0-0 draw at Wilmington
Harrisburg came out looking formidable in their season opener against the Hammerheads, controlling much of the first half with crafty wing play and stingy defending. Clesio Bauque and Morgan Langley dictated much of the game’s pace with their constant pressing up the wings, with each of the City Islanders’ best scoring opportunities coming via the pair’s playmaking ability.
After relying mainly on the long ball for the first 45 minutes, Wilmington scraped their way back into the match and, by the dying minutes of the second half, would create a handful of quality scoring opportunities. Only through clutch defending and some strong goalkeeping from Nick Noble would the Isle Guys halt the Hammerheads’ feeding frenzy in Legion Stadium.
Current Record: 0-0-1, Tied for 8th place
- Clesio Bauque: Bauque was the clear focal point of the offense in this game. His speed and positional sense allows him to constantly find threatening positions, and he showed he’s just as comfortable rushing the net like a natural forward as he is attacking the wingback and creating crossing opportunities.
- Nick Noble: On the defensive end, Nick Noble deserves a lot of credit for this clean sheet. A handful of highlight reel saves was all that kept the Islanders level during the Hammerheads’ sporadic bursts of offensive inspiration.
Harrisburg dominates the wings
Early on in the season opener against the Hammerheads, Harrisburg established their dominance of the wings. Time and again, Langley and Bauque found space to work on the touchlines.
While Langley staked his claim on the left side, Bauque began to switch sides more frequently as the game wore on, ever vigilant in his search for the slightest exploitable opening. And exploit he did: Bauque beat the keeper with some fancy footwork in the 21st minute, but a rushed shot before the ball trickled away from him ended up on the wrong side of the near post. Later, in the 41st minute, Bauque’s shot beat TFC loanee keeper Quillan Roberts once more, this time careening off the left post.
One of the best traits a forward can have is the ability to influence the other team’s defensive shape off the ball. Top flight strikers can force a back line to twist and contort simply by moving into space, or lining up for runs they never actually make. With Langley and Bauque being the most threatening points of Harrisburg’s attack, the Hammerheads were forced into a tough dilemma: Which side to focus on? Wilmington seemed to play a sort of 4-5-1 defensively, which probably offers them a lot of defensive stability against a more orthodox attack. Modern teams are built to defend the middle at all costs. A Harrisburg team with this much speed and ability on the wings makes them hard to pin down, especially for a squad as built by the book as Wilmington seemed to be on Saturday.
The gamblers’ risk
Center midfielder Jason Pelletier, who made the USL PRO Team of the Week, led the team’s strong defensive effort. Throughout the first half, the Hammerheads were consistently forced into long balls over the top. Once they got the ball to the final third, Wilmington obviously became a lot more dangerous, but Harrisburg was able to consistently limit their chances by shutting down the Hammerheads’ transition from midfield to the attack.
Once the Hammerheads got in behind this midfield line, netminder Nick Noble was forced to make a number of high flying saves to keep his sheet clean.
Harrisburg should appreciate Noble’s performance, but it’s important to take this as a warning.
An active midfield that attacks the ball and clogs passing lanes can work for a while, but there are two big risks in that style of play. First is the danger of letting up too much space for balls over the top. On Saturday, Wilmington was able to attack the corners and turn those into quick scoring chances. Once Wilmington started to overload one side of the field more and more, this became especially true.
The second big risk of an aggressive midfield is stamina. How long can your team last playing such a high energy game?
Judging by this opener, it may be a tall order for Bill Becher’s squad, with Wilmington’s best scoring chances coming from the end of both the first and second halves. After the 40-minute mark, the Hammerheads found a pair of decent scoring chances between Ackley’s chance on a through ball in the 42nd minute, and a near goal in the 45th minute that Nick Noble managed to just barely turn away. In the second half, Wilmington saw their best shots at scoring come in the 83rd, 88th, and 90th minutes.
To be fair, having half of your preseason games cancelled is certainly going to impact your team’s fitness, though this doesn’t make Harrisburg’s defensive style any less risky. What it does do is make for exciting games and affords them a lot of control over the pace of the match, but Harrisburg is going to have to do a better job of either finishing their chances early or managing their stamina enough to have something left in the tank to continue their high press in the closing minutes. Opponents will not be as generous with missed chances.
Union on loan
Pedro Ribeiro and Richie Marquez: The two loanees were the central pairing of the sturdy backline that gave Harrisburg the shutout on Saturday. Both were forced to make a handful of tackles, though they were tested in the air much more frequently with Wilmington’s barrage of long balls. Neither showed any significant lapses in positioning or work rate, and contained Brian Ackley to relatively little space to work in. Ribeiro picked up an honorable mention in this week’s USL PRO Team of Week for his efforts.
Cristhian Hernandez: Hernandez was an essential piece of the Islanders’ midfield. He may not have been the focal point, but he acted as an important link between Pelletier and either Langley or Bauque, depending on the situation. He looked calm with the ball at his feet, and comfortable pressing into dangerous positions.
Jimmy McLaughlin: McLaughlin was a late sub in the Islanders’ opener, though he managed to create a handful of chances going forward in that time. He was an important spark to the midfield late in the game when Harrisburg had seemingly lost momentum.
- Saturday April 19 vs. Dayton
- Thursday April 24 at Orange County
- Saturday April 26 at Sacramento