Nashville soccer 102: What is Gary Smith’s 5-3-2

This is part two of an ongoing series helping Nashville SC fans understand the game – and specifically how the Boys in Gold are set up to attack it. In this edition: the team’s apparent base formation.

Gary Smith: a guy who knows what he’s doing. Tim Sullivan/For Cub and Country.

When last we spoke about some of the more basic soccer concepts (to share with friends who are ew to the game, or to educate ourselves), it was unclear what the philosophy of Nashville SC’s inaugural team was going to be. Would they be defense-first, high-scoring-oriented? What formation would the Boys in Gold use?

If preseason training and friendlies are any indication, we at the very least have an answer to the latter question: this team will base out of a 5-3-2 formation.

What’s it look like


When the team hits the field, the above is an approximation of the shape: five defenders, three midfielders, and two strikers. (This is also a reasonable guess at a starting lineup – it’s one I projected for a preseason game – too, though it’s not quite the one I’ll be projecting for the season opener).

There are many ways this personnel can shift its roles depending on need, though. First, let’s address what appears to be the focus of the formation.

Looks pretty defensive, dude

Indeed it does! But in practice, this is a far more offensively-oriented formation than it appears at first glance. Five defenders and two holding midfielders with only three offensive-minded guys on its face, that’s a recipe for bunker-and-counter.

In practice, though, it’s more versatile – and packs much more punch going forward – than it appears at first glance. The outside backs can play high up the field in possession, serving the function of wingers. One midfielder is almost strictly an offensive specialist (and in recent games, one of the defensive midfielders has functioned more as a box-to-box guy, with the other serving as a lone holding mid).

So let’s take a look at how this functions.

The concepts

While the formation is nominally a 5-3-2 (NSC lists the outside backs as defenders on the roster and on lineup sheets), Gary Smith has interchangeably called it a 3-5-2, as well. That speaks to not only the multiple roles of those wingbacks, but the type of players needed: guys who can get all the way back defensively (we saw the other day that they can help give up scoring chances if they don’t quickly flip the switch from offense to defense), but also those who are dangerous going forward.

Take a look at the wingbacks shortly following a turnover gained against Chattanooga Saturday evening:

Turbo speed forward.

Not only do they immediate turn to an offensive mindset, they’re athletic enough to turn a ho-hum play in their own end into a serious counter-attack threat.

Get you a wingback who can do both. NSC has at least three: veteran Kosuke Kimura (near side in the GIF above) is an all-motor, all-the-time player who has the energy to get up and down the field all game, contributing both in his own end and the attacking third. Taylor Washington (top of the screen) has the pure speed to make teams pay on the counter, or hurry back for defensive coverage. Ryan James – who is actually playing right centerback in the above GIF, but is able to contribute on either wing and will likely start at left wingback – is a bit of a combination of both, obviously with a major jolt of versatility.

The chemistry and complementary skillsets of the midfielders also help make this formation work in a big way for the Boys in Gold. Lebo Moloto is a pure attacking midfielder, but can cycle back into defensive coverage (Alan Winn, likely his primary backup while also backing up striker positions, is similar. Martim Galvao ). The other two midfielders, Josh Hughes and Michael Reed above (but more likely Matt LaGrassa joining Reed in the starting lineup) have two-way ability, and the gameplan can see them execute differently. Either two can stay back filling holes in the back line (the centerbacks will spread wide, especially in possession), or one can be an offensive/defensive threat as a box-to-box No. 8 as the other stays at a No. 6, or we’ve increasingly seen both push a little higher up the field with the pace to track back if the ball is turned over.

Only three true defenders at a given point is the norm, but any combination of four different players (the wingbacks or the defensive midfielders) can quickly change that tone.


The concept of the 5-3-2 relies upon its ability to be either offensive or defensive as the situation calls for, and we’re expecting that NSC takes the scoring pushes to the maximum when possible.

It can be a 3-4-3 with the CAM between the strikers and the wingbacks pushed into midfield, it can be a 3-3-4 in extreme offensive postures (with those wingbacks far up the flank, ready to cross, and the defensive midfielders in position to cover for them in the event of a turnover), and it can easily have seven or eight players back to stave off advances from the opponent.

With Nashville’s personnel (there are some variations available, too – Winn is most comfortable as almost a left winger, so a more conservative LWB and an offensive-minded box-to-box CM to balance the formation a bit when he’s on the field are among the many possibilities), there is a lot this formation can do.

The main things NSC fans want it to accomplish, though, come in the form of wins.

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