Breakdown and player ratings: Bethlehem Steel 0-1 Nashville SC

Breakdown and player ratings: Nashville SC 0-0 Pittsburgh RiverhoundsNashville SC finally earned its first win of the young season, and a road win, no less. What led to the result?

Tactics and formation

Nashville SC came out with a couple wrinkles that we hadn’t seen this much of prior to the game: a straight-up 4-4-2 formation, and attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto lined up as a striker. We got glimpses of each in the scoreless draw against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, but had essentially a full game here (the formation got a little muddier when Moloto was replaced by Matt LaGrassa, who was a bit like a fifth midfielder at times, while winger Alan Winn raced up the sidelines).

There was also plenty of shifting among the personnel: Winn got his first playing time of the year at right midfielder, wingback Taylor Washington got his first start of the year at left midfielder, Bolu Akinyode replaced LaGrassa in the defensive midfield, and Michael Cox returned to the pitch after sitting the game against Pittsburgh.

The end result was a very different type of attack than in the previous two games, and despite still lacking a goal from the run of play, there seemed to be more danger to it. Without further ado, the player ratings. Please note that I’m still trying to tweak the formula week-by-week, so the numbers may not translate across posts (but are internally consistent within each game). The community ratings are on a more traditional 1-10 scale.

Midfield

Alan Winn 15.96 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 7.75 – I tried to be very conservative in my evaluation of Winn’s performance: the hype train for him (and for Ropapa Mensah) has been a little out of control, and I understand a lot of the reasons he hadn’t seen as much time yet. Still, he was my man of the match, and like I’ve said about Taylor Washington in previous weeks, it’s the simple presence of his speed on the pitch just as much as anything he accomplishes with the ball at his feet that makes him so dangerous.

Indeed, Winn’s play with the ball at his feet was at times really lacking: he’s capable of some really nice skill dribbles or incisive runs, but the “Nashville gets in good positions and doesn’t score or even get a shot off” narrative existed before this game, and Winn seemed to want to continue it in a major way. He over-dribbles in the box, and needs to have a bit more spatial awareness both in the scoring third and when it comes to getting there with his passes.

That should come with more repetitions at professional soccer speed, since he’s still adjusting from college ball. Substitution appearances (depending on a formation that makes sense to get him on the field) would be a nice step for consistent minutes in the next few weeks. Interestingly, he played on the right, even though he’d previously been more comfortable on the left side as an in-cutting winger.

Taylor Washington 10.04 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 7.00 –  This was a winger-friendly formation and gameplan, so there’s a little to be adjusted expectations-wise for both of these guys, but Washington impressed as he always does. He wasn’t quite on the same page with his central defensive midfielders or defenders (when it came to their distributing it to him) at times, but like Winn, his speed is a game-changer for what NSC can do going forward. He also faded a bit after a strong first half, though that’s more likely a product of getting his first full 90.

Michael Reed 8.37 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.00 – I thought this was a nice little bounceback game for Reed after a couple iffy ones to start the year. He was far more assertive in stepping up to get in a tackle on opposing midfielders or forwards, and was far better at being controlled in where the ball ended up at the conclusion of those tackles – to his teammates, rather than just becoming a 50/50 ball in the middle of the field. He’s still a little quieter in terms of overall involvement than I might like, though that’s partially the nature of the D-mids within this club, it seems.

Bolu Akinyode 7.12 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.00 – Akinyode was a bit of a surprise starter after Matt LaGrassa had previously been a lock in the starting lineup. He provides a pretty different skillset than LaGrassa, though: he’s less comfortable going forward (particularly with the ball at his feet), but is a much more physically imposing defensive asset. He completes passes at a higher clip than teammates, but a lot of those tend to be extremely conservative – almost “make sure I complete the pass for the sake of not having an incompletion” rather than “make the play that is right for the situation” at times. He also still shows a bit of a lack of effort tracking back on counter-attacks, something that we saw in preseason, too.

Matt LaGrassa 1.41 (31 minutes) – Community rating: 5.75 – LaGrassa’s numbers are deflated for two reasons: first, limited playing time (which plays a big role in my formula thus far), and second, playing out of position. When he replaced Moloto, he was more of an advanced midfielder than a true striker like the player he replaced. We’ve seen LaGrassa go forward with the ball from his CDM spot, but playing up the field rather than matriculating the ball up himself is a different story. He was also called for a pretty weak time-wasting yellow card (among the many awful calls by an officiating crew that really was out of its depth in USL), which I dinged him for despite not thinking it was particularly justified.

Forwards

Michael Cox 10.87 (74 minutes) – Community rating: 7.75 – Cox obviously has the only goal in NSC (regular-season) history to his name at this point, thanks to a penalty that he – along with the incompetence of the officiating crew – earned himself. He was a beast in making runs upfield early in the game, had a bit of decent hold-up play, and got off a couple shots. He does, however, have a bit of a tendency to be iffy with the first touch, and he doesn’t have the pure speed to run onto long balls with the consistency of, say, Winn or Moloto (of course, he’s good for it at least once – in earning that penalty). He needs more game minutes to get used to full-speed action, and had a couple offensive pushes that he spoiled by not taking stock of his runners. Like other NSC strikers we’ve seen, he ran the heck out of gas early in the second half. Conditioning at that position is going to be a work in progress.

Lebo Moloto 10.58 (66 minutes) – Community rating: 6.75 – Moloto looks a little out of position at striker – because he is – but Gary Smith clearly had the same thought a lot of fans did: “let’s put the only offensive threat on the team in position to put the ball on goal.” Oddly, Moloto didn’t do as much in terms of pure offense as we’d seen in the previous two games. Few of his passes were played into (or out of) the box, he took only one shot, and he didn’t seem as involved in the offensive third. Still, he was a decent facilitator as sort of a false nine to drop back to spark attacks – even though he had a couple troubles trapping passes. For a guy playing out of position, I had no serious problems with his performance.

Ropapa Mensah 1.13 (23 minutes) – Community rating: 6.25 – Mensah came onto the field and initiated a bit of a spark. He didn’t have a whole lot of time to make an impact, but losing his feet on a corner (where maintaining a jumping position to get a header on could have been the game-sealing goal) and committing a silly foul in the offensive end dragged down the rating a bit, too.

Defenders

Liam Doyle 11.01 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.25 – By the nature of the thing, Doyle (as the middle centerback) tends to get less action – and therefore fewer opportunities to build up a rating – during games, but in playing left centerback in a four-man backline, he got a bit more action. He steps up in the right situations (without doing so in any wrong situations, like we saw at times in previous games), is a threat with the head – he should have had a goal on a well-placed ball off a corner, but for a semi-lucky save by the keeper – and is a threat with the long-ball, as we saw on the would-be assist on Cox’s run that led to the penalty. He still makes some iffy back-passes to his keeper or fellow defenders, though.

Justin Davis 10.08 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.50 – Davis has a very, very different quality about him as a left outside back than he does as one of a central defensive trio. He doesn’t get directly up the sideline for overlapping runs, but is comfortable folding inside with the ball at his feet (we see him press from a CDM role, but dish it when he gets into an advanced position, rather than trying to dribble in like he did Saturday) and likes to dish it up the sideline. His physical nature gets the better of him at times – he gave up a dangerous and unnecessary free kick late in Saturday’s game, and I think one of these spectacular slide tackles is going to be a yellow eventually.

Ryan James 9.77 (75 minutes) – Community rating: 6.25 – Playing fullback in a 4-4-2 versus wingback in a 3-5-2 or midfield in a 4-4-2 is a very different role for James. He still managed to make a number of overlapping runs, but due to a lack of chemistry with Winn, he didn’t get service when he should have a couple times. His primary role in this one was defensive, and early in the game he was having trouble making the adjustment, letting a couple runners through (Bourgeois cleared one, the other was whistled for offside). It seemed like his sub-off was more to get the defensively-sound Kimura on the field to hold onto the result (and reward the veteran, who missed his first start of the year).

Bradley Bourgeois 7.96 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 6.50 – For a smaller central defender, I really like what Bourgeois brings physically: he actually manages to get up and head the ball for clearances, he’s willing to really get in and battle for the ball, and is solid at stepping up to a threat or tracking back to cover. He has a similar trait to Akinyode, where he’s overly conservative with the passes he plays, though on the backline that (somewhat ironically) leads to some really risky moments.

Kosuke Kimura 0.91 (22 minutes) – Community rating: 5.50 – Kimura wasn’t on the field long enough to have much of an impact, and the ball never really came his way during the time on the field. Consider this grade an incomplete.

Goalkeeper

Matt Pickens 5.33 (97 minutes) – Community rating: 8.25 – Pickens wasn’t particularly involved in this game (I’ll get into that in a moment), but when called upon, he came up big. He had a couple saves on free kicks, including one on which he had to immediately make a second save on the rebound – if it’s not the USL save of the week, the league is doing it wrong. He was a little iffy in distribution – normally a strength of his game – with kicks out of the back landing short or, at times, out of bounds. He did what he was asked, though.

Conclusions

Bethlehem fans are (rightly) upset about Michael Cox’s penalty kick: that foul occurred outside the box (though the red was absolutely justified, and I’m pleasantly surprised it was called). That wasn’t the only mistake by the refs though, who had an absolute howler. This play was whistled for a yellow card:

IMG_0134

…but with no legitimate attempt on the ball and a sweep from behind (to say nothing of the fact that Adam Najem is probably the last defender with a chance to prevent Davis from a free run on goal) – that’s a red basically every time, no questions asked. Lebo Moloto was also shoved into that very same advertising board well after another play, which didn’t draw a foul, much less a card.

Then there was this:

Image-1-2

That’s not one but three(!) defenders keeping Alan Winn onside (this is a moment after the ball is played so that third one looks iffy, but he’s coming the opposite direction as Winn is sprinting upfield – he was well ahead of Winn’s position) – two of them by five yards or more – and a linesman who is not remotely in position about to raise his flag. That is terrible officiating, and not appropriate for the professional game. It’s understandable to make mistakes, but to that degree… high school leagues need refs too, I guess.

Now that all that’s off my chest…

I’m not down on the performance, though I know others are. There’s this “Bethlehem peppered the goal in the second half while down a man” narrative circulating, but it’s really not particularly accurate. They had four shots on goal all game, two of them directly from free kicks and a third on the rebound from one of those free kicks (the rebound was the only shot inside the box that was remotely on target – one was well off-frame, the other two were blocked off the foot by NSC defenders). Add in that the free kicks were against the run of play – particularly the Davis one I mentioned above – and the danger is far less in reality than it felt as a fan of a team scrapping to hold onto a one-goal lead against a ten-man side.

On the other end, Nashville’s attack wasn’t quite as toothless as it seemed, either. There is something to be said for “we get in good positions but don’t get a dangerous shot off” developing as NSC’s identity (as it was even before this game), but that’s certainly preferable to “we don’t even get in the good positions in the first place.” There are chemistry issues here, and individual inexperience played a role, as well.

It almost feels disingenuous to keep saying “the goals are going to come” when the flow remains the same and those goals just haven’t arrived. Still, it feels like NSC is knocking on the door of a breakout game where things just click. It may come frustratingly late in the year, and they may pile up goals against the weaker teams in the East while going scoreless against better opposition. However, I remain confident – more so than I was after either of the previous two games, given how much time NSC spent in the box Saturday – that it’s on the way.

2 thoughts on “Breakdown and player ratings: Bethlehem Steel 0-1 Nashville SC

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