Early-season (r)evolution for SAFC’s defense

SAFC’s defense was a work in progress, now it’s progressed to working quite well.

“Goals change games” – though he doesn’t say it as often these days, it used to be one of San Antonio FC Head Coach Darren Powell’s favorite phrases, and it’s a mantra others in the soccer world likely share.

Most people probably think about the offensive implications as in how much their team scores, but there are two sides to every goal – if one team scored it, the other conceded it.

Prior to the season, SAFC assembled what seemed to be a formidable defense with experienced and skilled players such as Amer Didic, Josh Yaro and Kai Greene. But, they just needed time to gel, some of which was supposed to happen during the preseason.

“It takes time to know each other’s qualities, to know what each person excels at (and) what we need to improve on,” Didic said at SAFC’s media day in mid-February. “I can speak on behalf of the backline that the gelling process has been pretty good. I think you’ll see, in my opinion, a really, really, really solid backline with the guys that we have.”

Once the season started though, SAFC was conceding much more than a “really, really, really solid backline” should. They let in three goals in each of their first two matches, against Phoenix Rising FC and Portland Timbers 2. In each contest, SAFC faced only four shots on goal, but three went in each time.

Against Phoenix, SAFC suffered defensively as balls in from wide areas were not dealt with right in front of goal. In their defense, Phoenix’s passing and precision were impressive, especially for the first match of the season, but the marking also left a lot to be desired.

The Portland match saw SAFC have troubles up the center of the pitch again, though this time farther out, around the top of the box. Particularly for the first two goals, SAFC goalkeeper Matt Cardone was forced to come out and try to snuff out the chance, but Portland’s attackers got around him. There was also a slip from Didic in the buildup to the first goal and nobody closed down Portland midfielder Marvin Loria before he drilled a shot in from the top of the box to give his team their third.

SAFC’s defense leaked less in the next two matches as they only conceded one late goal in each, but that was enough for their opponents as SAFC’s offense was muted in both outings. The lone goal against Colorado Springs came as the defense failed to close down forward Cesar Romero before he could line up a stunning curler to snatch all three points. Against Austin Bold FC, the ball dropped to an unmarked Kleber off of a corner kick and he easily tapped in.

SAFC had persisted through those first four matches with a typical four-man backline. Unfortunately for them, there was a rather large hole in it – seriously, there was often a gaping hole between the two center backs when you look at their average positions, and their opponents had exploited problems in the center of their defense a lot already wherever they attacked from.

(Note: In COSvSA, SAFC’s #70, Bradford Jamieson IV, was substituted off with an injury after 18 minutes, so take his rather defensive position with a few grains of salt.)

After the first two matches of SAFC’s season, defender Johnny Fenwick said a major focus was tightening things up defensively, such as closing players down better and being more aware. That still hadn’t quite done the job for the next two matches though, so SAFC needed to try something else.

Powell was happy with the way his players were defending but saw a change in structure was needed, so he and his technical staff decided to pull a trick out of the bag which they had discussed in the preseason: the 3-4-3 formation.

Compared to previous SAFC lineups, they sacrificed a central midfielder for an extra center back, moved their full-backs forward slightly to play as wing backs and ushered the wingers up to play closer to the target forward.

SAFC hasn’t allowed a goal from the run of play since switching to the 3-4-3, only conceding an unfortunate late penalty kick against Las Vegas Lights FC in the first match. After that, they stifled Los Angeles Galaxy II, holding them to just nine shots and none on target. It seems like plugging that hole in the center of defense has helped.

On the opposite end of the field, the new formation has also seen SAFC score two goals in each of those matches, lightening the burden on the defense – it meant that the late penalty against Las Vegas didn’t alter the result, SAFC retained all three points.

“(The new formation) definitely allows us to have more guys behind the ball with a backline of five, but at the same time, it gives us more freedom for the wing backs to join the attack and create more numbers,” defender Kai Greene said after the win over LA Galaxy II.

Greene, one of those wing backs, isn’t kidding about the flexible nature of the formation when it comes to his position either. Against Las Vegas, their average positions were right up with the midfield, while against Los Dos they dropped farther back in what resembled more of a five-man defense.

Now that there’s a third center back in the mix, it’s much harder for teams to get through on SAFC even if the wing backs are caught forward. If the wing backs have retreated to help the defense, there’s a wall of five which opponents will struggle to break through.

“You always have guys to cover for you,” said SAFC defender Josh Yaro. “If you do mess up or if you step up into the midfield, there’s always coverage to your left and right. Having that in the back obviously makes it a lot harder to get broken down and for the opponent to score goals.”

Of course, SAFC tried the 3-4-3 for a few matches in 2018 and it worked alright until it didn’t, at which point SAFC promptly ditched it. Having been implemented earlier in the 2019 season, this time the formation has more of a chance to take root. In addition, the coaching staff had already been thinking about this formation in preseason given the personnel at their disposal, so they’ve likely put more thought into its implementation this time.

It’ll be interesting to see how well this formation continues to shield SAFC’s goal and what happens if and when things do start to go sour. For now, though, the results are good and the team will move forward positively, fine-tuning what’s helped them find defensive solidity at the back.

Featured image: Darren Abate, USL

Average position images: Opta