Nashville SC will bring it back to the region with a trip down I-65 to Birmingham tomorrow afternoon. What will the expansion Birmingham Legion provide in the way of opposition?
Opponent: Birmingham Legion FC (2019 expansion)
Time, Location: Saturday, Feb. 16 4:00 p.m. CST • BBVA Compass Field (matchday info for those traveling down)
Event: Preseason friendly
Weather: 59ºF, 1% chance of rain, 59% humidity, 3 MPH NNW winds
Follow: @NashvilleSC, @bhmlegion, @ClubCountryUSA
Since this is an expansion team, we really don’t know a ton about it.
The Legion has signed a couple players who were named to USL Teams of the Week last year, led by Real Monarchs’ Chandler Hoffman with two picks, and San Antonio FC’s Mikey Lopez, who was picked once.
Hoffman is a 28-year old (partially explaining why an MLS2 side let him go) striker who has 20 MLS appearances in his career, but who has mostly been sent down to USL affiliates, with whom he’s performed pretty well. The lefty led a pretty good Real Monarchs team last year in scoring 12 goals, and he also chipped in five assists (a pretty high ratio for a striker in the league, in my experience). At 6-0, 160, he’s not a target-man as much as a goal-getter.
Lopez was third on SAFC in minutes (new Nashville signing Darnell King was No. 1 – seems like a rebuild in Alamo City), his first year back in USL after two with New York City FC. Prior to that, he’d bounced between Sporting Kansas City and various other MLS teams and USL affiliates. The diminutive central midfielder doesn’t provide a ton going forward (five career goals, three of them last year), but is versatile enough to line up at a few different spots, including on the wing at times.
Beyond that pair, you have a mix of USL veterans and some relatively young players (including a few straight out of college – and a lot of trialists trying to earn contracts at this point), plus a bit of a foreign injection, too.
Goalkeeper Matt Van Oeckel was OKC Energy’s top man last year, though it’s tough to determine how much of his lack of success (66.7 save%) was due to playing behind what was a truly terrible squad – I would contend probably a lot of it. At the same time, he was subbed off once(!), and Cody Laurendi put up much better numbers percentage-wise, so maybe the performances weren’t that good after all.
30-year old centerback Marcel Appiah was without a club during the first half of the European season, but in 2017-18 was in the German third division, so your mileage may vary in terms of how that translates to USL terms (really, the Championship hasn’t been a second-division league long enough to know how lower European divisions’ exchange rates in player quality are going to work out). I would imagine he’s a replacement-level USL player – which is not bad, per se – and anything else the Legion gets out of him will be a pleasant surprise.
Eric Avila (defensive mid/winger, Las Vegas Lights) and Joe Holland (attacking mid, Pittsburgh Riverhounds) were very small role players for their previous clubs, but should be able to make an impact on this one. Daigo Kobayashi was one of the key players for a pretty bad Las Vegas Lights team, and may be able to make an impact here.
Then you have a couple guys who have MLS experience: midfielder Daniel Johnson (who signed literally today) got 15 games with the Chicago Fire last year, while forward Femi Hollinger-Janzen didn’t appear for New England Revolution (though he had 34 appearances over the previous two years) and finished the year on loan to OKC Energy.
The bottom end of the roster is filled out with recent UAB graduates, and while those may ultiamtely turn out to be good players, that’s also not a championship-building strategy in the USL either, unless you’re looking at All-Americans. Defenders Gael Mabiala and Mathieu Laurent did earn All-Conference USA, but it may take a couple years developing as professionals to really find the level.
The Boys in Gold
I’m fully expecting Gary Smith to continue experimenting with his personnel for this game. That’s for multiple reasons, a couple of which he spelled out with FCAC this week:
“These early games, I don’t think the guys are ready for 90 minutes. It’s the case for most teams: they’ll utilize the early few games to make sure everyone’s getting a good sight of the field, an opportunity to show what they’re about, and where they’re at. I would suspect as we move down towards the New York and the Indianapolis game that we’re starting to see a little bit more of the guys that have pushed themselves in front: they might play a few more minutes. Certainly edge towards what would constitute what they’re going to see in the first game of the season.”
I’d also look at “trying to figure out who can build chemistry with whom” as a contributing factor there: either way, we won’t see a starting XI with eight of the players going a full 90 minutes. Wholesale changes at halftime may not happen, but liberal substitution is in the cards.
Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster trained at full speed in practice this week, and while they aren’t to full match fitness after injuries at the end of last year, I would imagine we’ll see one or both – and possibly together, something that Smith also hinted at Tuesday. A bit of a special sneak peek for the supporters who make the drive to see the team would be a smart bit of fan service if that luxury is available.
I’d expect we’ll get a half each of Matt Pickens and Connor Sparrow between the pipes (though maybe with Sparrow getting the first minutes, a reverse of the IMG games), and possibly the first unofficial appearance for Danny Vitiello to close out the game.
Among the combinations we’ll see from the field players, not only should Vinnie Vermeer get some time (though less than he did in Brandenton, when he led the team – or at least was close to it – in minutes), but I think his fellow trialist, Lipscomb grad Logan Paynter, could get at least a quick look in the midfield. While his biggest cameo for Nashville will come against his alma mater in a couple weeks, getting him real professional minutes – even just in a friendly – should happen, and this is likely the best opportunity for that, with the competition only getting tougher in the final couple games.
Aside from any potential injuries that happened over the course of this week (since Smith’s Tuesday press availability), the whole squad should be available, and just about everyone should get at least a bit of time, unless some need just a bit of rest.
Check out the Birmingham Backline podcast for a couple episodes (primarily the most recent one, with Jason Petty of The Assembly) relating to the game.
Nashville SC wins, 3-1.
Cameron Lancaster, Bradley Bourgeois, and Kharlton Belmar score for Nashville. Hoffman scores for Birmingham.