Unlocking the offense

Two games, zero goals. You can’t win if you can’t score, and at this point in its young history as a franchise, Nashville SC has literally never found the back of the net in a meaningful game. What will it take for the Boys in Gold to end that ignominious streak?

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Could a defensive switch improve the offense?

The problem

Nashville SC has mustered just 13 shots so far in USL play, and only four of those have been on-target.

  • M Lebo Moloto (two on target, five off target, two blocked)
  • F Tucker Hume (one on target)
  • Ms Matt LaGrassa and Michael Reed (one each, both blocked outside the box)
  • D Ryan James

Among teams that have played more than one game, only Richmond Kickers with 13 have the same or worse shot totals. Actually kicking the ball in the general direction of the goal, and NSC has… not done it.

Moloto – who played a but of striker Saturday, but as far as I can recall took all his shots when lined up in the midfield – is obviously the offensive threat thus far (with three of his shots coming on corner kicks, in fairness). Strikers have one shot so far this season, that on-frame from Tucker Hume against Louisville.

As you can probably gather, opponents are loading up defensive personnel in the back-end against NSC. They’re not so much parking the bus as running a “bunker and counter” mentality, but either way, there’s no space for Nashville SC’s strikers to get free for a shot – and in fairness, they haven’t been willing to pull the trigger when there is an opening.

The personnel

Taking a look specifically at striker, the depth chart shakes out roughly like this (with a bit of commentary on each player’s characteristics):

  • Robin Shroot – Goal-getter at past stops, but hasn’t taken a shot this year. Getting up there in age, and possibly no longer the fleetest of foot despite strong technical skills.
  • Michael Cox – A mix of a goal-getter and a hold-up guy, a very strong physical presence. Faster than Shroot but hardly a speed demon.
  • Tucker Hume – A true hold-up man with target forward size. Probably the slowest of them all in a straight line, but a surprising amount of technical skill and burst with the ball at his feet, too.
  • Ropapa Mensah – Big, strong, and fast. Has a long way to go in terms of decision-making, consistency with his technical skills, fitness to go 90 minutes, and toning down an emotional streak.
  • Alan Winn – The fastest player among the strikers. Fresh out of college, still learning the speed and techniques for this higher level of play. Possibly also an inverted left winger, he was primarily a goal-getter in college but will have to improve his consistency to have that opportunity going forward. Yet to see the field in the regular season.

As you can see, the players who have earned playing time so far are Hume (127 minutes), Shroot (117 minutes), Cox (73 minutes), and Mensah (55 minutes). The majority of the minutes, then, have gone to the two slowest players in the unit. That’s not to say they’re bad players, but they have a similar weak point. For an offense that’s struggled to generate space, could getting more pace onto the field open up channels? It’s possible.

The Hume/Shroot and Hume/Cox pairings haven’t seemed to go well (against Pittsburgh and Louisville respectively), though I’d be willing to give the latter another try. However, with any of those three players on the field, it might be wise to have more than a cameo appearance – 19 against Louisville, 36 against Pittsburgh – for an athletic player like Mensah.

“Part of my job is not only to construct the right style and shape, but it’s also to make sure that the guys that are in the group, in the roster, if they’re going to do well, if they’re going to make a difference, then they’re going to see that they’re going to get an opportunity,” said Gary Smith.

Speed at the striker position isn’t the only place it can be upgraded, though. In fact, my preferred fix to this ill relies primarily on a different slot altogether.

The solution?

It’s time for Taylor Washington to take over as the starting left back for Nashville SC. To understand how changing up a starting defender will help the offense, you must first understand how Gary Smith’s 5-3-2 is designed to attack. Fortunately, I’ve written about this already. Here’s the kicker:

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.

NSC needs those wingbacks to defend going back and through the midfield, but also direly needs them to get forward to create space for the offense. By stretching the width of the field, they force the defense to defend sideline-to-sideline, opening those gaps. That makes it easier for the midfielders to matriculate the ball up the field, and means the strikers aren’t constantly in 2-on-4 (or worse!) situations against defenders.

That’s all before you consider how the wingbacks can cross it into the box (for a player like Hume, for example) if they are in possession of the ball in one of those wide areas.

Washington brings an element of speed that Kosuke Kimura has been unable to provide this year. Given that Kimura has also been a little sloppy with the ball – both in long and short passing – and Washington hasn’t had the opportunity to do so, much less done it, he should at least get a shot in the starting lineup. Thanks to Ryan James’s ability to flip to the right wingback spot that Kimura would vacate, there’s little to lose in exchange for getting that speed on the field.

What should happen at striker?

I remain convinced that neither Mensah nor Winn is ready for a starting role yet, so let’s table their entering just yet. I think Hume provides something different than either Shroot or Cox, so he remains in the lineup. In order to be a little less plodding, the slightly faster Cox is my choice. Mensah or Winn (most likely Mensah, given what playing time to date says about the staff’s current opinions of them) comes off the bench as early as halftime if there’s still not enough speed on the field.

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Can Cox and Moloto find net without wholesale personnel changes?

Washington should make it easier for NSC to find a view of the goal, while Hume’s hold-up play either receives the ball, scores directly from the head, or creates space by pulling bodies forward into the box. That should make further opportunities for Moloto, while Washington’s presence probably gives a bit more opportunity for Cox to find ways to get a shot off.

Is it a panacea? Of course not. But it should be able to make the attack a little more potent without sacrificing defense. Against a Bethlehem Steel team that’s already conceded three goals, we should get an early view of whether it’s going to be an effective switch.

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