Richmond Kickers 10: The Playoffs Dream Ends in the Desert

Following a tough loss at home, the Richmond Kickers headed to Tucson knowing that only a win would keep any hopes of the postseason alive.

1) The Situation. The stage was set. Three points had been lost at home to Forward Madison and nearly ended the Richmond Kickers‘ season. Now, having traveled to Tucson, Coach Bulow and the entire Kickers team knew going into the match that anything other than three points would eliminate them from the inaugural USL League One Playoffs. Even with a win, Richmond would need help from other clubs and need to win out. But regardless of other results, or how the rest of the year would unfold, Tucson needed to be an all-out-attack-fest.

2) Formation & Players. A similar formation to the one used over the past two months or so was deployed. 3-3-2-2 in defense and 3-1-4-2 in attack — in theory. Daniel Jackson stepped in for Dennis Chin, but overall it was a consistent lineup. It was about the most experienced group Bulow could put together. All 11 players have started at least 10 matches, except for the summer signing Ryley Kraft. Knowing goals were needed Mwape and Boateng waited in the wings on the bench. Now they just needed to execute.

3) 45 minutes Lost. You could describe last Saturday’s trip to Tucson as a ‘must-win’ following a ‘must-win in which the team struggled at home’. But for the opening half, you’d be excused in thinking that it was still a part of warm-ups or that somehow the Forward Madison game was continuing. Here are some tough stats to look at. Richmond had 1 shot in the first half. And it was blocked. The Kickers next shot wasn’t until the 50th minute. Needing goals, needing a win. 2 shots in 50 minutes. One was blocked, one was off-target. In the first half, Richmond had two crosses—both were unsuccessful in finding the intended target. There was no offense in the opening 45, and the Kickers didn’t have time to waste.

4) Substitutions. Down to 45 minutes left to save the season and a first half that didn’t work. But the formation and the players remained the same coming out of the halftime break. For the next 25 minutes, Richmond only managed three more attempts — two off-target and one blocked. The Kickers still had five defenders and a defensive center mid on the pitch—with 20 minutes to go in their season. A center-back needed to go, unfortunately, that would eventually happen, but not how Richmond would have wanted. One substitution did change the direction of the match however…

5) Charles Boateng. The pacy winger’s chances have been start-stop for all of 2019. He entered in the 72nd minute for Kraft and within two minutes had the team’s first shot on goal. Two minutes after that Boateng draws a free-kick which gets Tucson’s CB captain a second-yellow card and sent off. The ensuing free-kick was Richmond’s second shot on target in the match. Two minutes later Boateng had another shot on target. That’s worth repeating and highlighting. Six minutes of game time—two shots on target—a free-kick that led to the only other shot on target—getting Tucson’s captain sent off. He didn’t score, but Charles Boateng entered the match and played like Richmond’s season was on the line—because it was.

6) 4 Games, 1 Goal. Ultimately the Kickers drew nil-nil, ending any playoff hopes. The match capped a four-game run with only one goal. The issue that sank Richmond during the summer had reappeared in the playoff push. At the end of the season the ability to create enough quality chances, and then convert enough of those chances, is the hurdle that proved to be too much this year. That isn’t a surprise to anyone within the club or who has been watching, but it does give a focus, or a goal, for what lies next.

7) What’s Left? The USL League One Playoffs are all but wrapped up, but Richmond still have three games remaining. Away to Chattanooga on Saturday, then home against Toronto FC II next Wednesday, and finally hosting Orlando City B the following Saturday. Winning those matches and avoiding finishing in the bottom two are clear goals, but there’s a lot more for Coach Bulow and the front office to evaluate in the next two weeks. The formation, future prospects, and the crowd.

8) New Formations. For a while, Richmond’s latest formation seemed to have solved their issues, but eventually, the offense slowed down and the opponents began to unlock it. Tucson seemed to find chances at the top of the Kickers’ box at will. Below is the shot chart from last Saturday, with Tucson attacking the goal on the right. Richmond allowed 21 shots. So it’s time to try something new and after that something else new. Start the Chattanooga match with a 4-2-3-1 and see if the players can minimize those shots from the top of the box. Try a 4-3-3 to push the opponent out wide and focus on controling the middle of the pitch, on creating more chances. Try the 3-4-3, pushing the attacking. If nothing else the crowd will respond to the aggression.

9) Selections with 2020 in mind. Results are no longer the primary objective. The Kickers now have 270 minutes of game time to evaluate players who have not seen enough action this year. And how new combinations work together. Greg Boehme (6 appearances), Nick Retzlaff (5) and Alex Ainscough (4) all should feature in the 18, if not start two of the final three matches. Clearly, as noted above, Charles Boateng needs to be starting. Potentially in a variety of starting positions over this final stretch. He has the drive towards goal focus that the Kickers need. Finding his best position and possibly player combination around him could greatly improve how he starts a potential 2020. Arika Fitzgerald has been wonderful all season, but the staff knows that without the upcoming matches. Joe Rice should start all three. The same goes with Zach Perez who was recently signed. Play him now rather than waiting until the next preseason. Based on injury status, give a look to Lucas Mendes, Justin Grove, and Luke Pavon. Begin to determine which players are worth investing in to build the 2020 squad.

10) City Stadium & the importance of 2020. The Richmond Kickers will finish second in attendance this season in USL League One. Only surpassed by an admittedly impressive debut by Forward Madison. With plans to continue improving City Stadium and new teams being added to USL League One next year, the on the field product will need to deliver. Richmond can, and should, boast crowds over 4,000 each weekend match. Closing out this year with attacking, entertaining formations is a good first step with that in mind. Then the truly hard work begins. Taking lessons from 2019 and adjusting to improve in year two of the current project. It’ll be the first full off-season for the front office and Coach Bulow will have an entire season as the head man to learn from. City Stadium and the crowd is their still the club’s best asset, they already know that, so having a style of play that complements that is on the winter agenda.

Nathan Reynolds

Writer covering the Richmond Kickers in USL League One. Experience as a WordPress developer, editor, podcaster, and writer for European and US soccer leagues.