There was a bit of frustration among fans that NSC was unable to get on the scoresheet – and thus in the win column – against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saturday evening. After a thorough review of the broadcast, what were the factors in the inability to score?
Tactics and formation
This was a pretty big one, at least in the young stages of the club’s USL history. Nashville SC distributed a team sheet with a 4-4-2 formation prior to the game, then took to the field in its typical 5-3-2 anyway (the Riverhounds had a similar formation, more a 5-2-3 or 3-4-3, however you want to define it).
The wingbacks pushed high (as they often do) while attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto hit the front line – for the most part, playing more advanced than striker Robin Shroot, who dropped into the midfield role – giving NSC a bit of a 3-4-3 look of its own.
After the break, Nashville SC came out in the 4-4-2 it initially promised, with left wingback Ryan James pushed up into the midfield while right wingback Kosuke Kimura and left centerback Justin Davis took on a fullback role. Central midfielder Michael Reed became a right mid while Moloto and CDM Matt LaGrassa played centrally together.
Shroot was the first player out of the game (57′), replaced by Ropapa Mensah, who played the most advanced role of any NSC player we’ve seen this year. Kimura exited in the 62nd minute for Taylor Washington, and NSC switched back to the 5-3-2 with Washington the left wingback, James moving over to the right wingback, and the three midfielders in their traditional roles. Bolu Akinyode came on in the 77th as a like-for-like replacement for LaGrassa.
NSC did a lot of lumping the ball up to Tucker Hume from the backline and defensive midfield, with a clear gameplan to let him win headers and knock it on to players running in behind him. That was basically the plan in both formations. Later in the game (especially when Washington came on), the plan was less Hume-centric (at least in terms of longballs from the back), and relied on the wingbacks getting up the field and taking through balls.
Matt Pickens – 11.88 (94 minutes) – Although the pure numbers had him No. 2 in man of the match rating, the fact that it’s tougher for a goalkeeper to be involved in every phase of the game than an attacking midfielder (spoiler alert) makes him my choice. He was solid in distribution, came off his line at all the right times, and of course made a couple impeccable saves. Even shots that went wide were covered had they been on frame (except one, Romeo Parkes’s post).
Justin Davis – 10.85 (94 minutes) – Davis ends up with a few more super-sketchy moments (particularly letting players in behind him) than other defenders, but makes up for it with a great work getting back, and a few flashy tackles in each game. This one was no different.
Ryan James – 9.59 (94 minutes) – I’m officially a major Ryan James fan. He played three different positions Saturday (as denoted above, and as I’ll break down tomorrow), and was good in all of them. He doesn’t have Taylor Washington’s pure speed up the sideline, and at times can be frustrated into pounding it semi-aimlessly upfield, but he’s consistent defensively and a threat on offense. The versatility is just a bonus, given that he’s equally excellent at all spots, including flipping sides of the field.
Liam Doyle – 8.20 (94 minutes) – Doyle tends to be less directly involved than his defensive teammates. That’s probably the nature of the formation (three centerbacks means there’s less action for any individual, but that most directly impacts the middle one, with a lot of moves from the wing cut out before they get to him), but a negative in my system, which rewards involvement in the game to a bit. Doyle tends to be reliable for one enormous mistake per game – often multiple on one play, as was the case on the opportunity when Pittsburgh hit the post – and his long distribution wasn’t the strength of his game that it usually is, but he’s the best in the air of anyone, and makes some nice tackles as the last line of defense.
Bradley Bourgeois – 5.79 (94 minutes) – Bourgeois stepped into the starting lineup in part because of an injury to London Woodberry (who may have been poor enough last week that he would have gotten the hook anyway), but he was good enough to keep the job. His areas of weakness are primarily with the ball at his feet: he seems to lose composure just a bit and either bang it aimlessly upfield or go for a backpass (even if said backpass isn’t going to alleviate much danger). More experience should help.
Taylor Washington – 2.35 (31 minutes) – Washington simply changes the game when he’s on the pitch. That’s not necessarily because of anything he specifically accomplishes, but because of the way his speed opens things up for the rest of the offense going forward. He’s going to be more involved when teammates are on the same page as him, and he can be a difference-maker.
Kosuke Kimura – -0.50 (63 minutes) – Kimura has had a long, illustrious career, but through two games so far, his value seems to be higher as a mentor than a player on the pitch. He has a high workrate, but the top-end speed isn’t there, he tends to lose his balance in on-ball defense (leading to an extremely dangerous moment in the first half), and he’s become a liability with the ball at his feet, either with dangerous backpasses, aimless forward passes, or simply inaccurate ones laterally. He also had three or four bizarrely horrible throw-ins in this game. He should cede more playing time to Washington, even if for now that just means coming in for longer substitute appearances rather than Kimura not making the lineup.
Lebo Moloto – 14.20 (94 minutes) – By the numbers, the man of the match, and if not for the importance of Pickens’s performance (and the inability of a good performance out of Moloto to turn into production via goals), I would have given it to him. He seemed to tire late in the game, flubbing a couple chances near the death that he took better earlier. He played both central attacking midfield and a bit of striker in the first half. He will over-dribble and give the ball away occasionally, but has been the only threat of offense through both games of the season so far.
Michael Reed – 4.66 (94 minutes) – This was a bit of a bounceback game after what I saw as a mediocre-to-poor performance against Louisville – even though the score was a bit lower in this one. He tends to try to turn bouncing balls into aerial battles, and has bad traps based on that, and doesn’t seem to think offense-first when receiving the ball in space (on a team that could really use that mindset). He doesn’t make any huge mistakes though, and that’s important with a backline that is prone to a couple per game. He really reminds me of a poor man’s Michael Bradley – and before USMNT fans jump down his throat, that’s a player you can win a hell of a lot of games with at the USL level.
Matt LaGrassa – 4.41 (78 minutes) – LaGrassa is the more two-way threat of the defensive midfielders, and that was the case in this game, too. He makes a few really nice standing tackles from the side or behind per game, but also makes a risky pass or two. When it’s forward and that is a turnover, so be it. When it’s a turnover in his own end, that’s no bueno.
Bolu Akinyode – 1.87 (16 minutes) – I’ve been a bit of an Akinyode skeptic – his best performance came against an NCAA side, and coach Gary Smith was not nearly as high on him after that Lipscomb friendly as the layperson – but he had a very nice, if very brief, outing. He’s strong on the ball, though he’s not going to track back with maximum effort a whole lot. The major downer of his performance is that it took NSC’s final sub when they direly needed a second change at striker.
Tucker Hume – 7.60 (94 minutes) – Hume has come in for a beating from fans after the game, but I think the majority of it is undeserved. He won plenty of headers, but wasn’t credited in the stats because his support players (primarily Robin Shroot, about whom much more in a moment) were unable to get to the ball despite Hume putting it directly where he was supposed to. He has other failings – as a big guy, he tires somewhat easily, and was absolutely gassed at the end of the game (replacing him with Michael Cox or Alan Winn instead of getting Akinyode on the field would have been a spark that could have won the contest). Ask any Cincinnati fan, and they’ll tell you Hume goes down easily. They’re right, but he’s not diving: dude just doesn’t have the combination of strength and balance to maintain his feet. When he gets a call, it works out fine. When he doesn’t (and dude gets fouled a ton by smaller players without getting a call), he looks like a dude who just can’t get up for the ball. Cameo roles, a bit of physical development, and better support could make him pretty effective.
Ropapa Mensah – 1.82 (36 minutes) – I’ve had a consistent line on Mensah (as I have with Alan Winn): he’s going to be good, perhaps even pretty soon, but isn’t ready from a polish, composure, and conditioning standpoint to be there yet. I stand by that, but after further review of the game, I think he needs to be on the field in some way. Like Washington, the sheer existence of his speed is a game-changer for what the opponent can do, even if he’s not going to consistently take advantage (while I’m more confident in Washington’s ability to remain consistent). He had some really bad giveaways in what could have been dangerous positions, but makes a delectable play or two per game. Getting him on when NSC did is probably what he can do well enough for now.
Robin Shroot – -0.96 (58 minutes) – It sucks to note that Shroot had a bad game (similar to Kimura – why did two of the nicest guys on the team have to have poor outings?) because he’s such a good dude, and I liked what I saw of his highlights before practices began. He’s just a goal-getter, but the problem is that one of those who is 30 years old (today!) and slowing down significantly can have trouble making an impact. Along with another slow striker in Hume – albeit one who provides something other than speed – he doesn’t bring enough to threaten the defense. Shroot over-dribbled a couple times to turn dangerous moments into turnovers in the penalty area, and just didn’t get on his horse to receive some of Hume’s service after long-balls. That pairing isn’t one that seems like it’ll work out, and Shroot’s primary value when one of the speedier players isn’t on the field might be as a mentor type. Shroot’s main asset is workrate in the high press (he puts a lot of effort into it), but a goal-scorer has to do more than that.
NSC was far more dangerous offensively than it seemed at times in this game, with an individual mistake here and there spoiling what should have been major threats. The problem is that when those individual mistakes start piling up and happen almost every time, it becomes a matter of who you are, not isolated errors.
The gameplan – be solid at the back and lump it up to Hume – wasn’t a bad one, but the personnel didn’t execute it well. Some of that is the coaches’ inability to recognize the limitations of the players (Shroot can’t run onto head-ons well enough for that to be Hume’s primary task with the two together), or to stretch the field wide (with Washington instead of Kimura) to create the channels for those supporting runs. Some of it was just execution errors that players shouldn’t be making.
I’m not a fan of “blow up the whole offense,” either personnel-wise or tactically, but it’s probably not wise to play two slower strikers together, and if you do, Washington needs to be on the field to stretch the attacking third horizontally (he needs to be on the field anyway because he’s earned it at this point).
I would encourage fans to not be too down on the offense despite a lack of goals through two games, though. With a bit more tinkering and not playing what is unquestionably the best team in the league and then a radically improved defense, this side should be able to put up some scoring. I don’t expect they’ll be giving up much, so that should provide for better results going forward.