After third draw with FC Cincinnati, round four will have a winner

Programming note: I’ll be on Cincinnati Soccer Talk’s March 2 Matchday podcast, recording this evening. Keep an eye out for it in the next day or so.

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Time to get back to a football stadium, albeit a much smaller one this time around. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Nashville SC knows how to get a result from FC Cincinnati. The Boys in Gold drew FCC twice at home (at Nissan Stadium July 7, at First Tennessee Park Saturday), and once on the road. If you want to throw in a preseason friendly, the sides are 0-0-4 against each other.

These teams are familiar with each other. Or at least, with certain versions of each other. Both have been tactically flexible, in addition to shifting personnel over the course of the meetings. Nashville started the season in a 5-3-2, was playing a pure 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) for most of the season, and has recently shifted to a 4-3-3 to spark the offense a bit. Cincinnati has gone with various lineups based out of an even backline, whether a flat midfield four, a diamond (which went over like a lead balloon in the first half of the game at Nissan), or the USL-standard 4-2-3-1.

Here are Nashville’s starting lineups in each of the games:

Date March 3 (friendly) July 7 Aug. 4 Oct. 13
Formation 5-3-2 4-4-1-1 4-4-2 4-3-3
Keeper Pickens Pickens Pickens Pickens
Defenders James, Davis, Doyle, Woodberry, Kimura Davis, Doyle, Bourgeois, Kimura Davis, Doyle, Woodberry, Kimura Washington, Doyle, Bourgeois, James
Midfield Reed, Moloto, LaGrassa Winn, Akinyode, Reed, Moloto Washington, Akinyode, Reed, LaGrassa LaGrassa, Akinyode, Reed*
Forward Hume, Cox LaGrassa, Hume Winn, Hume Winn, Hume, Mensah
Result 2-2 0-0 1-1 3-3
*Reed was an early substitution in the Oct. 13 game, enough so that it’d be fair to call Kris Tyrpak the starter in the conventional sense of “played the majority of the game and impacted the tactics.”

As you can see, Nashville went more offensive in the final game – as it did in the final few games of the season, all of them against worse competition than FCC, indicating that it’s just the current identity of this squad – and it paid off with three goals… but also three goals conceded. It may be fair to say the defensive performance would have been better if not for an injury to Reed, but the offense probably benefitted from having Tyrpak in there (though his primary contributions were a nice shot that was saved, and a missed read that could have been an open net for teammate Alan Winn).

But what have we learned?

For starters, it’s worth noting that FC Cincinnati got much better over the course of the year. They added MLS players in Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe, and returned Richie Ryan Saturday evening after the midfielder had been shelved with injury since June.

Although it’s fair to say that Nashville’s late-season form didn’t live up to their play in the early and middle portions of their inaugural year, the team managed to play Cincinnati equally tough all three times. Tactical adjustments? Personnel shifts? Simply playing up to the level of the competition? There may be something to that last one, with Nashville SC getting four points off Pittsburgh Riverhounds in two games, three off FC Cincinnati in three games, four off Louisville City in three games. At the same time, they got just one from cellar-dwelling Toronto FC II, one from Tampa Bay Rowdies, three in three games from non-playoff Charlotte Independence. It seems this Nashville SC team saves its best soccer for the best opposition.

There’s also been value (and downside) in playing a more offensive brand of soccer in the final month or so. Nashville drew the highest-powered FC Cincinnati team it faced this year by opening up the scheme and matching FCC goal-for-goal. It also gave up a late equalizer to TFCII by leaving the back a bit exposed – though that still required an individual error from the goalkeeper.

It seems Nashville SC has the ability to play multiple styles and still play FC Cincinnati pretty evenly. With strong goalie play from Matt Pickens, there’s limited downside defensively. Nashville’s issue all year has been putting the ball in the back of the net. They’ve stepped it up in the final few weeks of the season – frustrating inability to find a winner against 10-man Red Bulls II notwithstanding – perhaps slightly at the cost of leaving Pickens a little more exposed. If they get the scoring increase of the new attitude with a strong performance from the keeper (who has admittedly had his struggles late in a loooong season), an upset is possible.

If we see a draw, are we confident in Nashville’s ability to finish in penalties? I, uh, am not. Here’s what we’ve seen this year:

  • March 7 @ FC Cincinnati (preseason) – Alan Winn (converted)
  • March 31 @ Bethlehem Steel – Michael Cox (converted)
  • July 21 @ Ottawa Fury – Alan Winn (missed)
  • Aug. 10 v. Ottawa Fury – Brandon Allen (converted)
  • Sept. 8 @ North Carolina FC – Brandon Allen (converted)
  • Sept. 8 @ North Carolina FC – Brandon Allen (converted)
  • Oct. 9 v. Toronto FC II – Matt LaGrassa (saved)

Meanwhile, Nashville SC’s defensive penalty record is

  • July 28 @ Toronto FC II* – Luca Uccello (goal)
  • Sept. 18 v. Tampa Bay Rowdies – Georgi Hristov (goal)
  • Sept. 29 v. New York Red Bulls II – Tom Barlow (saved)

*CJ Cochran in net, rather than Matt Pickens

Not a huge sample size there, but 4/6 in competitive games, 5/7 overall for, 2/3 (all in competitive games, 1/2 on-frame saved) against.

Here’s Cincinnati’s offense:

  • May 2 @ Indy Eleven – Kenney Walker (converted)
  • May 19 v. North Carolina FC – Emmanuel Ledesma (converted)
  • Aug. 25 @ Tampa Bay Rowdies – Emmanuel Ledesma (converted)
  • Aug. 25 @ Tampa Bay Rowdies – Emmanuel Ledesma (converted)

And defense:

  • March 31 @ Indy Eleven – Jack McInerney (saved)
  • May 2 @ Indy Eleven – Ayoze (goal)
  • June 2 @ New York Red Bulls II – Brian White (missed)
  • Sept. 1 v. Pittsburgh Riverhounds – Kay Banjo (missed)

Not a huge sample size for either there, but it’s worth noting that opponents straight-up missed the frame on two of four attempts. Probably fair to say that Cincinnati got fairly lucky on their defensive opportunities. Manu Ledesma ran up his goal totals offensively by taking three penalties on the year (much like Brandon Allen did for NSC, with a greater proportion of his final total).

There’s really not enough evidence here to give the edge to one side or the other if this game ends in a fifth draw between the sides (this one with extra time). It should certainly be exciting if it comes to that.

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