We actually made the playoffs, friends. The Roots will travel this SUNDAY, October 23, to San Diego to face the #2 seed Loyal at 7:00 p.m. at Torero Stadium on the USD Campus. The match will be on ESPN+, like usual, and KTVU Plus.
San Diego thought it was worth it to employ a replacement level player who supports the overthrow of American democracy. Fuck ’em.
These teams met the first time on April 14, 2022, the Roots’ sixth match of the season.
Loyal came into this match 5-0-1, their only dropped points coming in another time zone. The Roots were 0-2-3 and approaching desperation. I (unreasonably) predicted this match to finish 2-2 and would you look at that (I also predicted the Roots to miss the playoffs). Loyal had more possession, but not way more, and only had 55% in the first half (when the teams were 11 vs. 11). Each team had missed a big chance. In the 52nd minute Collin Martin put Fissore under immense pressure in the box, and the ball dribbled away to the fascist manbun, who played the ball back to Martin who, to his credit, wrong-footed Benny Diaz (remember him?) for the goal. Despite this, the Roots played well against San Diego until Morad got sent off in the 64th on I guess a tactical foul. Unclear why he risked it. In the 86th the Roots managed to get significant pressure on Loyal’s box, despite the man-disadvantage. Loyal could not get a good clearance, and the ball came unexpectedly to Rito on the far right flank, who looped a cross to Azocar running at the left side of the goal. Azocar one-timed the ball softly into the bottom of the left side, well away from the keeper’s dive. The goal that for all the world seemed like the nail in the coffin came on the world’s lamest bicycle kick off of a corner with 35 seconds left in regulation. But the Roots would not be denied their god-given one point per match. Three minutes and forty-eight seconds into stoppage, Klimenta dribbled well up the right side, pushing the whole team forward into the box, and laced a cross into Karlsson at the near post who completely dominated his man in the air and put a header on goal within arm’s reach of the keeper, but with too much speed for the keeper to parry.
The Roots played nineteen matches before they faced Loyal again on August 24, and had not only picked up six wins and eight draws, but had (extremely recently) fired their head coach. Loyal’s position at the top of the Western Conference had not faltered, though, and Loyal came in 16-4-6 (and 10-0-3 in their last 13).
You really can’t say that Loyal’s first was unexpected. THe highlights show one good attack after another, and Paul Blanchette making one ludicrous save after another. He saved the great opportunity that ultimately lead to the goal, but he could only parry away and the Evan Conway was the first one there to slot home the goal. But then just three minutes later the Roots equalized on a magisterial pass from Charlie Dennis to Azocar who had beat his man on the through run and just had to slot the ball past the keeper. The Roots went ahead in the 38th on a header from Klimenta that came out of a ball that just sorta pinged back and forth off of a corner kick. I can’t do justice to Blanchette’s saves from this game, you have to just watch the highlights. He was so good. In the 88th, Loyal played a ball again that fell to substitute Memo Diaz, brought on for Johnsen twenty-seven minutes earlier to protect the lead. Diaz hoofed the ball long and Loyal’s defense was all forward trying to press for the equalizer. You know what happens when twenty outfield players are all chasing the same ball from the same half? Rito wins the foot race. Rito’s finish was calm and the Roots took three points in the first game of the Delgado era.
Are Loyal Good?
Yes. But. They are on their worst form of the season. Starting with the Loyal-Roots match on August 24, Loyal have played eight games, and Roots nine. Roots have sixteen points in those games (1.8 per match), Loyal have eight (1.0 per match). Prior to that match, Loyal had 60 points to the Roots 30.
San Diego’s offense is good, with 68 goals, even as Kyle Vassell fell out of the golden boot race late. Only Tampa Bay scored more than San Diego this season, and the only other teams that are close are in the East where, like Tampa, they got to beat up on sixteen-year-olds. Interestingly for their strategy of “about a half-dozen defensive midfielders,” Loyal have conceded 55 goals, which is the worst among playoff teams in the West. Seventeen of those goals have come in the last eight matches (the timeframe I am using throughout to give us hope). That’s more than two goals per match.
A 2-2 draw “away” at Orange County (Torero Stadium is meaningfully closer to OC Great Park than Laney is to Heart Health Park) is not much of a result for the second seed team. The opener for Amang was a complete defensive lapse from Orange County, who let Amang get the ball alone around the “D” with any angle he wanted for his shot. San Diego will probably feel they could have done more to break up the Orange County possession outside their box, but there was very little they could do about the dime that Milan Iloski dropped for the equalizer. San Diego went ahead early in the second half with a curling free kick from just outside the box. Orange County equalized again when another Iloski put in another unsaveable shot. Again, though, San Diego will probably feel they could have broken up the attack before it got dangerous. Three minutes into two minutes of stoppage time, Koke Vegas got absolutely huge to stop a vicious header that should have given Orange County the three points. Ultimately they split them.
The next week, San Diego drew 3-3 at home for real this time.
San Diego conceded a penalty sixteen seconds into the match when their defense fell asleep letting some guy from New Mexico lace a shot in, which Koke parried away low, but right into the path of some other guy from New Mexico who was mugged by Grant Stoneman. So often the fouls in the box are obviously bad, but in this case I think it was probably a 95% chance of goal–Loyal might have had better odds of saving the penalty. In the 22nd minute, Amang got himself stomped on in the New Mexico box, and Charlie Adams put the PK in to equalize. San Diego had another big opportunity a couple minutes later, and then took the lead a few minutes after that when the New Mexico keeper parried an Amang cross right onto the head of Alejandro Guido who just had to keep running. Loyal held the lead for eleven minutes, but United equalized on a baffling error by Loyal who marked the runner to the goal line wide of the goal, but for some reason did not mark Armando Moreno who was took one touch to bait the keeper’s dive and then hammered in the shot from about three feet out. Moreno scored again 90 seconds into the second half when he received a long ball while wide open left of Loyal’s narrow defense, dribbled a little central and rifled in a shot from outside the 18-yard-box under minimal pressure. Loyal equalized again in the 52nd with Amang cleaning when New Mexico couldn’t clear a cross. Koke Vegas did not play for Loyal in this game, which might explain some of the goals they conceded.
On decision day, Loyal got shellacked by Sacramento.
Rodrigo Lopez scored ninety seconds in when (you won’t believe this) Loyal failed to effectively clear the ball on an otherwise reasonably benign attack, and Lopez beat the keeper near post from 15-20 years out. Then just two minutes later, a quick turnover lead to Keko driving centrally, and Koke Vegas scrambled to get back to the center of his goal and slipped when Keko sent a low shot from way downtown. Then just another eleven minutes later Sacramento got a third on a Matt LaGrassa shot from distance. Koke Vegas was pulled at half-time, I assume because there was no point in risking injury to a critical player in a meaningless ass-beating. The fourth probably doesn’t tell us much about Loyal–in the 81st they made an inadvisable back-pass to the keeper that Luther Archimede intercepted and slotted home. At that point I think Loyal was already thinking about who would be getting the 7th seed.
So the Loyal are not on great form. They are good, but their strength is in the attack, and they have conceded goals against good and medium-good attacks this season, especially recently.
Alright, we’re going to call that Pittsburgh match a learning experience and we’re going to move on. The Roots got a good reminder how tough road games are in this league against playoff-caliber opponents. Instead of looking at the Pittsburgh match in detail, let’s look at the Roots under Delgado.
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We talked about this on RootsPod this week, but there’s a couple obvious reasons that the Roots are firing under Delgado (although the xG says the team is not necessarily playing better, the balls are just hitting the back of the net :shrug emoji:). One big change is Charlie Dennis in midfield instead of attack, in place of a true defensive midfielder. One would assume that this change would upgrade the attack at the expense of the defense, and while Delgado’s team is scoring more goals than Guerra’s, it is also conceding fewer. I think the most obvious reason for this is that the improved circulation of the ball from Dennis is better at preventing big chances for the Roots’ opponents than Fissore’s or Nane’s defensive acumen. Per FBRef, Dennis is averaging 1.5 more crosses per game under Delgado than he was under Guerra (although this is not controlling for minutes played, which is surely some factor here). If crosses are a stand-in for passes (which are a stat I probably have to pay to get accurate data on), then the new role is dramatically increasing Dennis’s involvement. Those long-balls are valuable when the recipients are players like Rito and Azocar–burners who, with the right pass, can create one-on-one situations with the opposing keeper. Likewise, Dennis has twelve interceptions on the season and half have come in the nine games since he moved back to central midfield. Even controlling for game-time, which I am too lazy to do accurately, that’s a big change in his role.
Even without a purely defensive midfielder, the Roots’ defense has been stronger since Delgado took over. Even more impressive, that has happened with Emrah Klimenta missing significant game time. In part, the Roots’ newer defenders are finding some of the form that got them scouted this offseason in the first place. Barbir and Fuenmayor were brought in to compete for time. Something Delgado is telling these guys in practice has really tightened up their play. There were a lot of times early in the season where the Roots conceded even though defenders outnumbered attackers, sometimes two-to-one. I wondered at the time if the Roots might be making mistakes because there were so many defenders it became unclear who was actually supposed to mark the run. Potentially taking a midfielder out of that equation has made the assignments clearer. Another big difference is Delgado’s willingness to either start Memo Diaz at leftback, or bring him on early in the second half to shore up the defense.
On attack, there are a couple of noteworthy changes. As highlighted in the table above, Azocar’s scoring has gone up a level since Delgado came in. His goal against Pittsburgh came in a game where he started as a forward and Diaz started at left back, and his goal against Birmingham was not only after Diaz came on, pushing him up the field, but was assisted by Diaz. Karlsson has continued scoring at his normal pace under Delgado. Another big impact has come from Lindo Mfeka, who (largely due to injury) has more minutes under Delgado than under Guerra. Mfeka creates a different dynamic in the attack than Dennis did, and might be more consistent than Johnsen. Folks I’ve spoken to in the team have said that Mfeka is one of the best attacking midfielders in the league when he’s healthy.
If you made me choose between improved man-management and the simple bravery to make changes, I am not sure I could choose which is the bigger factor in improvement from Guerra to Delgado. I lean towards making changes, but I could be sold on just getting more from the players. Either way, a turd laid against Pittsburgh notwithstanding, the Roots are in their best form of the season at the right time.
Players to Watch
I have highlighted the three guys below before, but the thing is, they’re important to San Diego’s attack. It’s also easier to find stuff to say about attacking players. An interesting possible wrinkle is that Jack Blake, Loyal’s #7, who plays on the right side of midfield, might be hurt. He came out after 13 minutes against New Mexico (when Loyal were already chasing), and did not play against Sacramento. He is noteworthy as he is tied for third in assists/90 in the USL with 0.38.
Kyle Vassell #9 – You don’t get to fourteen goals on the season by accident. Vassell was an early contender for the golden boot, but really dropped off, and ended up only two in his last seven games for Loyal. He did not start the New Mexico match, and did not appear in the Sacramento match. Because this is his first season in USL, I don’t think I have done this bit with Vassell before, but he’s such a good candidate: Vassell has played for Norwich (youth), Brentford, Woking, St. Albans City, Dover, Sutton, Tooting & Mitcham, Whitehawk, Staines Town, Chelmsford, Bishop’s Stortford, Peterborough, Oxford, Dagenham & Redbridge, Shrewsbury, Blackpool, Rotherham, Fleetwood, Cheltenham, and San Diego. I won’t be telling you which of those is fake, you’ll have to look it up yourself. Wikipedia tells me that Tooting & Mitcham’s nickname is “The Terrors” which is a damned lie. Vassell is from Milton Keynes, and is a large lad striker in the thick mold (Ronaldo) not the long mold (Crouch, Bokila, etc.)
Thomas Amang #23 – Amang Loyal’s best players over the last couple months, he has eleven goals, including critical goals in Loyal’s games against Orange County and New Mexico highlighted above. Amang is a native of Doula, Cameroon, but played his first 6 years in Norway, including three years at Molde at a time that Molde were making the Europa League, but Amang does not appear to have been included on that team. Also on that team was teenage Erling Haaland. Amang played for Switchbacks last season.
Alejandro Guido #10 – Guido is a native of San Diego, and played the the first seven seasons of his senior career with Tijuana in Liga MX. Guido was picked up by LAFC but never appeared for them in anger, and is now in his third season with Loyal (the first was on loan from LAFC). Guido plays in defensive/central midfield, but has contributed five goals and three assists on the season. I present, without commentary, that he is 1/3 on PKs this season.
Lineup and Score Predictions
I like Aaron’s lineup prediction below, but to keep things a little different, I am going to guess that Delgado doesn’t want to shake up the center of defense too much. I also think he will be cautious and play Memo with Azocar further forward. I think I want Aaron’s prediction to be right, but I am going with the prediction above. I also called 2-1 to the Roots on this week’s RootsPod, and I am sticking to it. The Roots width works against San Diego, and they will know it works against San Diego. The Roots have something to prove here, and I don’t think they go out yet. I don’t think the Roots play their best when they are ahead, but if they go ahead and quiet all but one section of Torero Stadium, I think that will give them even more confidence.
I like Aaron’s lineup below, we’re nearly identical aside from my guess having Tarek Morad in for Emrah Klimenta. I think it would push Morad over to the left side if Emrah is slated to start again, but in the end, I have Delgado sticking with the back line he’s ran over the last five matches. As for my attack, I like Johnsen getting the start at left wing to allow Azocar back into his outside back role. I still think we haven’t seen the best of Mika and this would be the perfect time for a breakout performance from a player who can become an x-factor in possession. As for my score prediction, I’m sticking with my guess on RootsPod of a 3-2 Oakland victory.
The guess here is that, having been injured enough not even to make the team sheet, Formella is at the very least also not making the starting XI this week. I lean towards this tweak to account for that because I like Johnsen’s pace here over Memo’s distribution. Memo probably comes in around the 60th if Roots have a lead, moving the lineup back to last week’s, and then we’ll just be throwing defensive bodies wherever we can. I can see Roots finishing the game in a classic 5-5-0 formation if they’re defending a lead. If we’re chasing, move to the 4-4-2, and you probably pull Johnsen for J-Rod to pair with Karlsson up top. Anyway, I’m feeling good about this one. 2-1 Roots.