SAFC accelerating down the road to the playoffs

There was a time San Antonio FC couldn’t catch a break on the road. They’ve now applied the brakes and made a much-needed U-turn as part of a general revitalization of their season.

SAFC will play six of their nine remaining matches away from home. That would have caused serious concern among SAFC’s fanbase two and a half months ago. In mid-June, SAFC still hadn’t picked up even a point in their six away matches, the only team in the USL Championship yet to do so.

As Head Coach Darren Powell and midfielder Jack Barmby had said in the midst of that run as well as in hindsight, there were decent performances which weren’t translating into results for one reason or another. Even if the performances were promising, they acknowledged that at some point SAFC would have to turn those performances into results – and now they have.

SAFC got their first result on the road when Barmby scored an equalizer in stoppage time on June 15 to draw Oklahoma City Energy FC 1-1, a result he and the team acknowledged was at least a small step in the right direction. That began SAFC’s more recent run of winning and drawing two matches apiece in their last five away.

“I don’t think you can single one thing (which has caused the turnaround) out because we would have figured it out after the first away trip,” Powell said recently, reflecting on the rough start.

One of Powell’s proverbs is that “goals change games,” and that applies on both sides of the ball. Barmby said the team had gotten better both defensively and offensively, and the most straightforward statistic confirms that. SAFC were outscored 13-4 in their first six matches away when they didn’t earn a single point, whereas they’ve outscored opponents 10-6 in the five matches since then, earning eight points.

“We’re playing a system that seems to suit us at the minute,” Barmby recently said.

One of the biggest changes in SAFC’s play over the last five away matches has been how they reclaim the ball. The number of interceptions they’ve made has gone down from 50 in the first six matches to just 27 in the last five. Instead, SAFC has won the ball back more directly, their average tackle success rate going from 54.73% to a whopping 76.98%.

That change in winning the ball back was on display and paid dividends in SAFC’s most recent away match, a 4-1 win over Reno 1868 FC.

Once they have the ball, SAFC have done better at moving it around, particularly in their opponent’s half. Their average passing accuracy went from 78.52% in the first six matches to 83.54% in the last five, and in their opponent’s half it went up even more, from 65.33% to 72.26%.

SAFC started the season with a greater dependence on crossing the ball from wide positions, attempting 87 in their first six matches but only 44 since. You can credit that to a formation change and different attacking methods.

The club started the season with full backs and wingers ahead of them in the wide areas but now employ a 3-4-3 formation with just the two wide midfielders. Even then, those two – Barmby and Cristian Parano – typically come in from their wide positions to attack more centrally.

“We’re looking to try and come inside a little bit more and try to create from inside to out rather than outside to in,” Barmby said. “It seems to be effective at the moment and we’ve scored a few goals with it.” (Revisit the above highlights for proof.)

While crossing less, SAFC have gotten more accurate when they do send the ball in from wide positions, completing 25% of crosses in the last five away matches compared to 20.69% before. While they focus more on cutting inside now, Barmby, who was one of SAFC’s regular crossers earlier in the year, said they can go wide again if their opponents figure things out in the middle.

Finally, you can win the ball back and create all the chances you want but it doesn’t matter if you can’t finish them – now the San Antonio players are doing that more often on the road, too.

They have actually taken more shots and put more on target in one fewer match as they’ve turned things around lately on the road. They took 63 shots and put 19 on target in the first six matches, while they’ve since put 26 of an attempted 65 on target. That also brought their shooting accuracy up considerably, from 30.16% to 40%. SAFC’s conversion rate also more than doubled, from 6.35% in the first six matches to 15.38% in the five since.

“The guys have been working on trying to take advantage of good shot choices at the right times,” Powell said of his team’s increased efficiency in front of goal.

Additionally, perhaps because of SAFC’s more direct and efficient attacking, their opponents have made just 52 clearances in the last five away matches, compared to 102 before that.

While SAFC may not have it all figured out on the road yet, they’ve certainly made strides this season. Their progress as of late is a welcome change for a team who will spend so much time trying to bring points home from distant battlegrounds in the next couple months in an effort to stay above the playoff line.

“We know it’s not going to be an easy run-in, but (our destiny) is in our hands,” Barmby said.

All images: Darren Abate, USL Championship

Lights FC settle for an away draw vs. Tulsa

Las Vegas Lights FC took one point on the road vs. Roughnecks FC.

Playing on the road against a struggling club, Las Vegas Lights FC finished level with Tulsa Roughnecks FC last night. Javan Torre scored for the Lights and Tobenna Uzo equalized for the hosts.

Key Stats

🔑 One shot on target for Tulsa. The Lights did well to limit Tulsa's chances in front of goal, but the one opportunity they got, they took advantage of.

🔑 27 fouls conceded for LV. Playing on the road, Eric Wynalda's side utilized a physical style to disrupt Tulsa's attack.

Three Brightest Lights

💡💡💡 Javan Torre: The defender scored the lone goal for Lights FC. He added four clearances and two interceptions.

💡💡 Preston Tabort Etaka: He assisted on Torre's goal from the corner and finished with two shots on goal and three chances created. He also tracked back well and registered five tackles.

💡 Panzani Sousa: In his first league start for Las Vegas, Sousa brought a high work rate on the wing, offensively and defensively. He made three tackles and had a blocked shot and one clearance. His only shot on the day was nearly redirected into the net by Tabort Etaka.

Quick Kicks

⚽ In fairness, a loss would have been devastating here, so a draw isn't the worst thing. But, battling for a playoff spot, this needed to be a win.

⚽ Adam Hobbs registered zero saves in his first professional start in goal, possibly to give Thomas Olsen a rest in this crowded schedule. The Tulsa goal was not impossible to keep out, but it was not a complete howler. Would TKO have made the save? Who knows, but I don't think Wynalda will regret resting his first-choice keeper.

⚽ Speaking of lineup changes, I think this rotated squad did well for themselves overall. The second half certainly looked better than the first for the Lights, partially due to the entrance of captain Bryan de la Fuente.

⚽ We haven't seen Pablo Cruz in the last two matches with more depth arriving in the attacking midfield. It will be interesting to see how he factors into the mix down the stretch.

What's Next?

📅 The Lights will get a weekend off before they travel to face Real Monarchs SLC next Wednesday. The Real Salt Lake affiliate plays tomorrow against OKC Energy FC and are 8-2-1 at home.

ACC Network Debut & The Spirit's Big Night

Jen catches up with soccer announcer Jenn Hildreth, who will call women's soccer on the new ACC Network, and then talks with Jason Anderson of Black & Red United about the Washington Spirit's record-breaking night at Audi Field.

Roster additions provide Indy Eleven depth

Roster additions provide Indy Eleven depth

Screaming into the void, Indy Eleven fans saw a desperate need for a spark. The talk of USL Championship in the East has been the abundance of games in hand that Indy Eleven have held onto. Scheduling nonsense aside, Indy Eleven saw a shadow creeping over the hill of the games they would have to make up late in the season and now that the shadow has arrived, they have begun to make the needed moves to compensate for that.

Midfield help

The biggest criticism from fans on Indy Eleven's midfield, mainly directed central given how much movement the wing-backs have, has been the lack of creativity. It's no secret that Martin Rennie's favorite adjective when he's building a roster and building a midfield is "holding", but what has come from that has been at times a stagnant and stuck-in-sand ball movement.

Enter Drew Conner & Nico Perea

Many saw Drew Conner's performance, his second appearance and first start as a member of Indiana's team, where his headstrong mentality gave Indy Eleven two goals, one coming from that head of his.

What many saw offensively was amazing backed up by his play covering for the other moving pieces of the team. His positioning on this heat map is not only fantastic to see but fits more into what, tactically, Martin Rennie wants to play with. A midfielder who can come up and shadow outside the box, provide a goal-scoring chance, but isn't afraid to sit back and sweep behind a booming wing-back will only make this team better.

Drew Conner Heat Map v Charlotte

Drew's play showed a quality missing piece for this team. His movement upfront, while captivating, as well as what many Saint Louis FC supporters explained would be his mindset can't be overshadowed by the play in Indy Eleven's own him. The sweeping line behind there, namely on the left side which was the side Ayoze is on, shows his ability to move forward while also having the clear vision to support others moving forward and protecting the defense.

The argument could be made that it was "first start" kind of game. Charlotte couldn't have much to look on with Conner as an Indy Eleven player and his time with Chicago Fire in MLS was not as clear and easy to look upon as many others could be.

Conner's performance, his arrival, along with the other pieces that have arrived signal Rennie's desire to not only shake things up a bit but also to provide some spark for a team in desperate need to kick things up a notch late into the season.

One of those other additions is midfielder Nico Perea, who was signed after a trial and appearance with Eleven during their friendly against Detroit City. He played a similar role as  Conner's when he was with Rio Grande Valley FC and that indicates Coach Rennie may have noticed a need for more support centrally and defensively when Ayoze or Neveal Hackshaw roam forward.

Dane Kelly: Breaking Free

With just a small window, folks are able to see life after one of Indy Eleven's top signings in the offseason, Thomas Enevoldsen, moved back to the West Coast. For many, it raised the level of pressure and eyes on the other big signing and the league's all-time league leader in goals, Dane Kelly. Many wondered what Kelly would be able to do without Enevoldsen and whether or not he has been held back.

A quick comparison of the last game where Kelly and Enevoldsen started together (against Loudoun United) and a peak without Enevoldsen in the lineup tells a major narrative:

Dane Kelly hasn't truly been in for a large amount of 'full 90s' this season for Indy Eleven but comparing both Saint Louis and Charlotte Independence games, comparing touch maps and heat map, you can see that with Enevoldsen on the field or in the lineup Kelly is put in a position where he isn't forced to either play the ball more than he's comfortable and he's able to focus on his positioning more.

With players like Tyler Pasher, Conner, and others around him, Kelly feels and looks more comfortable on the ball and the look of relief on his face when he secured his first goal since the Swope Park Rangers game early in the season. Whether it holds on to be true and we see a dramatic, yet realistic swing of form from the league leader in goals, the Jamaican seems more comfortable being able to play his style than he has in games past.

Ten games in 36 days

With as many games in a small number of days, it's put up or shut up time for Indy. Hovering around high quality of play, Martin Rennie seems determined to maintain the performance of what's made this team great while sparking a high-level offense. In the little time he played, Gabriel Rodrigues, who came in alongside Christian Novoa, showed his abilities and more importantly backed up the scouting work done by the team.

It's refreshing that while many teams hovering around the playoff lines are trying to make that big key move that Indy Eleven, who aren't exactly worried about missing the playoffs, aren't willing to settle for what they've done and know they can do better.

Whether that translates into anything come playoff time is a completely different thing but for now, Indiana's team seems poised to increase the goal total and challenge teams for the top of the Eastern Conference.

1868 Weekly Episode 43: Pixelated Brad

This week we're previewing and predicting the upcoming match against Portland Timbers 2, praising the best mascot in the USL, and more!