images and graphics: USL / San Antonio FC
San Antonio FC opened the 2019 USL Championship season with a 3-3 draw at home against Phoenix last Saturday. The high score shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen these two Western Conference giants battle in previous seasons, but how the goals came for San Antonio could indicate where the squad is going to look for most of the season.
Following a rebuild after the 2018 season, SAFC’s starting midfield and forwards against Phoenix included Lance Laing, Cristian Parano, Jack Barmby, Pecka, Billy Forbes, and Ever Guzman.
The latter duo are the all-time leading scorers for San Antonio FC, with Guzman netting 16 USL regular season goals and Forbes adding his own 11, including the goals scored against Phoenix. Barmby and Parano are both new to the Alamo City, but the Manchester United and River Plate products proved to be a threat to opposing defenses despite not scoring in their debut.
The key player to highlight though is Lance Laing, who lead the squad in assists in 2018 despite being a late-season loan from FC Cincinnati. Laing’s 6 assists and 5 goals helped spark a team that was having trouble in the final third of the pitch, propelling them close to a playoff berth.
If this attacking corps can stay healthy, Laing could be the missing piece that helps bridge SAFC’s most dangerous attacking options.
Billy Forbes is one of the best players in USL Championship at driving the field and dissecting opposing defenses on his own. It is extremely difficult to guard him without allotting multiple defenders his way, so after his league-best start to 2017, that’s just what opposing teams did. Once Billy’s task was made nearly impossible, the 2017 squad had trouble generating goals.
In 2018, Laing and Guzman had a phenomenal end to the regular season, tallying a goal or assist in almost every match after Laing’s arrival.Three of Laing’s six assists found the foot of Guzman (the others finding Ethan Bryant and 2019 departures Connor Presley and Cyprian Hedrick).
Despite some skepticism of his return, including my own, adding Forbes to the mix did help in the season opener. The biggest criticism of his return came from the fact that both Laing and Forbes prefer the left side of the formation. In addition to their fondness for the number 7 kit, their shared preference of the left wing meant one would need to play on the opposite side of Head Coach Darren Powell’s usual single-striker formations.
While the official starting formation as pictured above is clearly 4-1-4-1, the end result was something a little more unique than has been featured in previous seasons.
Listed below are the average positions for each player over the full 90 minutes.
As noted in preseason friendlies, Forbes doesn’t stay wide right very often on the attack. What makes that work is Parano’s ability to cover ground both offensively and defensively. Note how far forward Forbes (77) was on average Saturday, along with where Parano (19) spent most of his time. Forbes might be listed as a right winger, but he played more like a second striker.
The result: Forbes was able to use his preferred left foot to give SAFC their second goal of the night.
Intended or not, Forbes playing forward worked. It likely will continue to work so long as Parano is healthy or another midfielder like Bryant or Lahoud is able to maintain the same quality in his place.
The difference in the 2019 version of the attack is that the other options include the aforementioned 2018 SAFC assist leader and SAFC all-time leading goal scorer, along with new faces in the central midfield. Even members of the back line have shown an ability to score in preseason friendlies.
In this Hydra of an offense, putting focus on shutting down one option leaves two more open. Focusing on Forbes will enable Laing and Guzman to connect, or the new additions to open their tab with the squad. While we’re only through 90 minutes of the season, it would be a surprise to see SAFC award many clean sheets to opposing teams.
It’s worth mentioning that Forbes is officially listed as a forward in USL’s player database, so maybe this was the intention all along. Maybe this was part of what Powell was referencing in the preseason when mentioning changes for 2019. But without a doubt, SAFC is more of a threat to opposing defenses this season than ever before.