(EDITORIAL) – With a 4-1 thumping at the hands of New York Red Bulls II, Saint Louis FC have now lost three matches in a row. They’ve surrendered the first goal of the game in seven consecutive matches. They’re frustrated and riddled with injuries, several to key players.
Despite all of this, they are only three points out of the 6th and final playoff spot in the USL Eastern Conference. They have 15 matches to make up that difference. Saturday’s match felt very doom and gloom, but the situation is not that dire.
Saint Louis FC is very much in the hunt for the playoffs. They have time to right the ship. The problems they are facing are very much fixable. The biggest factor is Saint Louis FC’s health.
The club has played 16 matches so far including U.S. Open Cup. They have spent a significant portion of the season without several stars. Arguably their most significant signing of the preseason was midfielder Brandon Barklage, a six year veteran of MLS. He has been available for only six matches. He has played in only three of 12 matches since being injured against Rochester back in April.
Center back James Musa, the team’s Captain, has missed the last four matches. Musa is the most experienced and physical of Saint Louis FC’s defenders. As the skipper, he’s one of the key leaders. The team’s defensive shape and organization is completely different with Musa and Barklage on the field.
Midfielder Jamiel Hardware missed the entire month of May due to an injury and has played the last two home games with a cast on his right arm. In the past two games, the Jamaican has looked frustrated. He has also appeared a step behind and off balance at times. It’s unclear whether or not the injury to his hand and arm are the cause of this.
Chad Vandergriffe has done an admirable job in replacing Musa along the back line. The holding midfielder role has been played by a rotating cast.
Saint Louis FC’s biggest weakness has been on defending quick counters off of midfield break downs and turn overs:
The weekend match against Red Bulls II was an excellent example of this. On the first goal, Red Bulls II regained the ball in the defensive third. Saint Louis FC had numbers back and were well spaced. One pass into the midfield to Leo Stolz and the counter is on. No one steps up to challenge Stolz. As soon as he receives the ball, his two forwards were already off to the races. The fact the pass came so quickly and covered so much distance left Saint Louis FC with a high line, which was easily beaten by Marius Obekop‘s speed. Stolz turns and delivers a great through ball, and Obekop finished the play.
That play took all of five seconds to develop. No one challenged Stolz to make him take an extra touch. No one cut down the angle to prevent his pass to Obekop. The back line on a whole did not step up to play the offsides trap nor did anyone make a recovery run to challenge his shot.
Red Bulls II’s third goal started on a turn over from midfield. Saint Louis FC was recycling the ball after a set piece chance. Patrick Doody turned the ball over in midfield. At the time, only he and Chad Vandergriffe were behind the ball. The rest of the team was in the final third for the set piece. The turn over left Vandergriffe behind for a 2-1 break that results in a goal.
Harrisburg City’s goal came on a counter where Saint Louis FC did not have numbers back. The Chupacabras were keeping possession and attacking. A turn over led to a counter attack with their full backs way up field. This left only three players back. One good move in the box and the ball’s in the net.
Three of the goals surrendered on Saturday came off of turnovers. Of the last seven goals surrendered, Musa has been on the field for none of them. Barklage has been on the field for only one. In matches where Barklage and Musa both start, Saint Louis FC averages 0.94 goals conceded per 90 minutes.
Barklage challenges in the midfield and gives opponents less time on the ball. He stops dangerous counter attacks before the start. The 28-year-old also helps create turnovers, establish possession, and set the tempo. This helps facilitate the offense. It also takes pressure off the defense. Sometimes the best defense is possession.
Musa helps to organize the back line. The gap control and offsides traps are better when he is in there. This leaves fewer weaknesses at the back. The team is less likely to get caught on a sudden counter during a lull in the match. Musa is also willing to make rough challenges when needed. He leads the team with five yellow cards.
Together Musa and Barklage bring qualities no one else can on a consistent basis. These qualities would have helped prevent the goals mentioned above. Barklage in particular would help give the team more of the ball, which brings us back to the offense and Hardware.
Hardware’s injury came at a bad time as he was just starting to become the catalyst for the offense. Ever since returning, he has not looked the same. As Saint Louis FC’s most dynamic attacker, he’s almost been forced back into the lineup to help score goals. But he just has not looked right. Perhaps it’s the injury. It could just be a young player going through a slump.
Either way, he either needs to get healthy or someone else has to step up. Jermie Lynch has been excellent at times this year but also has some inconsistencies. Charles Renken has been a spark off the bench and has probably earned his starting spot back, especially considering the team’s form. Saint Louis FC also just signed former Columbus Crew SC academy product Aaron Horton, who could freshen things up.
Hardware is one of the team’s most potent attackers when healthy and fit. Barklage is the most important midfielder in terms of defending counters and setting the tone of the game. Musa is the most critical defender. These three getting healthy solves many of the club’s current issues.
Saint Louis FC’s health is the most important thing to them turning things around in the second half of the season. These three make a huge difference, huge compared to making up three points in 15 games at least.
Main Photo Courtesy of Mark Guthrel, team photographer of Saint Louis FC.