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Monday Morning Centerback: Rock Fight

I decided I didn’t like the term “STATCAP” anymore, I thought this title was catchy, and it also kinda forces me to write something that gets published on Monday mornings. As with most things I do on this website that aren’t podcasts or match previews, this may or may not be a regular feature. On to the content!

Saturday night’s second round playoff match against Rochester was a rock fight. It was about 90 minutes of what Roger Bennett calls “squeaky bum time.” Rhinos manager Bob Lilley put together a brilliant game plan for this match, and it almost worked. Rochester is a defense-oriented, and they play a very physical brand of soccer. They used that physicality to literally push the LouCity midfield off the ball all night. Wal Fall and Kenardo Forbes absolutely owned the middle of the park and there wasn’t much anyone in a purple shirt could do to stop them.

Rather than set up deep in their own half and invite Louisville City pressure, Rochester instead pressed high up the field and sought to pin City deep. For the first 45 minutes, it worked like a charm. City barely got past the center circle, save for a Luke Spencer shot on goal that hit the post. The heat map:

If Rochester had any forwards who could finish, City might not have made it out of the first half alive. The Rhinos played five at the back, and reduced City’s ability to play up the wings. They were very compact, as well; it seemed for long, long stretches that the back line was never more than twenty or thirty yards away from the forwards. Because Rochester enjoyed long spells of possession during the first half, they were able to strand and overwhelm Speedy Williams and Paolo DelPiccolo keep them from distributing either to the wingers or to any of the forwards. On the other hand, Fall was a fortress unto himself – no one could dispossess him all night. Luke Spencer was on an island of his own, starved for service. Here’s his first half touch map:

City tried cycling the ball around the back line between Oscar, Paco Craig, Sean Totsch, Tarek Morad, and Kyle Smith to open up space to play, but the passing lanes were nearly always occupied when the centerbacks or central mids tried getting the ball to the wings. Any attempts to try and stretch the field vertically went wasted. There weren’t many attempts to begin with.

To try and break apart the Rhinos’ stifling press, O’Connor subbed on Brian Ownby and Mark-Anthony Kaye at the half to put more pace (and probably size) on the field. It paid dividends.

First half shot chart:

Aaaand second half shot chart:

MUCH BETTER. The clearance charts are similar. Rochester had to clear just three balls in the first half; the second half they cleared eleven. City was busy defensively the entire game, but at least they managed to keep the Rhinos honest in the second frame. Adding vertical threats in Ownby and Kaye had a lot to do with pushing the Rhinos deeper into their own half. Rochester never wholly abandoned their high line, however, and that’s a big part of what led to Ownby menacing the left side of their defense in the second half. For whatever reason, the Rhinos never really adjusted, and they paid for it.

I won’t get into passing or possession numbers because they don’t tell us much in this game. Rochester’s not a passing or possession oriented team, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that City won those battles. Rochester’s game plan was to keep City’s passing and possession behind the midfield stripe, and they did a great job of that for most of the game. City completed nearly as many passes as Rochester attempted (385) but the bulk of those passes were between the members of the back line.

Individually, Greg Ranjitsingh was immense and deservingly won the fan vote for Man of the Match. El Gato had four saves, three clearances, and kept a clean sheet. The back three did better than I was expecting in duels – Totsch won 8 of 11, Paco was 12 of 18, and those two won a combined 11 of 13 balls in the air.

This is one of those games that was more about mentality than anything else. Mindset obviously doesn’t get measured in numbers (that I know about) but City definitely showed some fortitude after they struggled through that first half. Rochester was probably the physically toughest team left in the playoffs, and the boys in purple managed to persevere to the Conference Finals.

I’ll take it.