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Utah Royals’ bold experiment

A shiny fresh and unique three-person back line.

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

In each of their three 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup games, Utah Royals FC have come out with three in the backline. This is a first for the Royals and also quite uncommon among NWSL teams. In preparation for the final match of the round-robin and elimination play, let’s take a look at just what this means for the Royals and see if it is just another failed experiment, or if it has legs to survive.

Is it really just three defensive players?

When on a defensive footing, strangely enough, a back three is functionally not all that different from a back four. In a more traditional back four, modern soccer strongly emphasizes the value of an outside fullback who can go up the field on a wing and provide service into the box. When one fullback goes forward, the other three defensive players spread across the field to provide width to their coverage. When their team no longer possesses the ball, the fullback falls back into an outside wing position in the defensive line. When playing with a back three that offensive presence and attack comes from a central midfielder who can push up into the attack centrally and then, upon losing the ball, pull back to keep the sole central defender from being overwhelmed and provide coverage if that central defender gets pulled out to one wing or the other. In either case, there are effectively four back defenders on the field.

Game 1: Royals vs. Dash

Although the graphic in the CBS Sports broadcast gave a starting back three of Ball-Corsie-Bowen, in reality, Utah played with a back three of Ball-Corsie-Jonsdottir, with LaBonta in the central midfield providing support for Corsie, and Bowen playing in front of Jonsdottir on the wing. In the 63rd minute, Bowen came off, Jonsdottir pushed forward into the midfield, and Kate Del Fava entered on the left of the back three while Ball moved to the right of the back three.

Rachel Daly’s goal in stoppage time of the first half is an excellent example of how to attack in a back three. The play started when Megan Oyster, a central defender, took a free kick on the left of the field about even with her penalty box following a foul by Diana Matheson. Oyster’s kick, which went across the field to Katie Naughton, the other central defender, on the right. Naughton pushed the ball up the field taking a couple of dribbles before sending the ball long over the head of Jonsdottir to Veronika Latsko freeing her for a run toward goal. This drew Corsie out of the center to provide coverage and left room for a central run. Latsko smartly laid a ball back the onrushing Rachel Daly who was in free on Smith in the center and Daly promptly buried her shot from close range.

The Royals, late in stoppage time and hoping to walk off with a lead, had plenty of time to get back into defensive shape while Houston set up the free kick and while Naughton pushed the ball forward, but as the ball left the foot of Naughton, there were four well-distributed Houston players in the Royals half with only the three Utah defenders. LaBonta, who had driven the long ball up field to Diana Matheson which resulted in the foul and free kick from just behind the center circle on the Royals half, had by then moved up into the Dash half. She was a good ten yards behind Daly in the center of the field, and lacking the speed to close the distance, she trailed the entire play and couldn’t provide central coverage when Corsie had to pull out and defend against Latsko.

Of course, mistakes happen, and it took both the ball over Jonsdottir and the movement by LaBonta to free Rachel Daly. Bowen, who was playing in front of Jonsdottir, also did little to provide coverage for Jonsdottir in this moment. Neither Jonsdottir nor LaBonta was playing in a position they have a great deal of experience with and they paid a price for it.

Overall, LaBonta’s heat map against Houston looked like this with the Royals’ goal at the bottom. She spent time in both halves of the field about equally, although more offensively on the left and more defensively on the right. This corresponds quite well with an intent to mark Rachel Daly, whose heat map is below LaBonta’s.

Lo’eau LaBonta against Houston
Rachel Daly against Utah

However, when combined with the other four (Ball, Corsie, Jonsdottir, and Del Fava), who played a defensive role, the heat map begins to reveal some questioning trends.

Defensive Four against Houston

The small circle right in front of Houston’s goal represents having the defenders move up for corners, and much of the top part of the extension forward on the right is due to Jonsdottir moving up in the formation after Del Fava came on in the 63rd minute. However, the open gap just below the center circle and the yellow concentrations so far out right-wing are not ideal for a defensive shape that is designed to clog up the center and force the other team out to the wings.

Game 2: Royals vs. Sky Blue

Against Sky Blue FC in the second game Del Fava, Corsie, Ball and LaBonta all played the full 90 minutes as all the substitutions were further up the field and pointed toward the offense and had a heat maps like the following. Note that in these heat map the Royals goal is at the top of the map.

Lo’eau LaBonta against Sky Blue
Defensive Four against Sky Blue

As Sky Blue failed to produce any real offensive threat and did not have a shot on goal in the entire match, it is understandable that LaBonta, and the Royals in general, would push further forward offensively, but once again, the lack of a strong central presence around the center circle raises some concern.

Game 3: Royals vs. OL Reign - Game 4

As Utah began their third match against OL Reign, lineup graphics showed Maddie Nolf as the rear central midfielder, but as her heat map shows, where the Royals goal is back on top of the image, that is somewhat debatable. She spent a good part of her time on the field in the first half out on the left-wing.

Maddie Nolf against OL Reign

On the other hand, LaBonta spent the bulk of her full 90 minutes in the defensive half and on both wings. The large concentration on the left is nearly all from the first half while Nolf was in the match, and the large concentration on the right is from the second half when Diallo came in to replace Nolf.

Lo’eau LaBonta against OL Reign

In short, LaBonta played behind Nolf for most of the first half. Assuming that Ball, Corsie, Del Fava and LaBonta were the defensively-oriented players in the first half of this match, it produces a heat map for the first 45 which looks like the following:

Defensive 4 1st Half against OL Reign

Compressed into their own half, it is indicative of the Reign pressure on the wings. At halftime, Rachel Corsie was pulled off for the first time in the Cup, and Taylor Leach came on in her place, which resulted in cohesion being lost in the center. Assuming a straight switch, we are left with the following heat map for the second half, tracking Ball, Leach, Del Fava, and LaBonta:

Defensive 4 2nd Half against OL Reign

As we see, there’s even more compression and very little presence from those 4 in the center of the field. Of course, in the match, many of the other players were pulled back centrally. In addition, Coach Harrington might have been willing to sacrifice defense for a chance at a winning goal in a 0-0 match through all of regular time. Utah does lead the league with 14 shots on goal and 30 shots through the first three games. Either way, it is a large change from the much more defensively-oriented approach of Coach Harvey last year.

What further changes might we see in the fourth and final match of the group stage with both LaBonta and Ball having played all 270 minutes of the first three matches and a 5-way tie for 2 to 6 place and seeding in the knockout round? Join us on Sunday as the bold experiment continues.