COLUMN: San Antonio FC's Season Is Off To A Rocky Beginning

The opening month of the 2019 season didn’t go to plan for SAFC. As the month came to a close, here’s what the damage report looked like. Three straight losses, none worse than losing to new expansion side and regional rival Austin Bold FC in their debut home match. Their first win ever.

Seriously, that team? Yes, THAT team. First Austin took SA’s MLS spot, and now SAFC are an Austin Bold trivia answer. That feels like an ultimate low point. Unfortunately, there’s more.

No goals in two straight matches. One goal in the last three. The offense has disappeared. Of course, so have the strikers. Whether to loan (Alex Bruce), to a first half injury sub a couple weeks ago (Bradford Jamieson), or to the bench (Ever Guzman), it’s an oddly short list of players for a team that desperately needed 2019 to be the year that the offense kicked into gear. And for one brief moment, it looked like that’s exactly what was going to happen.

Through 90 minutes in the season opener against Phoenix, things were looking pretty bright. The team had scored three goals against the reigning Western Champions and they were minutes away from sealing a 3-2 victory. Then former SAFC Forward Jason Johnson got free in the box and headed home a game tying goal in added time. Away went two points and a lot of the good that had been built up throughout the match. This team has never looked the same since.

They gave up 3 more the next week against Portland in a 3-1 loss.

With the defense giving up 3 goals in two straight games, it was no surprise that Darren Powell would tinker with his roster. San Antonio FC only gave up 3 goals or more five times in all of 2018 and Powell has been known for making in-season moves over the years. 2019 would be no different.

Powell brought in Moises Hernandez on loan from FC Dallas (MLS). Hernandez spent time with the club late last season, earning six starts and one red card in a 2-0 road loss to St Louis. Hernandez was swiftly brought into the SAFC starting 11 in the Colorado match. That move led to a chain reaction of other moves. Hernandez was sent to Left Back, former Left Back Eby Ackon was moved to a Center Back role, and in a bit of a surprise, touted off-season addition Center Back Amer Didic was sent to the bench.

Didic was named one of the top 10 off season acquisitions in a story that appeared on the USL Championship site earlier this year, so this move was no small doing for a player expected to lead the new look defense.

The decisions worked out pretty well, at least defensively, as SAFC held Colorado scoreless for 84 minutes before conceding a late winner to Forward Cesar Romero. The one goal allowed was a vast improvement from the three in each of the previous two games. However, it was little consolation to a team still looking for their first win. The offense was a no show.

USL Championship Phoenix Rising FC vs San Antonio FC

In a weird bit of irony, Romero came on for Mike Seth, a former SAFC player. It seemed SAFC had dodged the revenge-game-bullet as Seth had a fairly quiet night. It looked like a draw was inevitable. But then Romero scored his game winner, beating Cardone. He had been on the pitch less than five minutes. The late goal dagger had struck again.

If the speculation was that sitting Didic was a one game trial, the Austin game proved that wrong. On the bench he would remain. In a near carbon copy of events from the week before, San Antonio held tight defensively until the final 15 minutes. Those devilish final 15 minutes. They have cost San Antonio at least four points on the season, and maybe more. We’ll never know. But what we know for sure - those late game letdowns are killing San Antonio this season.

And that’s really the rub of this awful month of March. It actually wasn’t quite as terrible as it seems. At least, not defensively. The defense went from back to back 3 goal games to back to back 1 goal games. That’s pretty solid improvement, especially when you consider the entire back line is new this season to begin with. There were bound to be some growing pains. That doesn’t even factor into account all the changing of positions and players and goal keepers that has occurred in just the first four games of the season. It’s kind of remarkable they’ve turned it around so quickly, really. The next step is obviously to keep the clean sheet, something SAFC hasn’t done in 2019.

But the offense. Woe is us, the offense. The bane of SAFC soccer though 3 years and one month. This team has almost always struggled to score goals. The last three matches have seen one San Antonio goal. Total. That is just not going to get it done in USL Championship. It probably wouldn’t get it done in a local rec league either. If this team is going to pick itself off the mat and dust off, the goals must come. Only four teams in USL west have scored fewer than San Antonio’s four goals so far. It’s not good enough right now.

There exists a glimmer of positive signs for the offense. They are tied for first in the West with 65 shots. Unfortunately, their goal scoring efficiency is only 15th. They clearly need to improve on the quality of shots that they’re taking. That’s more evident when you realize the great decline in their Chances. They had 34 in the first two matches, but only 16 the last two. A drastic reduction.

Also, their passing efficiency has also been decent as a whole – they sit at 77%, which is fairly middle of the pack. When you factor that they had a down game in tough conditions against Colorado (67%) it looks a lot better. Overall, they’ve done a good job of keeping the ball. But possession without intent isn’t of much use. It’s that pesky final third that they desperately need to solve.

All that said, San Antonio might need to go get another striker. With Alex Bruce out on loan it seems unlikely he would be recalled. That leaves only Ever Guzman and loanee Bradford Jamieson in the position. Granted, SAFC has been going with one striker in formation so far, but what if Guzman goes down again? Recall that he missed 2 months last season. It might not be enough to rely on the attacking Midfielders to generate the needed offense to compete on a week to week basis.

Or forget injury, maybe Guzman just ends up benched like he was last week. It was a strange decision for a team struggling to score to start a game with no true Forwards in the lineup. Or without Midfielder Lance Laing, their assist leader from the last calendar year. Even if the moves were simply to get the players some rest, it seems odd to sit both Guzman and Laing at the same time.

Maybe some of this is just semantics. Midfielders can play Forward and vice versa. Does it really matter? Maybe not. For the Austin match, it was Cristian Parano who was pushed into the Forward role. Midfielder Billy Forbes called Parano “one of the best players on the team” earlier this season, so perhaps he was as good of a choice as any for a test run.

Then again, perhaps that lone striker formation isn’t going to get it done anyway, no matter who is playing it. It might be time to test out a different shape altogether. What could it hurt if the current bar to hurdle is one goal in three matches? It can’t look much worse. San Antonio needs to get creative.

To that end, San Antonio did bolster their attacking depth at Midfield this past week when they added Brian Gomez from Argentina last Thursday. He wears number 20. Yes, that’s right, on the same night that SAFC’s parent club retired Manu Ginobili’s famous number 20, SAFC added a new Argentinian. Who wears number 20. You really can’t make this stuff up. Gomez started straight away against Austin. He was credited with one “key pass” and two “good crosses.”

That brings us to the man spearheading all these moves, Manager Darren Powell. Is it time to ask if he is on the hot seat as manager of this team? There was only one playoff birth and one playoff win in the first three seasons for SAFC. This off-season was touted as an exciting one, with some in the organization even suggesting this was the most talented roster SAFC has ever assembled. One month into the season and there has been little return on that promise.

Powell’s optimism is unwavering, saying after the tough Austin loss "Every player is putting in a lot of effort to represent this club. We're working hard but we need to find ways to win games, and if everybody keeps up their work ethic and commitment the positive results will come."

One has to admire such unrelenting positivity in the face of several difficult results. Or at least, people should. It’s a commendable trait. It’s what you want from your leader. And he’s right, results matter, and SAFC has to find a way.

Last season there was a three-match losing streak, and a four-match losing streak. SAFC missed the playoffs by three points. One single win. They were still that close even despite those bad run -of-games. And this season there are two more playoff spots available to earn. The playoff field expanded from eight teams to ten teams this season. it doesn’t feel hopeless – yet. In fact, they are only 4 points out of playoff position currently. One win would change their entire standing and there’s still 30 matches to go.

But is simply qualifying for the playoffs good enough? This sure seemed like a team ready to compete for a Championship, at least on paper. And fair or not, that’s always the expectation. If that’s going to happen, this team needs results and quickly.

With former Scorpions Manager Alen Marcina sitting on the bench, speculation of his promotion back into the Managing ranks among fans is bound to rise if things don’t turn around soon. Marcina has won a Championship in this city and that is no small item.

Either way, everyone wants to win. SSE, Managing Director Tim Holt, Powell, the players, and the fans. Oh yes, most definitely the fans. And winning cures a lot of ailments. Even one single win.

Maybe the perfect team is coming to town at the right time. Las Vegas was swept by San Antonio last year. Las Vegas has also not won on the road this season, going 0-2 so far.

Midfielder Michael Lahoud, who wore the captain armband on Saturday night in place on an injured Pecka, had this to say after his first SAFC start, echoing his Manager’s hopefulness. “We'll take away a lot of positives from this game, because there's a belief that stays through adversity and this is where you find out what type of group you have. For me, as a veteran guy, there's no room to feel sorry for ourselves, so we have to keep our chins up and get ready for Vegas next week. Now it's all about results."

San Antonio would be best served to start cashing in on those needed results, starting with Las Vegas on Saturday night. Their season, and perhaps their manager’s future as well, might depend on it.

IMAGES: SAN ANTONIO FC TWITTER

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