What is this? If you’re a little confused about the format of the season preview, check out the intro post.
Nashville SC had one of 2018’s elite USL defenses. Accounting for the fact that the team played the USL’s best and third-best offenses three times (albeit along with the 19th-best and 28th-best offenses), allowing the second-fewest goals in the entire league is pretty impressive. I’ll be covering the defense as a whole in the next post in this series, but for now, let’s look at the transition defense. What did Nashville SC do after a turnover, missed shot, etc. last season, and what do we expect from the 2019 edition?
Anecdotally, it felt like a lot of NSC’s 31 goals conceded came in transition phases. One would have to go back and break down every goal to know for certain, but off the top of my head (for now we’ll consider it a coincidence that two immediately springing to mind come from separate matches against Indy Eleven), the counter-attack or transition was one area in which Nashville felt more likely to give up goals than compared to their extremely stout work in the settled offense.
Starting at the back, it’s easy to see why it’s tough for a keeper to make saves on the break: he’s far more likely to be one-on-one (or at the very least, in a disadvantageous position) with an opposing player. Matt Pickens gave up a penalty in such a situation last year, and I think it’s fair to say that, for all his strengths, Pickens is less comfortable having to leave the net than he is when he has the ability to take up a lot of net and react. Depending on matchups over the course of the season, a different style from Connor Sparrow – he’s more the long-lean athletic keeper than a big pure shot-stopper – could improve the transition D.
The backline also plays a role, and it might be fair to say that Bradley Bourgeois’s mid-season injury (it kept him out of the lineup for nine games, during NSC’s mid-late-season swoon) took one of the most athletic centerbacks off the pitch, opening Nashville up to more getting hit on the break – though as you can see above, he was partially responsible for the goal from that situation in the first Indy game. With Ken Tribbett appearing to be the top-choice centerback next to Liam Doyle, there’s a possibility that the team is a little less athletic than when Bourgeois is on the field (though we’ll see in a later post that it may mean steadier performance in the settled defense).
The fullbacks and defensive midfielders probably played a role in some of last year’s struggles to defend in transition, too: the outside defenders got very high up the pitch offensively at times, and naturally that meant if the opponent got the ball and tried to play quickly forward, there was plenty of ground to cover. Fortunately, there is plenty of speed out there (as there was last year), with Taylor Washington and Kosuke Kimura looking first-choice at this time. Kimura’s motor will never be in question, while Washington has an argument for being the fastest guy on the team. The other fullbacks may be a bit of a liability in this particular phase at times: Justin Davis is a risk-taker at the position (and that often works out, but when it doesn’t, it’s easy to figure how things can go wrong), and Darnell King could almost be considered an offense-first player at the position.
The central midfielders play a huge role in stifling opponents’ transition opportunities, and from memory (and film breakdown review), they may have been one of the weak points at times. That’s not to say they failed to make up for it in other areas, but if the members of the double-pivot were caught upfield offensively, or were responsible for committing a turnover, the guys who received the majority of the time at that position – Michael Reed and Bolu Akinyode – are not the fleetest of foot to make up for it. It’ll be interesting to see if pairing one or the other with a slightly faster option (Nashville also has multi-position threat Matt LaGrassa available, and while it remains to be confirmed if new signing Vinnie Vermeer has pure speed, he seems to have shown a bit more than the consistent starters) becomes a primary tactic, or if Gary Smith prefers the leadership and steadiness in settled situations that Reed and Akinyode bring.
The biggest change from last year to this – if preseason is any indication – is that Nashville SC will be much more willing and able to press high in the event of a turnover. The engagement of the offensive personnel in not only a defensive situation, but a transition to defense is going to be a factor to watch.
Nashville SC has shown plenty of attempt to immediately engage the goalkeeper and centerbacks, forcing them to play the ball to each other while cutting off passing lanes in preseason. The athletic upgrade Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster provide over last year’s primary striker, Brandon Allen (he was willing to put in the effort at times, but it wasn’t emphasized int he scheme, probably because his top-end speed and stamina didn’t make it a viable option on a regular basis) is probably the difference-maker here. The wide midfielders/forwards would engage close to the sideline last year, and work to slow down the progression of the ball from the back, but it appears winning the ball back immediately will be your 2019 priority.
Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah both improved defensively over the course of last season, and should be able to weaponize that ability with more emphasis on the high press this season. Kharlton Belmar was little-used (22 tackle attempts last year) but capable (68.2% success) as a purely defensive piece, though he was quite a bit more high-volume and questionable in duels – Opta’s definitions aren’t the clearest, especially as it applies to USL. His speed ands willingness to fit into the system should allow him to be a weapon, too. Ramone Howell played primarily a defensive role before this preseason, and while we have limited data (he only got a handful of minutes last year), that should allow him to play well defensively at a different position.
The emphasis on the high press here does give me one worry: we saw last year that when the forward-thinking players were unable to slow the ball down, there was a chance that the back four (central midfielders and centerbacks) could get run on a bit. With a high-risk, high-reward gameplan apparent, does Nashville SC plan to be a little more conservative with how the CDMs are worked forward into the offense? Is the thought that it’ll create more scoring chances both ways worth it? Or is it a strategy that we’ll see less of when the tougher teams come to First Tennessee Park? That could determine just how the defensive transition game works out for NSC this year.
Overall, this is an area where it’s unclear if Nashville SC will be improved, and that’s primarily because we have limited information on how a high-press will work consistently against USL competition, and particularly USL competition that has the offensive bite to get on the break. How it plays out could be the difference between another very good defense and one that’s good on an historic level.