking style NCFC seem to be looking to employ and surely will cause trouble making runs in behind the Chattanooga defense. He’s been a bit of a terror so far and I fully expect him to be a huge headache with some really intelligent runs off of defenders. We already got a glimpse of that over the weekend with the assist for Mclaughlin’s goal and we saw some really good runs from him on Wednesday as well from some Servania service.

Impact Player: Oalex Anderson

If NCFC are to pull of the victory, the direct runs of Oalex will be key. Last year, Chattanooga’s aggression did a lot of good, but it also put them in vulnerable positions in transition. NCFC will have to exploit this vulnerability if they want to come away with a victory. Oalex is just the guy for that with smart runs behind, speed, and decisiveness.

For Chattanooga, they’re sputtering a bit offensively to start off the season. They’re missing some key players to start off and you can see that those players will be welcome additions once they are back in the squad. Outside of a beautiful volley outside the box, there hasn’t been much good generated offensively. They have the lowest xG of all the teams in the league that have played a game and according to Goals Added by American Soccer Analysis, they are also the team that has been least effective on the ball. Now this is from one game (that was quite physical) so it really doesn’t mean THAT much, but the tide didn’t turn offensively against a tough Louisville City side either. They’re missing important offensive components and I could see them struggling a bit until they get those folks in the team. If Chatt can get an early goal and force NCFC out of that turtle shell, i’m sure they can grab a result. Otherwise, i’ll have to stick with my current predicted scoreline. The thing about Chattanooga is we KNOW how good they can be and how infuriating their system can be for opponents, but it’s now up to them to execute with a lot of new players.

Impact Player: Jimmie Villalobos

The all action midfielder has been a bright spot so far, both on and off the ball. Scoring that beautiful volley at the Chattanooga home opener as well as being an absolute beast in defense. He’ll be an important part of disrupting any attacking plays from NCFC and as we saw against Tormenta, this young NCFC side isn’t necessarily going to be able to gain any sort of continuity under a lot of pressure. Villalobos and JCG will be key to ensuring that Chattanooga have control of the game and dictate it the way THEY want, including helping their team pepper the back of the net.

Richmond Kickers vs Northern Colorado Hailstorm: Kickers win 2-1

The Kickers are flying high right now with a HUGE win over Tucson and a trip booked to the third round of the U.S. Open Cup. From what I heard, this match was QUITE physical and that’s good because it’s apparently what NoCo is going to be known for as well. The OTHER new western team is coming to Richmond, hoping to prove that they have what it takes to hang with the best of them. Richmond haven’t lost at home since a 1-0 loss to Greenville in April 2021 and this is sure to be a stout contest for the new guys, just coming off a huge win against USLC western conference giants, the Switchbacks. Tucson didn’t quite looked prepared for their trip to Richmond last week, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether The Hailstorm will be. They just recorded their first win, but that was marred by a red card and 100 minutes of what had to feel like hell for the 10 men defending their goal with their lives (according to sofascore, almost 50% of the 120 minutes was spent in the Hailstorm defensive third). 28 tackles and 54 clearances later, Mclean and Desdunes combined for a beautiful transition goal. So we know that they’ve got good mental stamina, but can they do that twice. I can’t write too much about this match just on the basis of how little i’ve seen of the Hailstorm with 11 people on the field (27 minutes to be exact).

Richmond Impact Player: Nil Vinyals

This man ended last season on fire, and decided to pick up where he left off. The former Tormenta man was so dangerous in creation and in front of goal last week, scoring 2 goals and assisting another. He’ll surely be a huge part of anything good Richmond does.

NoCo Impact Player: Jerry Desdunes

If you’ve kept up with Northern Colorado’s preseason or even just taken a short glance at their twitter page, you’re likely to see this name. All pre-season long, this man was finishing off plays with goal after goal and he carried that into the open cup as well, scoring in the 96th minute while his team was a man down.

Don’t know how to work this tweet embed thing yet, so enjoy some good stuff from former L1 player, Evan Conway while you’re at it.

Charlotte Independence vs Central Valley Fuego: Fuego win 3-1

This is another game I won’t write a lot about as we haven’t seen that much of the Independence either. They lined up in a 4-2-3-1 of sorts and looked good for a little while due to some great work from Ayrton Paez, before capitulating to a red card and a 4-2 loss. Meanwhile, Fuego took on League One Open Cup Punching Bag, El Paso Locomotive and absolutely destroyed them 4-1. You can read about Fuego’s slightly slow start before they took off here. 2 wins for the Fuego is 2 wins, no matter how they go down, while the Independence lost control late on against a semi-professional team. If the Independence can’t keep control of this game, it could get ugly.

Independence Impact Player: Ayrton Paez

This man was a bright spot against the Fusion on Tuesday. Beautiful set piece delivery and a nice goal kept the independence in the game for a little while, before all his work was destroyed. Look for him to have a big game if the Independence are to get a result.

Fuego Impact Player: Villyan Bijev

This one is very hard because there are a couple of options on this Fuego squad. I’m going to go with Bijev though because while he was a little less than tip top on Saturday (while kind of injured), he really came into his own against the Locomotive and I fully expect that to happen again here on Friday. The creative attacker will be a key component for an offense that is almost literally on fire.

A couple of teams get a rest after their Open Cup games, but this looks to be an exciting match week at every turn. Expect excitement, expect goals, expect ESPN to be included in some kind of weird coorespondence with the world. Also, if I get these wrong, no I didn’t. Thanks for reading!

Triumph VS Fuego Match Review and Analysis

In what was a terrible week for me predicting results, the Game of The Week result stands out as one that seemed most unlikely. Not to belittle the Fuego players who played a fantastic game, but the 3 time League One Finalists were highly regarded and expected to pull out a nice result by MOST people in League One. This 2-0 result is a statement win for the new kids on the block and will hopefully strike just a little more fear into their upcoming opponents. So how did it happen? In a game that proves that taking your chances is far better than just having more of them, we see how control comes with a lot of responsibility. Mistakes and struggles within both 18 yard boxes marred what otherwise was a dominant performance by Greenville.

Greenville set up in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 with Ibarra playing as a second striker to Keegan that ended up being characterized by central progression, an abundance of chances, high fullback pressure to stifle build up, and a mid/low block that was hard to break down for the most part. Fuego set up in what looked like a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 that involved man marking in the midfield, Bijev out wide in an attempt to provide qualitatitve superiority and create chances (didn’t work that well on Saturday), RM pinching in to man mark when necessary to prevent quick switches of play, and a very structured pressing scheme that paid dividends. The main difference between these 4-2-3-1s was how they used that attacking mid out of possession. As the game went on, both teams made adjustments to sway the game in their favor, but ultimately Fuego didn’t need an adjustment to capitalize on the mistakes Greenville gifted to the visitors. 

First Half

From the start, Fuego showed that their positional discipline didn’t stop them from pressing in dangerous areas. Early on, Chaney makes curving runs in dangerous areas to cut off passing lanes for defenders in order to force low percentage passes and mistakes. This particular incomplete pass ends up creating a positive situation for GVL, but some were not as successful. Still, early on Greenville did find success playing over the press before having to find a new solution to progression. This pressing was foreshadowing for how they would operate in the second half and what leads to the second goal.

Especially towards the beginning of the game, CVF pressed quite hard and Greenville found some success bypassing this with balls over the top or through passes to forwards, with this nice play down the left that was just a few feet from being a chance on goal. A number of Greenville’s best chances in the first half were early and in transition after bypassing the Fuego pressure. There were many more examples of this, but this first one was huge early on. Greenville also had early success with personnel rotations as seen in the second clip. They disrupted the defensive structure just enough for a nice low cross to be put into the feet of Gavilanes.

At the same time, Fuego used this pressure to create some nice chances for Chaney and constantly tried to isolate Bijev out wide in order to allow him to create chances. Jamie Smith did a really good job of handling Bijev for the most part, but part of this was due to Bijev being seemingly slightly injured for a good portion of the game. The playmaker still looked lively at some moments before being subbed off in the second half.

The injury struggle starts right here and continues throughout the game.

After a while, Fuego settled into a more structured defensive block and this gave Greenville trouble in progression, forcing Ibarra and the wingers to drop deep to try to turn and carry the ball forward. The rotations and runs from Ibarra and Keegan looked good in transition, but it ultimately didn’t offer enough once Fuego settled into their block. Both players still made good runs and interchanges, but they were not as effective due to the good coverage by CVF. One of those runs ALMOST turned into something beautiful after Keegan absolutely smacks a ball on the half volley that is well saved by Antman. 

On the other side of the ball, Fuego struggled to truly progress the ball via passing due to being forced into a lot of long balls, but were able to drive in transition from time to time with the ball at their feet. They also had some success centrally playing through Greenville’s defensive block. Two chances in 1.5 minutes centrally caused last second panic buttons to be pushed by the GVL back line, Polak/Lee coming to the rescue both times. Ultimately, the classic GVL 4-4-2 out of possession adequately prevented any chances or danger from turning into a goal in the first 45.

Both sides tried some interesting, but basic rotations in order to break down the opposition block, highlighting here Ramos dropping into the RB spot while Akinlosotu drives forward and Casillas drifts inside. You’ll see this from Greenville’s left side a little later on as well. Ultimately, these interchanges helped progress the ball some, but neither team comes closer to scoring. A tightly contested first half came to a close scoreless with some changes to be made by both sides. Both teams seemed to be testing each other out in the first League 45′ they’ve played either ever or since November. Some low percentage passing and transitions gave way to a little bit more control in the second half for at least one team.

On Greenville’s end, Coutinho looked really good carrying the ball and driving forward. Also, his drifting into the half spaces and wide areas opened up the center of Fuego because of their desire to man mark the central midfield. For his first full 90’ in almost 3 years, this was quite the performance. It definitely feels like there’s much more exciting play to come from him. 

Fuego’s Mohamed Dabo was so secure in the midfield, progressing the ball well, mopping up in front of the defense. A great first half performance by the midfielder.

Second Half

In the second half, things started to change for both teams. Greenville replaced Ibarra with Walker, moving to a double pivot in the midfield and pushing Coutinho up. It gave Greenville alot more security on the ball and you could see the dominance in their possession for the 20 minutes they operate in this way. CVF was man marking the midfielders all evening long and this extra midfielder gave GVL a lot more options for combinations going forward to disrupt the tight marking centrally. Peep the banger from Jamie Smith as well.

You can see below how much more secure the midfield was on the ball in the second half. Fuego’s intermittent press didn’t give Greenville near as much trouble as they now had an extra passing option in deeper areas and it allowed Coutinho to play that second striker/10 role that Ibarra had been playing in the first half. Fuego didn’t seem to make many changes at half time and continued to operate as they had. Here you can see how the game changed from half to half with Greenville beginning to operate more centrally in the second half and Fuego struggling to keep any sort of consistency, often resorting to long balls that fell incomplete.

One thing of note: the left sided duo of Bijev and Smith really locked down Greenville’s right side in the second half. The Venton and Jamie duo had been prolific in the first half, but the Fuego pair forced them into quicker decisions and therefore often forced them to choose security over taking too many risks. Because of this, only three (3) passes were completed into dangerous areas from Greenville’s right side for almost the entire second half. Don Smart comes on in the 80th minute and puts a few passes into the final third from the right side/center of that midfield, but for the most part that wing was locked up.

The left wing, on the other hand, was prime for chance creation (as seen above). The smart rotations by Gavilanes, Polak, and Walker opened up a lot of chances or near chances for the offense. They often pulled Akinlosotu out of position and were able to get in behind, but ultimately nothing came of it. The Fuego defensive block did well to prevent most shots from testing the keeper and even if he was tested, Antman did a great job of providing security to the team. Fuego ended with 19 clearances on the night, which didn’t hold a candle to NCFC, but is still significant.

Ultimately, what undid Greenville and set Fuego alight was that central progression spoken of earlier, this time successful and a mistake due to lack of options and hesitation. The first goal looks exactly like the pattern of play from the 30th minute, but this time Chaney gets to the ball first and slots it home nicely from just inside the 18 yard box.

The second goal is partially a product of a GVL tactical switch and also some indecision. Until the 67th minute, GVL looked very secure in possession and were dominant on the ball, but still didn’t look like scoring. Something had to be done with GVL down a goal. Harkes put on Labovitz and takes off Pearson, which — of course he should. You have to know when to go for it and it was surely time. The negative effect this has is one less player available between the lines or to drop deep to prevent the high press along with the fact that Fuego was still matching midfielder for midfielder in a tight man marking scheme. Because they had moved back into that 4-4-2, dropping a midfielder into the back line or too deep would simply pull another man marking player into a press and put even more pressure on Christensen. These things happen and as long as they happen early in the season and not often, your team just gets a learning experience that will be very valuable later on.

Chaney senses indecision from Christensen just a minute before the goal due to lack of options and pounces on it the second time, stealing the ball from Christensen and tapping it into an open net.

Labovitz did bring a lot of life to the Greenville attack, immediately impacting the game with a shot on target from distance and a header just off. His presence was a net positive, even though they had nothing to show for it. Errors don’t negate the validity of the changes. Christensen is a fantastic keeper and will surely bounce back. There’s a reason he’s nicknamed Paul the Wall and it’s not because he’s typically easy to get past. And on the other end, you get the feeling that Antman’s name will only grow in popularity as the season goes on.

This game featured only 30 fouls which felt a little low to me (lol), but it is what it is. As the game came closer to ending, Fuego did an excellent job of disrupting any momentum with tactical fouls and time wasting (which are 100% allowed) that prevented Greenville from being able to get back into the game.

Ultimately, Greenville owned this game, but couldn’t do anything with the chances they created. According to Goals Added by American Soccer Analysis, they were more dangerous and positive in every single area of the pitch — except for two spots: Both 18-yard boxes. Fuego was more dangerous where it mattered and that’s what got them across the finish line.

It’s a good bit too soon to sound the alarm bells for Greenville or declare Fuego the League One champions (of course you’re likely reading this the day after they thumped Locomotive in the Open Cup, so maybe we should), but both teams learned valuable lessons over the weekend. The thing is, Fuego did *enough* to win. And that’s all that is needed in this sport, just enough to pick up three points. The good news for Greenville is that their dominance bodes well for picking up points throughout the season if it can continue — and long may it. As a Greenville fan, I am definitely excited by what I saw and can’t wait to see this dominance turn into goals and wins.

Milkman ‘Meh’ Player of the Match (Milkman is my resident Player of the Match picker. The ‘Meh’ has nothing to do with quality or even Milkman’s like or dislike of the player. He just wanted to say Meh before he chose as like a non-chalant gesture deal. It’s a bit.): Christian Chaney

Milkman wasn’t happy about this one, but Christian Chaney was clearly the man deserving of the award this week. Dynamic runs, great hold up play, and decent on the ball, but ultimately he popped up when it mattered and got his team two goals and three points. In fact, going back to the Goals added algorithm, there was no single player more valuable to his team in week 1 than Christian Chaney. One to watch for the coming weeks in League One (Obviously you’re reading this after their victory over L1 Open Cup punching bag El Paso, so you’re starting to get the idea that there is a lot of quality there that will be SO dangerous as they find their feet together.).

On the Greenville side of things, he really enjoyed Jamie Smith’s debut. For the rocket alone, he deserves this spot. Imagine if it had gone in. SO many good debuts on the Greenville side to build from.

This contest was fascinating and offered so many great insights into two great teams. There were so many videos that I didn’t get to share due to my desire to be *somewhat* brief. There will also be a lot more data and data visuals as the season progresses and we can actually pull anything meaningful from it. If you enjoyed this, we’ll take a look at 2021 League One Champions Union Omaha as they face Madison this Saturday in next week’s edition of GOTW! Also, if you liked this or thought it could use some improvement, talk to me! I created this account because I was originally wanting to work on my coaching licenses and move into coaching more, but life happened and I have had to put that goal on hiatus for now. So, i’m putting efforts where I can to continue learning as much as possible in this hiatus — and I also just really love local soccer (also, felt too painful to create an account about Arsenal tactics/matches at the time). I’m totally up for constructive criticism or discussion about the tactics and even being wrong! Thanks for interacting.

USL L1 Week One Preview and Predictions

*Featured photo credit: Brittany Hildreth Photography*

Make sure to check out her work for anything Greenville soccer related!

The League One season is upon us and brings all kinds of new and old story lines to the surface. If you want to get my opinions on the strengths of these squads or where my terrible opinions lead me to believe they will finish before we even kick the season off, go watch the Preseason Pod from Walkin 90 or the League One “Short Show” from the USL Show. We’ve got 4 games to cover for this weekend and I wanted to do a quick preview of each one! Each week, I’ll pick (or maybe you will) a game of the week and give a little extra attention to it with potential line ups, post game tactical breakdowns, and a player of the match. This week is of course Greenville’s home opener (y’all picked it, not me. I would have picked it though).

*USLL1Review Game Of The Week* Greenville Triumph VS CV Fuego FC: Greenville Win 2-1

A USL League One stalwart up against a very intimidating looking Fuego FC will surely be the story of the weekend. Greenville will surely be looking to make this season all about making that fourth title appearance in a row. Having never lost a home opener in their three years of existence, Greenville will be looking to come out strong against the league newcomers. Greenville’s tough, attacking transition based style will surely be a tough welcome to the league for a team that has done quite well in the pre-season.

On the Greenville side, we’ll likely see a very familiar side start the game, with the wing duo of Allen Gavilanes and Jesus Ibarra looking to make a big impact. On the other end, USL-C stalwart Villyan Bijev will be looking to be involved in the goals while a familiar face in Victor Falk will look to frustrate the Greenville attack in the midfield. Or — none of these players will play. That’s the beauty of the first game of the season. But i’m banking on these players being important parts of their teams if they do get the nod on Saturday. I have a feeling that Labovitz will be a big part of the Greenville squad this year. That being said, a big game to kick off the season could see Harkes opting for the seasoned veteran in Jake Keegan. Noah Franke misses out this week to injury (I think). I literally have no idea how Fuego will set up, but based off of the players at their disposal, the 4-4-2 felt very plausible.

Obviously, we also have to wrestle with the emergence of A LOT of NISA talent coming to L1 this season and this Fuego side that has plenty could be a good barometer for how players from the other 3rd division league might fair. This looks to be a really tough battle on paper and i’m so excited that I get to be there in person. I picked this one to end 2-1 as it looks like a tough task to prevent Bijev from doing SOMETHING, but Greenville’s cohesion and defensive strength will likely be the difference maker across the full 90.

‘Expected’ Line Up:

*Edit: After hearing Harkes on the team website about the pre-season and what they’ll be looking to do, it sounds like Jamie Smith will be taking that RB role come Saturday and a couple of small but recent injuries in midfield could lead to some changes there as well. There is one possibility in that vein that could be really exciting.*

Richmond Kickers VS FC Tucson: Richmond Win 2-1

Two playoff teams from 2021 kick off the season against each other in what looks to be a very tough encounter. One of the most frustrating teams to play against at home last season, Richmond still looks incredibly tough, returning more playing minutes from the previous year than any other team in the league. There are some question marks in their team, namely the loss of Ivan Maghaeles. The retired defender was arguably the most important part of that back line for 2020 and 2021. With Dakota Barnathan effectively coming in as his replacement, it will be interesting to see how this team grapples with the loss of such an important member. I’m looking at Jonathan Bolanos to be the difference maker this weekend, as that left side was arguably the best part of Richmond’s attack last season. They owned the left side when it came to adding value to their attacks (Goals added is basically an algorithm made by American Soccer Analysis that determines the value of player actions based off of the end points or conclusions of those actions). No team added more value on the left wing than Richmond and a huge part of that was down to Bolanos. On the other side of the field, it will be interesting to see who takes up the rb spot with the early departure of Esteban Calvo. Strong defense, field stretching, and the need to cover Terzaghi, which could pull defenders out of position will all be key aspects of a Richmond side that was SO good at home last season.

On the other end of this, Tucson ended the season on a HOT streak before getting tossed aside by Union Omaha in the Playoff Semi-Final. The high scoring side lost some key components in Charlie Dennis, Shak Adams, and BOTH fullbacks, but brought in some astute replacements in players like Tyler Allen and Jacob Crull. Deri Corfe, Giovanni Calixtro, and Kaelon Fox will surely be important focal points as far as returning players go and will likely be the difference makers if Tucson want a result. I’ll particularly looking at Calixtro to provide interplay with the wide forwards and free 8s by dropping in as a creative force. I really enjoy the way Tucson play, but also recognize the difficulty that comes with playing at City Stadium. It’ll be really important for Tucson to use their dynamic runs from midfield and wide to open up space against a typically stout Richmond low block. Tucson was really good at disorganizing opponents last season. An interesting, possibly game changing, battle in this game will be set pieces as you can see above. I picked 2-1 to Richmond simply because their stadium is an absolute fortress. It’s impossible to bet against Richmond at home until they start to prove otherwise.

Chattanooga Red Wolves VS Forward Madison: Madison Win 3-2

Special game with new head coach at Madison and a slightly depleted Chattanooga side that COULD struggle to get off on the right foot. This is the pick i’m least confident in as Chattanooga is always a real wild card and if it’s anything like last year, Chattanooga loves to be the bad guy. When Matt Glaeser was hired, he talked about his influences and ideas, with one of his influences being known for overly attacking soccer to the point of being quoted as preferring a 5-4 scoreline to a clean sheet. We’ll likely see a Madison team that wants to control possession, good counter-pressing structure, and creating high quality scoring chances. So in other words, we’ll likely see some similarities between the Chattanooga and Madison systems no matter how they set up formationally. From what i’ve heard, Madison want to be flexible formationally. They seem likely to set up with a back 3, having acquired a large number of CBs (some from back three systems) and fullbacks who could fill in as CBs. They look SO STRONG defensively, but Chattanooga is a different animal. It will be interesting to see a number of their players who are clearly talented but have lacked consistent playing time like Matheus Cassini and Abdou Thiam as they get their feet wet in L1.

On the Chattanooga end, they’re missing some key players for a variety of reasons and that could cause them to struggle. That being said, a few of those players haven’t been present for the entirety of pre-season and Chattanooga has still looked really solid. They will probably be typical Chattanooga: Field Control via a very high defensive line, central overloads with overlapping fullbacks, good counter pressure, and very high quality chances. Above you can see how Chattanooga’s forwards (Galindrez, Hernandez, and Frischknecht) were constantly in high value positions when they took their shots, largely due to the strong counter pressure and field control. Even Jonathan Ricketts (THE RIGHT BACK) took shots from better positions on average than many strikers. Obviously good positions don’t always equal goals (there are a couple of examples of that negatively on the graph above), but the pressure placed on opposition by Chattanooga puts so much stress on defensive structures. The winner of this match will likely be the team that is able to convert their high quality chances. Both teams have shown, even Madison without a new coach, that they can get players in high quality positions. Both teams also showed how high quality positions don’t mean squat if you don’t take advantage of them. It should be a high velocity match, but I think that Madison will pull out a 3-2 win and have a fun bus ride home.

Tormenta VS NCFC: Draw 2-2

This is going to be an inticing game! The two bottom dwellers from the previous season face off in what MIGHT be the most fun game of the weekend. Both teams struggled with any kinds of consistency last season to a frustrating degree and both were in need of some re-working. Both teams have similar convictions when it comes to youth development and while we’ll still see many young faces take the field during the L1 season, both teams did a lot of work to bring in leadership and re charge their attacks. On the Tormenta end, i’m most excited about Dayton product Kingsford Adjei. Kazaiah Sterling was a huge signing on the marketing end, but until we see him take the field in the states, there will be question marks about the highly regarded striker. Tormenta kind of struggled at consistently creating high quality chances, with only this weekends opponents creating fewer ‘big chances’ across the whole of 2022. They obviously still scored plenty considering the lower number of big chances, but the huge upside to Adjei is that he seems to create and take chances at a incredibly high rate on his own. Top 50 in the nation at NCAA level for shots taken, he was an incredibly potent attacking midfielder and you can see that on the ball and creation ability below. Getting him on the ball and in positions to score as much as possible will be huge for Tormenta’s chances at taking the win at home. That being said, they’ve done some incredible work this off season both outgoing and incoming. I’m excited to see how this new look and young team attacks the new season!

From the NCFC perspective, the basement dwelling team has done a fantastic job of addressing the issue of weaknesses in certain areas as well as bringing in really good leadership personalities. I’m not sure if they’ll be a playoff team this year, but i’m really high on the work they’ve done. They’ve brought in and retained great creative players, strikers, and defenders. As you can see in the xG graph above, NCFC’s struggles in attack could be a thing of the past with acquisitions like Garret Mclaughlin, Oalex Anderson, and Nicolas Molina. The xG per shot metric sometimes tells us more about tactical set up than it does individual quality, but the fact that they have multiple strikers getting in good positions bodes well for the Raleigh team. I also believe that the acquisition of Jordan Skelton will be MASSIVE for the defense. A vocal leader and organizer, Skelton won 70% of his headers at a top 3 duels rate at the League One level in 2020. Helping lead the Des Moines Menace to a L2 title is also another fantastic addition to his resume. Leaky will likely no longer be an adjective for the NCFC defense. It will be interesting to see how this NCFC team continues to grow into the league. I have this game ending with a 2-2 draw as both teams will be looking to get off to a fast start and will want to be all up in the goals.

League One season is SO close! With diverse tactical set ups, incredibly intelligent and motivated coaches, and hungry players we are looking at what is likely to be the best season yet! Thanks for reading as always and make sure to subscribe to email updates to be the first person to see new articles on this site! Stay tuned for highlights, tactical insights, and some more bad opinions about USL League One!

The Richmond (Corner) Kickers

Under Darren Sawatzky, the Richmond Kickers have become a formidable force in USL League One. Defensively strong and dangerous in transition, the Kickers look revitalized–ending the last two seasons in playoff positions. There are a lot of things that make them dangerous opponents, but I want to highlight one strength in particular that sets Richmond apart from many other clubs in League One: Attacking Corner Kicks. No club has scored from corner kicks more than Richmond since Sawatzky took the helm in 2020. In fact, no club has even created more chances from corners (Greenville has created the same amount in that time) than the Kickers in 2020 and 2021. Richmond are executing like no other team and it’s important that teams seek to figure out why. Otherwise, you’re allowing a team to basically create free chances that can be preventable if studied.

Some quick facts about set pieces and corners from Spielverlagerung, a tactical theory website:

  • Scoring from set-pieces is more likely than from possession
  • Scoring from a corner is more likely than from a free-kick
  • More likely to score from inswinging corners than outswinging
  • More likely to score from a 2nd ball than from a shot from corners

So basically, not placing SOME kind of emphasis on corner kicks/set pieces is like being offered free money and not taking the offer because you aren’t sure if the money being offered is worth your time. Last week, I shared some data visualizations to show how efficient teams were at taking corners in 2021. Here they are if you missed them:

Right off the bat, you can see that Richmond have one of the highest expected goals per shot from corners, they average the most shots per game from corners, and they tied for the most goals scored from corners. Now to quickly define what I mean by “from a corner”, I want to be clear and note that I am referring to a phase of play and not just the immediate action. The following example will help offer clarity. While this wasn’t from the corner itself, the offense and defense were still operating under the presumption that this was a set piece.

As you can see, even though the first action wasn’t what created the goal, both teams were still operating in set piece structures and continued to do so until the goal was scored. Richmond does some interesting things that help them score goals in these situations, whether they are first time shots or not. I wanted to find out what they did, if there were any patterns, and how effective they were. Let’s take a look at a few of their corners now and analyze how they go about creating chances.

First off, An interesting thing to note is that all 7 goals that were scored came from In-swinging corners. While Spielverlagerung does note that teams are more likely to score from inswinging than outswinging, it’s not THAT big of a difference statistically. Which means that Richmond was really putting in work to make these inswinging corners more dangerous. If you’re wondering what inswinging and outswinging mean, here are some examples:

Outswinging Corner: If the ball kept curling, it would turn away from goal.
Inswinging Corner: The Ball eventually curls towards the goal.

For this first corner, no second ball is needed. They win the first header and put it in the back of the net. So how does it happen? There are two general ways to go about taking a corner: offering coverage across the goal so that the taker doesn’t have to prioritize any one target, OR a team can prioritize one particular target and move in such a way that opens space for that target to receive the ball. For Richmond in this case, they choose to offer coverage across the goal, mostly due to the man marking taking place by Toronto. That being said, i didn’t see too many moments where they attempted to target any one person in regularity. They start movement just before the corner is taken to try to shake their markers and free up space. Bolanos opens up space and temporarily removes another body by dropping back to the edge of the box. This is not why he drops back (I’ll explain that later), but it helps offer a solution to their problem.

Terzaghi was their leading scorer from corners (duh?) with 3 goals and his work at the near post was instrumental in creating chaos, whether or not it was him taking the shot. His presence alone was often enough to pull defenders out of position.

Not all teams used man marking in set piece situations though. A couple of notable teams were Madison and the Revs II against Richmond. This created new problems to solve as I don’t think Richmond were willing to commit enough people in the box to match up numerically with their team. So in these instances against Madison and Revs you see almost everyone setting up outside the defensive structure until the kick is about to be taken. They then have individuals crash each post in an effort to disrupt the zonal structure. These runners weren’t tracked well and caused chaos in the box. 


Another important point to note about their corner routines is how they structured themselves in order to win “the second ball” and prolong the phase of play to put pressure on goal. They did some unique things to keep possession of the ball in corner situations and i’d like to highlight one that showed up time and time again when Richmond took corners. The team tended to create this wall that boxes in defenses and allows them to recover possession easily. One person, often Bolanos, drops deep to sit alongside the CDM lurking on the edge of the box and they always make sure to have someone as the furthest standing individual in the wall to give them ample opportunity to recover balls that go past the far post. This goal against Chattanooga has to be one of the longest phases of corner play from League One this season, but Richmond does a great job of keeping the play alive and putting pressure on the set piece defense. With Bolanos dropping deep to provide support on second balls, Falk lurking on the edge, and Bryant hanging out as the furthest wide option, Richmond has effectively boxed in the opposition defense, allowing them to easily retain possession. This is a huge reason why Richmond was able to get so many shots off. There were so many chances created off of winning possession back and keeping the play alive. 

The Kickers will be looking to replicate their success on corners in 2022 and unless teams do some serious work to improve their defense against them, I don’t see them slowing down any time soon. This is by no means all of the information to be found on Richmond corners, but simply a couple of patterns I noticed that were very successful for them in set piece situations. The Richmond (Corner) Kickers (I 100% stole that name from the marketing guy after he retweeted my data vizzes last week, sorry man!) have utilized a weapon that many teams in League One haven’t — or simply won’t. Having something like this in your locker to fall back on is so important in a long season with plenty of twists and turns. It doesn’t rely on any one person, but on the team executing together and I think they have all the tools to keep the pressure on in set piece situations for 2022. 

Player Report: Kingsford Adjei

*Featured photo credit to University of Dayton*

Nationality: Ghanian

Age: 23

Birthday: 1/21/1999

Height: 5’5″

Weight: 160 lbs

Current Club: South Georgia Tormenta FC

Position: Attacking Midfielder

Alternate Position(s): Forward

Preferred Foot: Right

Bringing players to your club is a complicated process. There are so many moving parts that have to come together in order for the paths of player and club to cross, especially at the League One level. Because of this, it is vitally important to make sure the people you bring to your club are the kind of people you want representing your community and club. This is something that is important at all levels of football/soccer, but I believe it can be especially important at the League One level. Players respresent the diverse and tight knit communities in which they find themselves pursuing their dreams. While some of these players may never become household names, they will be remembered by the people they represented.

Enter a club that constantly seeks to embody the values of its fans and is the epitome of professional community club: South Georgia Tormenta FC. While they haven’t been known as the best on the field team in League One, they’ve certainly accomplished a lot. You’d be hard pressed to find a club in the League that continuously represents their community in a positive way as well as Tormenta. This isn’t to take anything away from the great work clubs across the league are doing, but rather to highlight the way in which this club presents itself to its community and the world – and the thing about it is they don’t look for recognition either. For the longest time, I had no idea. I first encountered this at the end of last year when Marco Micaletto came on the walkin 90 podcast and told his story of how the ownership group took care of him in a moment of crisis before he ever signed for the club. If you take a closer look, you start to see just how thoughtfully this club is run and managed. Even small things, such as celebrating holidays that are important to the Head Coach Ian Cameron seem to be commonplace — this isn’t even considering how they handle youth development, how they use their digital voice for good, and how they make their city better.

When you consider these things, it’s important that you continue to bring in players that will continue to embody the ethos of the club as well. Kingsford Adjei, recently named the No. 1 prospect to come out of USL League Two, seems to be a perfect match for a club bent on being a force for good with big ambitions on the field as well. Adjei is a graduate of the prestigious “Right To Dream” academy in Accra, Ghana (was named student of the year once). While it’s mission statement revolves around how much they focus on building well rounded individuals, they have come to be known for producing some incredible footballing talents — one of them being Kingsford himself. In 2020, he sat down with the Dayton University media team about his journey and if you have an extra few minutes, it’s definitely worth reading. Just from the article, you can tell Adjei is a guy with HUGE ambition, but it doesn’t keep him from impacting others positively. The now Tormenta attacker was named to the A10 conference 1st team of the year all three years he was there, named midfielder of the year twice, leading his team to an A10 League title, and a plethora of other awards that would take far too long to list. Drafted by NYCFC this year, things didn’t quite work out to start, but from what I can tell Adjei has a pretty big future ahead of him and his time at Tormenta will be just the beginning. What does he bring to the team? Well, let’s take a look (quick note: at both the NCAA and USL L2 levels, it is next to impossible to find publicly available data worth using outside of goals and assists. It’s also impressivey hard to find game film outside of highlights for the NCAA. Keep that in mind if this article seems a little shorter):

Kingsford, able to play centrally or out wide in attacking areas, was and is incredibly productive in front of goal. While he’s definitely somewhat of a playmaker, he’s definitely more of a finisher — looking to finish off attacking moves with a shot on the goal. Across 54 appearances at the collegiate level he scored 30 goals and provided 14 assists, and scoring 5 (0 assists) across 6 appearances with the Des Moines Menace. You take one look at the tape and you start to see why: Adjei is incredible at finding open space or making space for himself if there isn’t any. Adjei’s ability to attack open space is highlighted below. Out wide, he was an absolute menace when it came to attacking open space. Not only that, but as one of the top shooters in the A10 league and in the top 50 for shots per game NATIONALLY, you could bet that Kingsford would be popping off some shots at your goal. He’s confident, dangerous, and clinical.

Dayton Flyers Youtube

Here you can see how Adjei slips through the seam unknown to the defenders and finds himself with acres of space before firing a right footed shot home. His off the ball intelligence is fantastic, constantly making smart runs that cause trouble for opponents. You can see how confident he is, not hesitating in making the run or taking the shot, rendering the goalkeeper useless in this moment. In transition, I found it interesting how he always seemed to be open despite the fact that he was clearly a huge threat. He was like a ghost, drifting — unbeknownst to the surrounding defenders– into open space before attacking it and creating chances.

Kingsford Adjei Highlight Reel Junior Season on Youtube

His ability to attack open space was matched by his ability to create space for himself on the ball. He’s not a pushover by any means and while the ball sometimes looks like it’s glued to his feet, he has the strength to match up with just about anyone. He can match up with bigger defenders when the ball is on the ground as well as wriggling through tight spaces to create space for his teammates. He’s so good at dribbling out of danger to open space for teammates and give teammates more time to make dangerous forward runs. I love both videos below which highlight both his strength/on ball skills and his creativity. The line breaking pass was a thing of beauty. Something of note: Despite his incredible ability on the ball, he’s very reliant on his right foot. In the film I was able to find, it was very rare to see him use his left foot at all. He definitely improved in this area over the past two years (the clip below is one of 3 or 4 instances I can remember that he did something other than dribble with his left foot) and i’m not sure it hampers his game TOO much (especially after watching him keep hold of the ball below), but it’s definitely something to note.

Credit: Kingsford Adjei Hightlight Reel Junior Season Youtube
Credit: Kingsford Adjei Hightlight Reel Junior Season Youtube

Now there are plenty of highlights that show how tricky he can be on the ball, but one thing I love is that he doesn’t always try to play out of danger or over-dribble. Sometimes, he just applies the basics well and finds it to be enough. Here, he does a good job of recognizing the lack of space behind him and passes back before winning the foul moments later, earning his team a corner in a pretty dangerous position that ends up being a shot on goal. Ian Cameron mentioned this in the Tormenta press release, but this clip highlights the strength he possesses to hold off the defender while keeping hold of the ball. One of Adjei’s strengths is his toughness/strength that is uncharacteristic of a tricky attacking midfielder like himself.

Des Moines Menace vs. Green Bay Voyageurs Game

Out of possession, Adjei was a hard runner and made life difficult for opposition players on the ball. Either screening passing lanes or in the video below you see how his pressing forced a bad pass that creates a chance for Des Moines. He’s a smart player that is able to execute tactical instructions well and it seems like smart pressing is a strength he possesses. As another point of weakness, he does have a tendency to stick a leg out quite far in vain attempts to win a ball from time to time if he’s not squarely in position to intercept, halting momentum and leaving him in the lurch. That being said, he’s generally good at screening passing lanes, so this doesn’t happen that often. When it did happen, it was merely a matter of getting back into position to keep shape. Luckily, this was rarely punished

All of these things boil down to the mental attributes that he possesses in abundance: intelligence, confidence, awareness, and reaction times. I think his mental attributes are what set him apart as an incredible player that will have a huge impact at Tormenta under Ian Cameron. A man undeterred by anything thrown his way, Kingsford is sure to make waves in the league and sit squarely in the nightmares of most USL League One defenders. He’s sure of himself in the best possible way and will surely be a contagious force in the locker room that brings the quality of play up and lifts the game of those around him. This man will create absolute chaos in League One on and off the ball and he’s definitely one to watch coming into the 2022 season.

NCFC Wins “Most Improved”

I’m a big underdog guy. I love David taking down Goliath stories and seeing small things become great. That’s probably part of the reason I have such an affinity towards NCFC. They get a lot of flack for their performance last season and just their general ethos of prioritizing young academy players. Despite making it to the USLC playoffs in 2019, they’ve struggled to replicate any sort of good form. Last year, NCFC finished the season in 12th place in the League One Standings with a goal differential of -20. They faced 452 shots (FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY TWO) across 28 games, and conceded 50 goals. That concession rate was not a huge difference between the teams at the bottom of the table, but 50 goals shipped in a season isn’t GREAT and conceding 452 shots is certainly not ideal. On top of their defensive struggles, they really struggled to create despite having some high quality creative players like JayTee Kamara. They actually performed as expected, pretty much matching their expected goals on the season with 30 goals. Even though they converted their chances on par, they created the fewest big chances in the league with 42 and yet were 7th in the league in Big chances missed with 27. That’s not a good combination. That being said, looking a little deeper at the numbers behind their season, things weren’t all bad. There were some encouraging signs that show signs of life and encouragement for the future for NCFC fans. Let’s take a look:

First off, we know that NCFC didn’t create a lot of chances. The encouraging thing about NCFC on attack is that they were above average at converting their shots. Theoretically, their tactics freed them to get into good positions to score. When they did, they did better at conversion than alot of the clubs in the league. On defense, we see that NCFC did have a *slightly* above average opposition goal conversion rate. That being said, when you face as much pressure as the NCFC backline did on a regular basis (faced 50 more shots than the next highest team in L1), it’s amazing what they accomplished. Theoretically speaking, they were no easier to score on than Greenville or Chattanooga. This is obviously a more complex situation and simplifying it to just these numbers ignores tactics, defensive shape, etc. that gave each team their numbers, but that’s still quite an encouraging set of statistics underlying their season. On top of that, they did a really good job of converting the smaller number of corners they were able to muster. They far out performed what they were expected to when they won corners and this is a great sign for them heading into the new year. The numbers that NCFC put up make corners an incredible weapon for this team to have in a really competitive league. If they can put up those efficiency numbers at a higher rate of chances, they will be even tougher to deal with.

All these numbers tell us about last year, but we want to know what’s going to happen THIS year. So, for the next few minutes, I want to take a look at how their signings improve some aspects of their game.

Defense

Last season, keepers for NCFC dealt with a pretty interesting problem. An average of 18.5% of the shots they faced were headers. This was the highest average headers faced for a goalkeeping core (only including players who played over 500 minutes) in the entirety of USL League One. Their aerial duels were lacking and this caused a lot of problems. Max Flick is a great CB (I wrote about him for my first ever article at length here.), but the defense as a whole struggled to cope. Enter Jordan Skelton: Former Tormenta and Des Moines Menace Player and aerial duel extraodinaire (take a look at his highlights here). Jordan was a statement pick up for a growing NCFC team. At Tormenta in 2020, Skelton won 70% of his aerial duels on the season. That’s not a fluke or a percentage that just makes him look good despite not going for aerial duels that often. In 2020, only 2 other defenders won more aerial duels than Skelton (44 out of 63). One other thing I love about Skelton is how he communicates and organizes the back line so well. If you watched him at De Moines last year, you could constantly see him communicating with the other defenders and helping them keep shape. His strength in the air as well as his great organizational/leadership skills make him a great addition to an NCFC defense that includes another new signing— former (and now current) teammate Christian Young, El Salvador international Nelson Martinez, and many other high quality options (Flores being one of those).

Midfield

This is an interesting bit. Despite the return of many players, a key name will be missing on the creative end: Jay Tee Kamara.

Arguably, one of the more talented players in League One, Kamara will be a huge miss and maybe a bit of a blessing in disguise for a midfield in need of solidity. While he was one of the most prolific dribblers in the league (no one competes… other than possibly Damian Rivera), his desire to take people on sometimes got his team in trouble in central positions. This is especially important considering his INCREDIBLE creative ability didn’t help them enough (not really his fault) to outweigh how much he lost the ball. Losing the ball per 90 more times than anyone else on the team, he basically lost the ball every three touches. While his talent is undeniable and he’s got a place in higher leagues very soon/now, NCFC will definitely benefit from some more security on the ball this year. Obviously this risk-reward balance is inevitable for a creative player like him, but I’m not sure it’s something NCFC can afford in the middle of the field at the moment, as central areas were the source of greatest joy for opposing teams facing NCFC. The signing of Raheem Sommersall and the returnees in Pecka and Arriaga will hopefully be the start of a great midfield in 2022, but I’d imagine they’re looking to bring someone else in. I’m wrong all the time though, so we’ll see. Maybe we’ll see them continue that academy to first team pipeline that is such an important part of their ethos!

Forwards

The front line was a big issue for NCFC in 2021. Wingers and strikers consistently struggled to turn possession in the attacking half/final third into chances. Below, you can see how only one NCFC attacker was even average at getting into good positions when they shot. It was not ideal. This year , NCFC are LOADED with attacking talent that will likely turn a below average attack into an absolute force of nature. In Showkat Tahir and Jaden Servania, you have incredibly creative players who are incredible dribblers and creators. Their ability to act as a magnet for defenders on the ball seems to open up so much space for teammates and both of them have a decent eye for goal. You can see below how Showkat does an incredible job of opening up space for his team by wiggling through 2 or 3 defenders and therefore creating a chance for his team. Also, signing Servania from Birmingham Legion feels like a coup and NCFC should be absolutely thrilled to have acquired such a high quality young player. Both of these players are incredibly intelligent, able to find and make space for themselves and their teammates while also being able to work pretty well without space. I won’t speak on it today, but there’s a lot to be said for having players who can open up space via dribbling that really makes a team more dynamic and lethal.

Showkat Tahir Highlight reel on Youtube

Along with their wide talent, NCFC have acquired two top quality strikers for the League One Level. First up is Garret McLaughlin. McLaughlin spent the 2021 season at Toronto FC II after spending some time in the Championship. This season, he had a pretty decent return rate in a team that finished just outside of playoff contention. He had an above average conversion rate, which is quite good considering he had 10 “big chances missed” on the season. I’ve talked multiple times about why that isn’t really a worrying stat for me unless it’s accompanied by a lack of goals/ conversion rate, but as you can see below McLaughlin is well into the top half of strikers when it comes to his Goal Conversion Rate. Not only that, but it’s hard to find a striker who got into better positions to score than him. His xG per 90 is incredibly high, partly due to the tactical set up of TFCII, but also because he’s just good. As you can see below, he averages about .19 xG per shot, which basically means the positions he gets in imply that he’d score a goal almost every 1 out of 5 shots. That’s quite a good return rate. Obviously, for a striker to truly thrive at NCFC it’s important that they improve on the number of chances they create this year.

The other striker is Nicolas Molina from UNCW and West Virginia United. Last summer, Molina was the Golden Boot winner and League MVP for USL League 2 scoring 16 goals in 13 matches. While I can’t really find stats to compile for his time in League Two (any data worth using is very hard to come by at that level), watching him play makes him look like quite the prospect for NCFC. While he is *quite* tall, his frame doesn’t prevent him from being good with the ball at his feet and connecting the build up. He’s pretty good in the air and is another one of those players that just seems to be in the right place at the right time. He had an incredible conversion rate in USL2 last season and rightfully won the award for the most valuable player in the league. This feels like a HUGE pick up for NCFC and while you never know until they’re there, I’m excited to see him play.

Now, obviously I don’t know how good this team is ACTUALLY going to be. I don’t know if i’m going to give a team a rating based off of pre-season signings, but I’m really encouraged by what they’ve done to address the issues of last year and create opportunities for more youth to make the jump to the first team. With the return of the young goalie Nicholas Holliday and many other young academy players ready to impress, i’m confident that we’ll see major improvements from the team in Raleigh. I’d keep an eye out on this young team that has seen players make international appearances, train in Germany with big clubs, and so much more.

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.