Know the Enemy: Memphis 901 FC

Memphis 901 FC scuffled at the start of last season, often failing to put the ball in the net, before finding their footing and closing the season on a really impressive run of form (8-1-2 over their final 11 regular season contests) to secure what for much of the season seemed like an unlikely playoff spot. Unfortunately they fell to the Leicester City Alumni Squad (Charlotte Independence) in the quarters.

Big changes are afoot in the self-proclaimed Hardwood Capital of the World. Their steadiest defender, Mark Segbers, and their top goalscorer, Kyle Murphy, who was responsible for 20 of the squad’s 46 goals, both decamped for Miami FC. A mainstay in central midfield, Dominic Oduro (no, the other Dominic Oduro), was signed away by Charleston Battery. And promising attacker Dre Fortune, who played for the US’s U15s before opting to represent Trinidad & Tobago in international play, took his talents to Estonia.

So Memphis has a lot to replace. It appears that Memphis will be looking to 2021 holdover Laurent Kissiedou, for increased production, as well as newcomer Devin Boyce, a midfielder plucked from USL League One’s Union Omaha. Also, presumably due to a bet, this squad representing the so-called Birthplace of Rock n Roll employs a man named “Les Paul” as a midfielder.

So how is this rebuild going? Ask again later.

Memphis set up to play in a 4-2-3-1 in their first match, which shifted to something resembling a 2-4-1-3 in attack, as Memphis aggressively pushes their wing players up the pitch, and uses the centerbacks to cover the wide areas, while the holding mids clog up the middle of the pitch.

Beyond that, the first thing to remember about 901 FC’s first match of the season is that their opponent, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, is really good. Riverhounds have finished in the top 8 of the USL each of the last four seasons, and there is no reason to think that streak won’t continue this year.

That’s all a prelude to my saying that 901 FC looked generally outclassed by Pittsburgh in their season opener. Memphis had considerable difficulty advancing the ball in attack. Slower, intricate buildups almost uniformly failed to crack the Pittsburgh midfield. And Memphis did not fare better with long balls, losing out on most second balls. From their set-up I think Memphis wants to incorporate longer passes into their offense. With their focus on overloading the wings, there aren’t enough players in the middle of the pitch to keep the ball on the floor all the way into the attacking third. Here’s one example of the type of buildup I think 901 FC are going for, and how it typically fared against Pittsburgh:

Defensively, Niall Logue, the leader of 901 FC’s backline, looks very good. His pace and awareness are exactly what you’re looking for in a centerback. Check out the recovery pace he shows here to deny a scoring opportunity to Dane Kelly, the USL’s all-time leading goalscorer.

Logue’s addition to the backline in the middle of last season was a big part of 901 FC’s success (they went 11-4-5 in regular season matches he started, 3-4-5 otherwise), and you can see why. But the right side of the back line was a little less disciplined. Rece Buckmaster and Graham Smith (who will not play against Oakland, see below) both stepped up off the back line to mark players, and there might be space in that movement for Oakland to exploit.

While the first 15 to 20 minutes were shaky for Memphis, they looked like they were starting to grow into the game. Their attacking movement started to get a little crisper (though still fairly non-threatening), and the back line, which had suffered from some moments of disorganization early on, started to look a lot more cohesive. They even earned a penalty in the 29th minute for a handball in the box. But Phillip Goodrum’s attempt from the spot was….not good, and 901 FC lost their momentum.

Just four minutes later centerback Graham Smith picked up his second yellow. His first was an ill-advised tactical foul. For his second, he went in high, studs up, and late. At even strength, Memphis looked like they might be able to nick a draw. It wasn’t clear where any goals would come from, but they had generally prevented Pittsburgh from creating big chances and you could certainly see them holding the line. But down a man for nearly an hour that was not going to happen.

So Saturday features a matchup of two teams whose season openers did not go as planned, and who are looking to find the back of the net for the first time this season. Preseason prognostications rated these two teams fairly similarly, and based on limited evidence those predictions appear to be holding up. Expect a tight affair on Saturday night in Memphis.

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