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