Weekend Recap: Miles Robinson’s injury, the NWSL Challenge Cup final, and Lilley’s new look

Quick
Hits
  • USMNT and Atlanta United center back Miles Robinson could miss the World Cup with a ruptured Achilles [more …]
  • The North Carolina Courage won their seventh title over the weekend, lifting the Challenge Cup trophy after a 2-1 win over the Washington Spirit [more …]
  • Bob Lilley’s flexible Pittsburgh Riverhounds showed yet another dimension in the USL Championship [more…]
Apr 20, 2022; Kennesaw, Georgia, USA; Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson (12) dribbles against Chattanooga FC in the second half at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot going on in the American soccer world. Here at Backheeled, we want to make it easier for you to keep up with the most interesting and important things. That’s why every Monday, we’re going to take you through the key weekend storylines from around American soccer.

On this week’s edition of the Weekend Recap, we’re looking at a big injury MLS, a trophy in the NWSL, and tactical flexibility in the USL.

MLS

Lowery: Miles Robinson leaves Atlanta United's game with an apparent achilles injury

“I think it’s going to be a bad injury.”

That’s what Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda had to say about the ruptured Achilles that Miles Robinson suffered on Saturday against the Chicago Fire. Robinson went down in the 14th minute after trying to control the ball near midfield. Clearly frustrated, the center back motioned towards his left Achilles and punched the ground before being stretchered off the field.

It’s a brutal blow for Robinson. Depending on his recovery timeline, he could end up missing the rest of the MLS season with Atlanta and potentially even the World Cup with the U.S. men’s national team in the winter.

For Atlanta United, the injury list just keeps on growing. The Five Stripes have already lost goalkeeper Brad Guzan and midfielder Ozzie Alonso for the season and have played without Josef Martinez for most of 2022 as well. Their depth has already been tested – and it will be tested all over again now that they’re missing their best defender. When he’s in the lineup, Robinson’s mobility allows him to cover ground, counter press, and help Atlanta retain possession, which is exactly what he was doing in the 14th minute that resulted in the injury.

Without Robinson, it will be more difficult for Atlanta United to keep the ball and defend in transition moments. Through 10 games in 2022, Atlanta is averaging 58% possession. Expect that possession number to decrease slightly and for their overall defensive numbers to drop in the absence of their star center back.

Losing Robinson is a huge hit for the USMNT, too. Since the Gold Cup last summer, the 25-year-old has been a regular starter for Gregg Berhalter’s national team. Robinson’s mobility makes him a real asset for the U.S., just like it does with Atlanta. His speed and athleticism shine through in high pressing moments and he helps the United States control games. The USMNT allowed the lowest amount of expected goals over Concacaf’s 14-game World Cup qualifying campaign, not least because of Robinson’s steady defending in the back.

With Robinson sidelined, John Brooks banished to the shadow realm, and Chris Richards out for the rest of the season with Hoffenheim (although he may be fit in time for the June international window), the U.S.’s center back picture is extremely murky right now. There aren’t any healthy U.S. center backs who are locks for the World Cup roster, outside of Walker Zimmerman. That’s why it will be important for Berhalter to identify and test center back options during the upcoming June international window.

Our best wishes to Robinson as he begins his recovery. 

NWSL

Cascone: The North Carolina Courage win the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup

North Carolina added yet another trophy to their cabinet over the weekend: the 2022 Challenge Cup trophy. 

With their 2-1 win over the Washington Spirit on Saturday, the Courage now have seven titles as a club, adding this year’s Challenge Cup to three NWSL Shields (2017-2019), two NWSL Championships (2018, 2019), and a Women’s International Champions Cup (2019). The Washington Spirit, for their part, were handed their first loss of the year which also ended their 20-game unbeaten streak.

The first 45 minutes of Saturday’s match included a goal from both teams, with North Carolina striking first. At the 10-minute mark, Debinha beat Spirit and U.S. women’s national team defender Kelley O’Hara and played Kerolin in behind the Washington defense. Kerolin’s shot snuck past goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury to put the Courage up 1-0. The goal was Kerolin’s first in the NWSL and the first goal scored and assisted by two Brazilians in the NWSL since 2017. 

Both Debinha and Kerolin were electric in the final third throughout the game. Despite dominating for most of the match, North Carolina struggled to finish in the 18-yard box. This, combined with big saves by Kingsbury, kept the Courage off the scoresheet until the second half. Washington’s Ashley Hatch evened the score in the 35th minute off a ball from Trinity Rodman, beating Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland at the far post.

Rodman and Hatch were the only two Spirit players to record shots on goal on Saturday, with two each. 

The second half began much like the first, with a back-and-forth battle between the two teams. As the game progressed and fatigue set in, though, the match featured several tough challenges that led to a number of injuries.

Washington defender Sam Staab fouled Kerolin from behind in the box, but no penalty was awarded. Instead, Kerolin left the game with an injury and the Courage were awarded a corner kick following the foul. Washington’s Taylor Alymer scored an own goal off Carson’s Pickett’s service, which served as the eventual game winner for North Carolina. Then, Courage defender Abby Erceg suffered a studs-up challenge and Washington Spirit’s Jordan Baggett went down with an apparent head injury that led to her being stretchered off the field in the 90th minute.

In light of these events, the referee added 13 minutes of stoppage time to the end of the game.

Still, the Courage held onto their lead and collected their first trophy since 2019. Kerolin, who is certainly a player to watch during the regular season, was awarded the 2022 Challenge Cup Final’s Most Valuable Player award. With the Challenge Cup behind them, both the Courage and the Spirit will set their sights on rest and recovery before resuming their regular seasons next weekend against Gotham FC and Angel City, respectively. 

USL

Morrissey: Bob Lilley’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds show yet another dimension

With a 1-0 win this weekend against Birmingham, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds jumped back up to second place in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. They’re the tactical chameleon of the league and coach Bob Lilley loves nothing more than trying out a new look to shock an unsuspecting opponent. This time around, Lilley broke a weeks-long streak of back-three deployment and utilized a 4-2-3-1 formation. What’s more, he used holding midfielder Danny Griffin in the middle of that attacking line of three. Griffin normally generates something like 0.17 expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes, but he certainly made the difference in earning the win. 

What went into the choice to move Griffin to the No. 10 spot and why was the decision effective?

As seen in his heat map from the match, the 23-year-old brought two-way utility to the midfield. When the Riverhounds were defending in their own half, the midfielder sat deep to form a flat midfield five that was almost impenetrable. When the side pressed up, Griffin was something like a traditional No. 10, man-marking the Legion’s defensive midfielders. 

Birmingham relied on holder Anderson Asiedu to drive play forward and to whip passes across the pitch, but Griffin had the Ghanaian in his back pocket.

Despite his usual deep-lying starting position, Griffin brings a surprising amount of intelligence and guile in his attacking movement. Usually best as a late runner against deep-set defenses, Griffin sat in the hole against Birmingham and slunk around the box to find the space opened by Pittsburgh’s narrow wingers. The Legion normally push their fullbacks high and wide – so that mixed with Pittsburgh’s narrow form opened up overloads that let Griffin cook. He earned four shots and created a chance over the weekend.

The Riverhounds make these kinds of moves every week. They’re as comfortable in a boilerplate 4-2-3-1 as they are in a wildly idiosyncratic 3-6-1, and this flexibility lets them meet almost any opponent in a unique manner. Though they faced a shellacking at the hands of red-hot Louisville last week, Pittsburgh is in second place in the East and enjoys a top-five xG differential for a reason.

Bob Lilley’s side is endlessly flexible, and it makes them a major threat.

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