Project 2019: Identifying and addressing last year’s weaknesses

Nashville SC had, by all indications, a solid debut season. Could it have been better? Sure. The team was as high as second in the Eastern Conference in the USL Power Ratings (whether a simple projected final table based on games played, or on strength of results), but finished eighth. They also had a fallow period in the middle of the season with just 14 points in 14 games, seeing them slip from lofty positions both in the ratings and the table proper.

Want to have a better season? There are generally three ways: 1) look at what you did well, and do it even better, 2) identify aspects that you didn’t even consider last year, or 3) look at what you did poorly, and improve it.

Let’s take a look at the third one, with a focus on a few specific categories.

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This team didn’t finish well.

The Problem: Nashville SC was 13th of 16 Eastern Conference teams in conversion rate (goals per shot), due to multiple factors. Simple shooting or finishing ability is probably the most obvious one to address. By putting 12.40% of shots in the back of the net, they were in the same stratosphere as Penn FC and Atlanta United 2, rather than regular-season champion Cincinnati and USL Cup champion Louisville City.

The Solution: Add firepower.

Nashville added the league’s single-season record-holder for goals, Cameron Lancaster, signing him away from Louisville. He banged home 26 scores with a very impressive 23.64% conversion rate. If you put him in position to get a shot off, he’s nearly twice as likely to finish it as Nashville was last year.

That wasn’t enough, though. The team also added the second-leading scorer from last year’s league, Daniel Ríos. On loan to North Carolina FC, he scored 20 times on a 32.79% conversion rate (nearly three times Nashville SC’s average last year!). Now he’s been signed by Nashville’s MLS outfit with a season-long loan to NSC in the cards.

Fixed?: Assume that, instead of 12.40%-caliber finishing, 171 of Nashville’s 434 shots had been taken by a combination of Lancaster and Ríos (without even assuming that their movement would allow them to find even more shots). Their combined conversion rate of 26.90% would be pretty welcome there – 46 scores between them is more than Nashville’s entire team scored last year.

The defense couldn’t cope with a key injury

The Problem: Bradley Bourgeois dealt with a nagging hamstring injury during the year. His time being completely out of the lineup or limited from late June to early August was in the midst of NSC’s fallow period. A combination of London Woodberry and Ryan James couldn’t provide the same caliber of play, and Nashville suffered two of its worst defensive performances (giving up three goals to Ottawa Fury and Toronto FC II) with Bourgeois hampered and out completely, respectively.

The Solution: Add one all-USL defender and another who would have been if not for minor injury problems of his own.

Darnell King was second-team all-league last year for San Antonio FC (despite a poor year for the team on the whole), and can play as a right fullback or, like Bourgeois, a slightly undersized centerback. While he’ll mostly play the former, like both Woodberry and James, he can fill in at the latter. His presence has to be considered an upgrade.

Better yet, Penn FC’s Ken Tribbett is known for his set-piece scoring and ability to get forward, but he’s also a defensive stalwart. He was on-pace for a first-team All-USL honor last year, but missing 13 games over the course of the season saw him fall by the wayside in the eyes of the voters, to some extent. While you can’t count on him to be fully healthy all year – at least until proven otherwise – he can start when healthy and provide an option off the bench when not at 100%.

NSC has also added centerback/fullback Malcolm Stewart, and while he’s probably deeper a type of depth (he hasn’t played a competitive game in a couple years), he is an athletic, technical piece who can grow into the game.

Fixed?: Nashville SC may regret only signing David Edgar to a short-term deal last year, because the Premier League and MLS veteran played well when he was available, and after his departure, Bourgeois’s injury couldn’t be handled with the same caliber of player. Now, though, the likes of Tribbett is a younger piece, and the overall depth can be considered an upgrade. This only takes a very good defense a little ways higher, but there was only so much upside to add here, and NSC has done a very nice job of finding a piece to fill in.

However, if they go to primarily a three-man backline this year – as seemed to be the preference at the beginning of the year, and then when the rubber hit the road in the playoffs – there’s not yet a lot of injury cover aside from shifting players in from other positions.

Matt Pickens’s form faded mid-season

The Problem: This one is going to be a little bit more anecdotal, because the data show that, while he did swoon a bit after mid-June or so, it wasn’t a huge difference from earlier in the season (albeit against mostly easier competition in the second half), and of course he remained among the league’s best front-to-back:

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Over the course of the season, with a significant dip at the end.

The anecdotal evidence is, while slightly subject to our minds deceiving us, a little more significant. He wasn’t giving up a goal like this at the beginning of the year:

Nor would you have expected him to concede a penalty like against Tampa Bay, clear into an opponent for what was basically an own goal against Charleston, or give up a soft late equalizer against an impotent Toronto FC II.

It’s worth reiterating that he was among the USL’s best, no matter what (and was probably unfairly robbed of all-league honors). The issue to solve is probably more about keeping him fresh for the stretch run of the year. After all, he’s going to be 37 years old for the majority of the season.

He had a player who appeared to be a solid backup in CJ Cochran, but the youngster couldn’t get on the field in regular-season action except when Pickens took a bit of personal leave (his wife gave birth to a child) and also missed a contest with a wrenched back. He went on a loan stretch mid-season to Fresno FC, which has signed him.

The Solution: Nashville SC has signed Connor Sparrow, recently of both Real Salt Lake and their reserve team in the USL (Real Monarchs). You can read Sparrow’s accolades here. Former University at Albany keeper Danny Vitiello has also signed, though he, like Micah Bledsoe last year, appears to be pure depth, unlikely to see competitive action.

For the solution here to work out, there has to be another component at play: Sparrow has to take some minutes away from Pickens, giving the veteran a bit of rest (which means he’s better than Cochran or at least a little more trusted by the technical staff).

Fixed?: This one can only get an incomplete. We don’t have the body of evidence on Sparrow to know for sure whether he can compete at a higher level in the USL than Cochran, nor do we have a guarantee that he’ll get a little more time, keeping Pickens fresh late in the year (or possibly beating him for some minutes straight-up). It seemed the hope last was that Pickens would coach up the backups to take a little of the playing responsibility off the plate of his player-coach title, but it didn’t happen. With another year on his tires, you’d hope Sparrow can take to Pickens’s tutelage.

Playing down

The Problem: Nashville SC was pretty fantastic against the best teams in the Eastern Conference last year. In 16 games against fellow playoff teams, they averaged 1.125 points per game, and were the only team not to lose to FC Cincinnati. In 18 games against teams that missed the playoffs, they averaged 1.667 points per game. That may look quite a bit better, but you’d hope for the difference to be even greater.

Let’s put it another way: Nashville SC swept only two teams all year, and rightfully two of the bottom three teams in the East (Atlanta United 2 – against whom they played three games – and Richmond). They were swept by only one team, and while Indy Eleven was in the playoffs, they were the No. 7 seed, not one of the top couple. The only three teams against whom Nashville SC averaged less than a point per game (averaging a draw) were that Indy side and two teams – Tampa Bay Rowdies and TFCII – that didn’t even sniff the playoffs.

That mid-season swoon makes it hard to decide if the team played down to competition, or simply faded in form over the course of the year: with many of Nashville’s tougher games front-loaded on the schedule, it could be either.

The Solution: It’s tough to evaluate exactly what Nashville SC has done to address this specific issue. If it is indeed the legs giving out mid-season, improving depth would be one route to improving upon it, and the team has certainly done that (at least near the top of the roster – signings of bench-type players are still to come). Perhaps adding a bit more in the midfield would be important to solidify what they’ve already added.

If it’s truly a matter of having played down to teams, what is the solution? There’s no way to evaluate why that would be. Maybe they weren’t taking opponents seriously, maybe they got some folks’ best shot when they weren’t expecting it, there was certainly some bad luck in some instances (a travel fiasco for the road game against Toronto comes to mind), etc. etc.

Fixed?: Without being able to put a finger on the underlying cause, there’s no choice but to call this incomplete. One potential cause – quality depth – has been addressed, but others will have to be evaluated when the season rolls around.

Lack of chemistry

The Problem: Some of Nashville’s goal-scoring issues last year (see above) were attributed – by both players and head coach Gary Smith – as being a result of the team needing time to get to know one another. Off the pitch but far more importantly on it, knowing what a teammate is going to do when presented with a given look by the opponent, or a situation with the ball at his feet, or the opportunity to make a run… Nashville SC had just a few weeks to try to build that, and you may fairly say it didn’t really come together in time for the season to turn out the way many wanted.

You could also say that some personnel shifts during the year (Michael Cox and David Edgar departing mid-season, Brandon Allen and Kris Tyrpak among those who signed well after the year had begun) played a role in that, though you can hardly blame the technical staff for wanting to mold the roster to the best possible group. Formation shifts during the year (starting in a 5-3-2, going to both a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1, ending in a 4-3-3, moving back to a 5-3-2 for the playoffs) probably also played a role – as did the impact that had on settling a starting lineup.

All told, though, there were certainly times where the team didn’t quite seem to sync.

The Solution: Continuity is key here. It does appear the team will still be tactically flexible (one of the biggest offseason signings, Kharlton Belmar, is a pure offensive winger, while the coaches molded returning player Ropapa Mensah into one toward the end of last season). I don’t expect the same formation or even philosophy in every single game. However, many of the established principles within those multiple philosophies will remain the same.

The team also brought back 14 players from last year’s team, including the top 12 in minutes played (striker Tucker Hume and box-to-box midfielder Ramone Howell were Nos. 14 and 23 in minutes last year). That’s some serious continuity between the teammates, and some chemistry both on and off the pitch. Too often, it seemed like that extra pass was taken when the intended recipient expected a pass, or vice versa when a run was wasted. Now that the players know each other, there should be less of that unfamiliarity harming the team.

Augmenting a well-established core with some top talent around them was probably just the offseason recipe needed.

Fixed?: It’d be unfair to say the only problems with chemistry were a lack of familiarity: there’s a chance some players didn’t quite fit into roles they were given at times, or couldn’t execute a certain pass that would have worked perfectly within the system, etc. However, there’s not a whole lot else the staff could have done than keep that continuity going to help.

This aspect can only be evaluated when we see the product on the field, but I’d expect it to be much improved in 2019.

4 thoughts on “Project 2019: Identifying and addressing last year’s weaknesses

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