All Images (unless otherwise noted): Darren Abate, San Antonio FC
Some say the best defense is a good offense. In soccer, it doesn’t matter how many goals your opponent scores if you one-up them.
San Antonio FC seems to have both sides of that coin this season though, working together in harmony, and the former has been both heavily emphasized and reliable through the first ten matches of the 2017 United Soccer League season.
“The back four, Diego, Pecka, Reed – everyone, the whole eleven – defends well, and that’s been our foundation for everything we do and we just need to keep that going forward,” SAFC defender Sebastien Ibeagha said after the scoreless draw with Seattle Sounders FC 2 on May 13.
Through ten matches in SAFC’s inaugural season in 2016, the club had conceded 10 goals and only kept two clean sheets. In the same opening span this season, SAFC has only conceded four goals, the lowest of any USL team at the moment. The first 10 matches have also seen seven clean sheets for SAFC, already equaling their tally from the whole of 2016.
As Ibeagha alluded to first, the defensive line is perhaps most often held responsible for SAFC’s defensive showing. Coming into 2017, SAFC Head Coach Darren Powell looked for players who are both talented and experienced to bolster his squad, and the more those players are together, the better their cohesion.
Ibeagha and Greg Cochrane have both played in defense every minute of SAFC’s USL season thus far, while Ben Newnam and Stephen McCarthy have appeared in all but one match apiece. They’ve also all started the last four USL matches – and what do you know, SAFC hasn’t conceded a single goal in that time.
One player who hasn’t featured prominently so far though is Cyprian Hedrick, who was part of a stingy Oklahoma City Energy FC defense in 2016. Hedrick started SAFC’s 2017 season opener against Rio Grande Valley FC alongside Ibeagha but came off with an injury after 36 minutes. Hedrick has yet to make another appearance in USL play but did make a 27-minute cameo at the end of SAFC’s 2-1 win over Houston Dutch Lions FC in the second round of the 2017 US Open Cup.
Ryan Roushandel, the oldest of the four center backs on SAFC’s roster, is capable of slotting in as well when injury, suspension and/or rotation necessitates. The veteran defender’s services were always available but not used until the last three matches in 2016, while this year he saw his first action in the home opener and has started one USL and Open Cup match apiece as well.
When the defense isn’t enough though, a good goalkeeper can still save the day, and SAFC has already proven they have two on their roster for 2017.
San Antonio native Matt Cardone had the starting spot in 2017 before injuring himself in the 2-1 win at Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 on April 22. Enter Diego Restrepo, a goalkeeper just as talented and capable as and more experienced than Cardone. SAFC acquired Restrepo in case something happened to Cardone, and that move unfortunately proved to be a wise one so early in the season.
What goes around comes around though; Restrepo has come in and impressed in Cardone’s absence just as Cardone did while Josh Ford was out suspended or injured last season. SAFC will hope its starting goalkeeper being out for extended periods won’t continue to happen every season. However, they’ve proven they’re not just lying about strength in depth, even at the goalkeeper position, which typically has the least rotation of any spot on the field.
Both goalkeepers have allowed two goals, and though Cardone has played less, he still leads the team in saves with 16 so far this season. If anything, that shows how much better the defense has gotten at shielding whoever may be in goal, be it Cardone, Restrepo, Lee Johnston or a training dummy.
Restrepo, by virtue of playing more minutes, has a better goals-against average at 0.37, but Cardone isn’t far behind at 0.43. Restrepo also leads the league in clean sheets with four, while Cardone is tied for second with three.
Ibeagha went on to credit the man most often right in front of him and the back four: Pecka. The Brazilian midfielder has already been praised multiple times this season for his passing accuracy, which currently sits at 86.6 percent (80 percent just in the opponent’s half). Besides his metronomic passing which successfully shifts the ball to the right places, Pecka has also won 96.7 percent of tackles, adding yet another obstacle for opposing attackers.
Pecka’s holding midfielder position gets perhaps the least recognition of any on the field – just ask midfielder Miguel Salazar, who performed well there for SAFC in his rookie 2016 season but never saw the limelight. Pecka’s doing the job similarly well, but now there are statistics to back it up.
Especially with SAFC absorbing pressure and allowing other teams to come at them though, it takes even more than a good goalkeeper, defense and holding midfielder. Sometimes, it really does take all eleven players, so Ibeagha isn’t just paying lip service when he says as much.
Given his position as a winger and seven goals last season with Swope Park Rangers, midfielder Kris Tyrpak isn’t somebody you’d think of as being a large part of SAFC’s defending. However, that’s just what he and other players normally responsible for attacking have done, and Tyrpak willingly embraces his responsibility.
“We’re the first line of defense essentially, so if we hold strong, it sets the standard for our defense to hold strong,” Tyrpak said.
Not everything on the defensive side of the ball has been perfect for SAFC though. The return of Hedrick seems to be at just the right time as Ibeagha and McCarthy are both currently one yellow card away from a suspension. Just a few weeks earlier, before Hedrick was back in the mix, Roushandel would’ve slotted in and no third center back would be available off the bench.
Teams are also starting to figure out how to stifle SAFC’s offense as well, made clear when SAFC was held scoreless for the first and only time in 2017 by Seattle Sounders FC 2 on May 13. Particularly when visiting Toyota Field, some teams may set up to defend well and settle for a draw. In those matches, it’s important that SAFC holds strong defensively, since they’ll find it harder when attacking.
Just as the attacking players have defensive responsibilities though, so the prolific defenders can make valuable contributions farther up the field as well. Powell has set his team up to be, well, just that: a team. They attack and defend together, and players understand that whichever side of the ball the team is on, they really all do have one role or another to play at all times.
“We’ve got some very exciting attacking players – and some of them are on the back line,” Powell said.
Typically though, SAFC scores, meaning they just have to defend well, which they’ve proven capable of. At that point, opponents can’t afford to sit back anymore, forcing them to get forward and play right into SAFC’s hands; the defense absorbs the pressure and the attack can spring a lethal counter in an instant, as it has multiple times this season.
“If we score the first goal and it’s 1-0, the opposition, to get back in the game, have got to try and score,” Powell said after his team scored the only goal to beat Phoenix Rising FC on Saturday. “In that moment, we know we have to be very resilient, very tough, very organized, very disciplined…our players have proved they can do that.”