The Harrisburg City Islanders defeated Orlando City B 1-0 in Melbourne, Florida to notch their first win of the 2016 USL season.
City Islanders head coach Bill Becher gave three players their first start in Harrisburg’s third consecutive away match: defender Liam Doyle, defensive midfielder Mouhamed Dabo, and midfielder Cardel Benbow.
Harrisburg’s formation was listed as their standard 4-4-2, but shortly after kickoff the team began to take a different shape. Paul Wilson, listed in the starting lineup as a forward, dropped behind his strike partner into an attacking midfield position. With Wilson playing behind the main striker, the City Islanders took on a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The match started with Benbow on the left of midfield and Jose Barril on the right. As the game progressed, however, the attacking midfield trio of Benbow, Barril, and Wilson interchanged positions fluidly. With captain Bobby Warshaw and Dabo sitting in the center of midfield, the trio were able to shift as they looked for holes in Orlando’s defense.
Dabo looked comfortable sitting deeper in the central midfield. Only 5-foot-9, there were a few occasions where Dabo was out-muscled by the Orlando City B midfielders, however his quickness and vision enabled him to win balls and spread the play quickly. He looked comfortable playing next to captain Warshaw.
In the first two matches of the 2016 season, Warshaw was partnered with Josh Hughes, a more attack-minded central midfielder. By partnering with Dabo, a strictly defensive midfielder, Warshaw was free to join in the attack. On several occasions, Warshaw carried the ball down the wing or covered the back post during a cross.
The biggest improvement over the previous two matches was the team chemistry. The City Islanders had a better understanding of their teammates positioning and could anticipate their movements. There were long stretches during the first half where Harrisburg control and moved the ball between their players with one- or two-touch passes. The City Islanders utilized their newfound chemistry to dictate the tempo of the first half.
In the 39’, Orlando City B midfielder Tony Rocha was shown a red card for a rough challenge on Harrisburg right back Shane McLaws. Down a man near the half, Orlando continued to struggle against the City Islanders.
After the break, Harrisburg pulled ahead in the 60’ with a left-footed shot from Benbow. Barril gathered the ball in the middle of the field and spotted Benbow open on the right. Benbow moved into the box and beat the defender with two step overs and a quick shot that bounced off the post and in. The goal was Benbow’s first of the season.
Despite playing down a man, Orlando reorganized and pushed harder in the second half. They were better able to control possession and managed to challenge the City Islanders defense on a few occasions. Harrisburg goalkeeper Nick Noble was forced to make three saves in the second half compared to just one in the first.
Starting in the 71st minute, Harrisburg made three substitutions to preserve their lead. Aaron Wheeler came on for Craig Foster, midfielder Josh Hughes spelled Benbow, and Matthew Bolduc made his first appearance for the club relieving Barril.
Instead of ensuring a victory, however, the substitutions spoiled the chemistry that Harrisburg enjoyed in the first hour of the match. Despite being up a goal and a man, the City Islanders were forced to chase the ball for much of the last half hour of the game. When they did win possession, they resorted to long balls forward.
In spite of his 6-foot-4 frame, Wheeler has a tendency to drop deep into the midfield and has proven to be a poor target forward for long balls. He did contribute Saturday by inciting Orlando City B captain Lewis Neal during a challenge in the 90+ minute. Wheeler provoked the midfielder during a challenge, which resulted in both players receiving a yellow card. Unfortunately for Neal, it was his second of the night and was given a red card for his short temper.
The match finished with seven yellow cards and two red. Harrisburg defender James Thomas, midfielder Shane Campbell, and Wheeler received cautions on the night.
Harrisburg can be proud of earning their first win of the season with a strong performance on the road against Orlando City B. Saturday’s lineup shows a developing chemistry between the new members of the City Islanders. With Leverock and Doyle in defense and Warshaw and Dabo in the midfield, Harrisburg has a strong spine that can allow more creative play to flourish.
The 4-2-3-1 formation was a successful experiment, enabling the City Islanders to connect their defense and offense without futile long balls. It wasn’t utilized consistently throughout the match, which saw Harrisburg float back to a traditional 4-4-2 at times. However, the new 4-2-3-1 formation seems to have more potential for the City Islanders than the old 4-4-2.
Bill Becher has the opportunity to experiment twice over the next week as the City Islanders play their first two home matches on Friday and Monday.