There’s nothing like an Opening Day. After a long break – for me anyway – from the North American Soccer League, Saturday night finally marked the opening match for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was a game of mixed emotions for me personally (I am an Atlanta guy, you know), but it was definitely one worth watching.
The Indy Eleven brought an interesting matchup. Honestly, it was one that I anticipated ending in a very different way. Sometimes, though, you’ve got to work through the kinks in order to get to the good stuff. Right?
From the starting eleven to the players on the bench, there were surprises everywhere. Neill Collins was given his first start for the green and gold, Freddy Adu wasn’t even on the bench and Juan Guerra (someone I penciled in as a sure thing) didn’t play a lick. While all of those players are certainly going to see time this year, it still came as a bit of a shock.
Regardless, here’s a quick look at some of the tactical points of #TBRvINDY.
Indy Eleven’s Justin Braun helped the Tampa attack
First, I’ll start by saying this. I think Kalif Alhassan can and will be a force in this league. Last year in Atlanta, I dreaded him coming to The Jungle. This year, my thoughts have only been good towards the winger’s insertion into the starting lineups.
That being said, Alhassan hasn’t been up to his normal self lately. Coming off of a rather in-depth preseason, I expected a little more on Opening Day. Instead, what we got in the first half of the game was someone who wanted to play horizontally instead of vertically. It seemed Alhassan constantly struggled in linking up with an overlapping Zach Portillos or laying off give-and-go’s with Michael Nanchoff. The bulk of Alhassan’s total distribution – 56.4% in fact – was laying off passes to his right hand side. His second highest passing percentage – at 17.9% – consisted of passes going behind him.
If you look at Alhassan’s heat map (Thank you to the NASL/OPTA partnership by the way), Alhassan spent the majority of his time on the pitch in his own half. Even sitting on the side of the field, I could tell the speedy winger just wasn’t moving up the field much.
Alhassan’s game changed drastically in the second half, though. There was one major factor for this: Justin Braun. Indy’s big man was a constant issue in the first half of the game. He was able to physically out-muscle Portillos on numerous occasions at the start of the match and Alhassan’s positioning could have been a side effect from his hope to help out the 24-year-old fullback defensively.
Finding difficulty in getting anything past Neill Collins, Braun drifted from his side of the pitch and took up a free-flowing position in the middle. By doing this, Allhassan was able to get up the field with more consistency. This led to the majority of Alhassan’s five chances created, including this “almost” goal to Tommy Heinemann.
My point is this: Alhassan is extremely talented. His attempts at covering defensively only thwarted the attack, though. When he’s put into the final third, Alhassan has the ability to make things happen as he did numerous times on Saturday night. Not every team has a big, bruising Braun (Though, Portillos played extremely well against him). Alhassan showed some flashes in the first game of the season, but expect much more throughout the year.
Indy Eleven’s Justin Braun hurt the Tampa attack
I’ll say it. I’m a big fan of Neill Collins. I thought he played well on Saturday and made sure that nobody wanted to get anywhere close to him. What was interesting, though, was the difference in distribution between he and Tamika Mkandawire.
According to the NASL’s Match Center analytics, the most common passing combination was between Mkandawire and Darnell King with 17 passes. The second most common (15) was passes from King to Eric Avila. Third? Collins’ 12 passes to Justin Chavez.
These numbers could show a very different passing ideology between the two central defenders on the night…or it could only add to the argument that Justin Braun heavily impacted the way the Rowdies played.
From Collins to Mkandawire, the Rowdies pushed themselves to the right side of the field. During the first half of the match, this was a frustrating piece of the puzzle. Seemingly every attack would move down the flanks only to fizzle out on the right-hand side. Once Braun moved around at the start of the second, the left-sided counterattack began to flow.
Now, if we could only finish off those chances…