Lessons from Bradenton

Nashville SC’s trip to Florida featured two games, neither of which was seen in-full by those who couldn’t make the trip from the Music City.

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See all the high-res detail? Me either. 

Despite the lack of a live stream, though, there are still a few (admittedly fewer than there would have otherwise been) notes we can take away from the trip. From surprising appearances in the lineup to the clips of the action that the club made available, there’s a bit to learn about the club.

They’ve come together well

Through much of the early season during the 2018 campaign (and at times in the middle section), head coach Gary Smith talked about “appreciation” among the members of his team. He wasn’t referring to their ability to get along on an interpersonal level, but rather how they grew familiar and comfortable on the pitch. A more precise Americanized term for it would be “chemistry.”

While we have limited evidence to date, by all accounts it seems the team is starting from a higher point there, and has developed well already in the short preseason to-date.

One of the ways the lack of chemistry manifested itself in 2018 was decision-making in the final third. All too often, that last pass didn’t connect with the intended receiver because the recipient didn’t know what was coming, or an extra pass was made when the shot should have been taken (that particular one was extremely prevalent and problematic when Nashville struggled to score in the very early going), or vice versa. Multiple attempts in the Montreal friendly probably should have seen one go in – or draw a penalty – and it was a matter of getting it done against a high-level keeper more so than an inability to know how to turn a half-chance into the full thing.

With 14 returning players, many of the key pieces already have baked-in “appreciation” that they developed last year. The new signings seem to be taking to it quite well, and both integrating into the squad in terms of that chemistry while bringing their own individual skillsets into play.

Some positional intrigue

Nashville SC went with several formations over the course of the 2018 season, starting with a 5-3-2, shifting to multiple variations on a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, and going with a few games of a 4-3-3 (albeit with two defensive midfielders, so still similar to a 4-2-3-1, just with the wingers playing very high and the No. 10 a pure creator) to close the regular season before going back to square one in the playoff game against Cincinnati.

Based on the lineups and limited video footage, it appears some form of four-man backline will almost definitely be the choice. The front six showed some fluidity (though I’ll believe this team lines up without a double-pivot when I see it, so really looking at more of the front four), with the three-man attacking midfielder behind a target striker seeming to get the most run.

That’s where some of the interesting variations came in: Kharlton Belmar played both left wing and striker, it seems that former defensive midfielder Ramone Howell got some serious time of his own on the left wing, and both Lebo Moloto and Matt LaGrassa seemed to primarily be that No. 10 midfielder (while both played in multiple roles, including at the same time as one another, last year).  Meanwhile, new signing Malcolm Stewart played exclusively center back, Darnell King was a right fullback (though he played both CB and in the midfielder last year at San Antonio FC), and Justin Davis was a left fullback (he played both there and center back for Nashville last year). Ropapa Mensah got time at both winger (or perhaps as one of two men up top) and striker.

How much of that is simple preseason experimentation versus how much ends up being slight adjustments that can be made when the games really begin? There will be multiple situations to keep an eye on when the team plays in front of a live audience.

Keeper battle?

Matt Pickens was the obvious No. 1 keeper heading into last year (any talk of a true battle was pretty transparently just talk), but it still surprised how little time CJ Cochran managed to get. A mid-season loan to Fresno FC certainly diminished his chances at a bigger role with Nashville SC, but that also came about because of the small role he had in Gold.

Micah Bledsoe got a bit of time in the Florida friendlies last year (to be fair, there were three of them as opposed to just two this season), while third keeper Danny Vitiello did not see the pitch last week. Pickens got the start and 45 minutes of action in both games, while new signing Connor Sparrow took over at the halftime break and finished out the contests. The even split could serve a number of purposes, but Sparrow’s performances also demonstrated that he may be on another level as a backup keeper.

We saw a slight fade from Matt Pickens (obviously not just an individual problem during the mid-summer nadir for the Boys in Gold. A guy who can get more than two early-round US Open Cup games and three regular-season games (two of which Pickens missed with injury, one he missed while his wife gave birth to their child) without giving the technical staff some serious trepidation would be nice. It either keeps GK1 fresh later into the year, or provides legitimate competition for the starting job.

Sparrow has the ability, and Pickens (turning 37 before the season is even a month old) can help mold him as the keeper coach, challenge him as the player atop the depth chart, and cede him a bit more time as a guy who may need some rest.

Vermeer with a shot?

Only one trialist saw game time for Nashville SC during the friendlies in Florida, but he actually saw a lot of it. Vinnie Vermeer started both games, playing 63 minutes against Montreal Impact and the full 90 against Louisville City. For a guy who had previously looked to be mostly a practice player, that’s plenty of minutes on the field as the team attempts to build chemistry.

That’s not to say the diminutive (standing 5-8) central midfielder is a sure shot to sign a contract and join the full squad, but certainly he looks closer to it now than he did a week ago at this time.

With only two pure central defensive midfielders (Michael Reed and Bolu Akinyode, each of whom played alongside him in both games last week) on the roster, he could provide some depth there if such a signing does come to fruition. While Matt LaGrassa and even Bradley Bourgeois have the chance to slide into that second CDM role as well (while providing a little more offense or defense, respectively), allowing them to stay in their more natural spots while adding depth to their secondary role might be prudent.

What else did you take away from the games in Florida?

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