Coming off their first win of the season, Louisville City had a weekend of rest before their next USL regular season encounter. Given the sudden departure of Coach John Hackworth, that extra time was needed to work through the change. While losing a coach is never ideal, especially so early in the campaign, the squad will be in the capable hands of Coach Danny Cruz. The boys in purple are set for their first match at Lynn Family Stadium with Coach Cruz at the helm against the Birmingham Legion.
The Legion is a somewhat unfamiliar opponent for LouCity having only faced them three times with the last encounter nearly two years ago. Despite Louisville's lead in the series and their home opener loss to Indy Eleven, they are an opponent that should not be taken lightly. Birmingham is looking to build from the success of 2020. They finished second in Group G and made it to the playoffs. Unfortunately, their first-round opponent was the eventual Eastern Conference winners, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Their 4-2 defeat in the Conference Quarterfinals ended their 2020 season. To their credit, it was a TBR side that also ended Louisville City’s 2020 season.
In 2020, the Legion averaged 1.82 goals on a xG/match of 1.08. For context, City averaged 1.74 goals with a xG/match of 1.7. Defensively, they were more porous than Louisville, allowing an average of 1.4 goals against with a xG against per match of 1.4. Like Morados, they tended to lead in possession. Despite this, it’s a new season with new pieces added to the mix for both squads. In the early March season preview, Birmingham was described as one of the top teams in the Central Division with USL Tactics writing:
“The Legion brought back their core (Lapa, Lopez, etc.) while adding three all-league players in Junior Flemmings, Phanuel Kavita, and Ryan James. Birmingham might be a defensive midfielder short right now, but they’ll be in the running for the Central title thanks to two MVP candidates in Lapa and Flemmings.”
USL Tactics has a great team profile on the Legion you can check out here.
Before diving into some of their key pieces, it is worth mentioning that JJ Williams and Junior Flemmings will not be a part of the upcoming #LOUvBHM match. Williams received a red card late in the Indy match and Flemmings is serving the remainder of his suspension for his actions late last season with Phoenix Rising. With those two out of the picture, players such as Neco Brett, Bruno Lapa, and Jonathan Dean will need to step up against the two-time USL champs.
Neco Brett was the team’s leading goal scorer in 2020, his first season with the club. He scored nine times averaging 0.78 goals per 90 minutes. Before his time with the Legion, he spent two seasons with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds where he was their predominant goal-scoring threat. Bruno Lapa was not too far behind in the 2020 goal count with seven to his name along with five assists. USL Tactics described the young Brazilian as “one of USL’s breakout stars.” And finally, you have Jonathan Dean. While he is not much of a scoring threat like those above, Dean is a defender who is capable of helping his peers find the net. Last season, he tied Lapa with a team-leading five assists.
For a deeper dive into LouCity’s opposition, I have recruited the help of Kaylor Hodges. Kaylor is the host of the Hammering Down podcast (Apple Podcast, Spotify) and a VERY knowledgeable USL fan. He does an outstanding job in outlining the Legion’s squad in his roster preview episode and has provided the below write up on the team entering the #LOUvBHM match:
For Birmingham Legion FC, the saying “Life’s a Beach” can mean a multitude of things. With the amount of talent on the pitch, life should be as easy and carefree as a weekend with Jimmy Buffett. With the performance on May 1st against Indy Eleven, it could be so infuriating that the fans wish they had a limitless supply of margaritas. Or it could be that UAB has decided that Dauphin Island is a little too far away and turned BBVA Field into their own personal tropical getaway. No matter how you look at it, the 3 Sparks have started off this season by giving their fans more questions than answers.
Before we dive into the issues Legion FC experienced against the Indy Eleven last week, we need to dive into the lineup and the coaching to explain why the result is as confusing as it is.
The Brazilian Magician, All USL player Bruno Lapa and MLS Rookie of the Year Mikey Lopez leads the midfield. Assisting those players is one of Legion’s most valuable players, Ghanaian Midfielder Anderson Asiedu, who not only stands out as the only player on the pitch with his shirt tucked in, but also as a player who is not afraid to put in any tackle, stand up to any ref, and NEVER gives up on any play. Oh yeah, he was also an MLS first-round draft pick in 2019.
The front line consists of perineal goal scorer Neco Brett, Costa Rican National Team capped Jaden Servania (yes, the brother of Brandon Servania), and MLS first-round draft pick JJ Williams. That type of offense is sure to score goals, especially after the amazing form the team had together the year before.
In 2020, the backline was the reason that Legion fell apart, but that is not the case this year. This group is captained by newcomer and absolute workhorse Phanuel Kavita. His partner in crime is a center back with 35+ starts under the Columbus Crew, the 6’5” Italian Stallion (well, part Italian anyway) Alex Crognale. The full-backs are nothing to scoff at either. The league leader in full-back assists and arguably the fastest player in the USL, Johnny Dean holds down the right side while former Pittsburg Riverhound captain Ryan James shores up the left.
More than likely, the Donut King, Mr. Matt VanOekel will be starting in goal, an insanely smart keeper with near-flawless technique and tons of experience at the USL, NASL, and MLS level. If not him, then the stud keeper Trevor Spangenberg or “The President” Ford D. Parker will stand between the sticks, two keepers that could realistically be the Number One in many USL lineups.
The gaffer, Coach Beers, Tommy Soehn (S-oh-n), or whatever you want to call him is the main man in the dugout. He started his career as a footballer in the Indoor Soccer world, then later transitioned to the outdoor/MLS game. That style of play with the quick first touches, quick pace of play, and counterattack offense is exactly what you will see out of a Soehn coached squad. That is what Legion will do and do at a high level. When you watch the side, it is a team that is ready to strike at any given moment, on any given mistake, and they will force you to make mistakes.
What Went Wrong Against Indy Eleven?
Believe it or not, the pitch being turned into a personal oasis was not the worst thing Legion fans saw on May 1st. The thing we had come to expect most with this team was completely missing: amazing communication. No, I’m not your significant other. Communication is also key on the football pitch. From the very beginning of the season last year, the one thing fans could count on is that the team would have perfect communication. On that sandy Saturday, not only did we get some players who were just simply on different wavelengths from their teammates but sometimes blatantly ignoring that they had teammates around them. This caused so many issues for the offense, especially when it came to positioning and pacing. It was not unusual to see two players going for the same ball, seeing zero off the ball movement, and making selfish moves with the ball when they have a teammate who is in a much better position than they are. If Legion wants to win their upcoming matches, that needs to be fixed ASAP.
Players to Watch For
Winger Jaden Servania is one of Legion’s youngest, but brightest stars. The young 19-year-old has been capped by the Puerto Rican national team now 7 times across both the senior level and the U20 level, including a World Cup Qualifying Match. In those 7 matches, Jaden has bagged 7 goals and a handful of assists. He may be young, but he’s mature beyond his footballing years.
Central Midfielder Bruno Lapa is easily the star of this whole show. He works space better than just about any midfielder in the USL. He can dribble the ball out of any danger, play through getting hacked by the other team, and then serve up the prettiest ball you have ever seen. The free-kick specialist is a threat to drop the perfect ball from anywhere on the pitch and always knows how to get the ball to the right guy, aka Alex Crognale. The Brazilian Magician brings a new dynamic to the USL that many fans have never seen before. Don’t just watch him, enjoy him, because I think he’s going to much bigger places very soon.
Defensive midfielder Anderson Aseidu is the key for this match against Louisville City. If he’s running through other humans, holding possession, and not having a go from 40 yards out, you can pretty much count on Legion being lethal. Anderson was one of the reasons that the game was a 1-0 loss and not 2 or 3. He holds possession better than just about anybody and he’s never afraid to get a straight red, so Louisville City players need to be ready for him to come in at full speed to win the ball. He’s not at all a dirty player, he just doesn’t know any speed besides full speed.
Another defender to watch for is Phanuel Kavita. The center back was easily the Man of the Match against Indy Eleven. The strength and speed combination is one that not many people have the luxury of having in their backline. There are not many strikers that can truly go one-on-one with him and win, so teams really need to pick their chances and consider attacking at the wings because going straight down the middle will not be a good time.
Who is Out?
Junior Flemmings (last game of suspension)
JJ Williams (red card suspension)
Zach Herivaux (injury)
I big thank you to Kaylor for putting this together! To hear more on the upcoming match, be sure to check out his latest Louisville City preview (recorded with yours truly).
FiveThirtyEight has LouCity with a 50% chance of winning compared to Birmingham Legion's 25% chance. Although the Legion have improved this season on paper, there does not seem to be much reason to doubt Louisville’s ability to capture another home win. Yes, this will be the team’s first big team, however, City should still be able to get all three points. A win will help reassure all that the coaching change is a minimal factor and one that can be overcome.