I already looked at where Nashville seemed to be weaker (and how that’s been shored up) with the transition defense preview, now let’s look at what was almost certainly one of the more impressive units in the USL last year: the Nashville settled defense.
Let’s begin with a quick touch on tactics, using a couple game lineups from last year:
On the left, you have the 3-5-2/5-3-2 that was used early and last in the year, and on the right the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 that we saw for large swaths in the middle – there were also pure 4-4-2 moments, with side-by-side strikers.
What all of these have in common is that the defensive midfield was a double-pivot (two players back there, one or both of whom would tend to stay home in most situations), meaning that, regardless of what the wide midfielders or wingbacks did, there were almost always four-five field players, plus the goalie behind the ball even in transition (I previewed that phase of the game earlier this week), and the job of the DMs and centerbacks in that transition phase was to allow the other field players to catch up and track back.
When that worked out, this defense was nothing short of elite. I had it down as the second-best in USL, behind only the Pittsburgh Riverhounds – and the Riverhounds benefitted by getting three games against TFCII (yeah, yeah, get your jokes in about how Nashville performed against that side – that’s largely statistical noise and a bit of bad luck, though I’ll touch on the second game in a moment here), including an extra home game compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference (except Charlotte, which also got an extra home game). They only gave up three goals twice all year: a home draw with FC Cincinnati, and a road draw with North Carolina FC – Pittsburgh didn’t give up three goals at all in 2018, the only team to give up fewer team hat-tricks.
The success at the back started with goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who was among the top shot-stoppers in the league with a 76.2% save percentage. However, it’s fair to say that he was the best goalie in USL (I’m going to keep beating the “despite no team of the week appearances” drum, because that’s poor form from the decision-makers there) for the first half of the year. He did have a bit of a late fade, as I’ve previously covered:
The drop-off is not that significant, but the difference between “very good” and “elite” is the particular type of hair we are splitting here. That idiom got confusing and/or weird pretty quickly. We regret the error. Anyway, Pickens turned 36 early in last season, and will be 37 in just under a month. A guy who played the vast majority of meaningful games (three regular-season and two Open Cup games saw CJ Cochran instead) at that age is basically a superhero, and at the same time, you can’t blame him for getting a little fatigued. I’m four years younger and get fatigued standing up from the couch.
So: the question here becomes whether Nashville can do a better job keeping him fresh (without allowing him to get rusty, which was one of the concerns last year in giving Cochran time). I certainly think the No. 2 keeper position has been upgraded in the form of Connor Sparrow. He also provides a different style.
“I would class them [Sparrow and No. 3 keeper Danny Vitiello] as more of a modern-day goalkeeper,” manager Gary Smith said. “They’re nice size, but they’re very athletic, they’re quick, quick off their line, nimble on their feet, and extremely agile. That’s not to say that Matt’s not, but he’s got a much bigger, much stronger, and maybe a tad more physical presence to his game.
“I need to come to a bit of a conclusion in my mind as to what and how both guys be kept mentally and physically in the right place. I certainly want to be knowing what Connor’s capable of. So therefore, he needs games. He needs minutes, and he’ll certainly get those. Planning and working out how those two guys have the season will be something that I can really come to terms with as we get towards the first game.”
That indicates both an upgrade at the position group and a desire to give the backup more time between the pipes. That should pay off for everyone over the course of the season.
In front of the keepers, Nashville has had only minor shakeup at the defensive positions. The first-choice players return (from left to right): left back Taylor Washington or Justin Davis, centerbacks Liam Doyle and Bradley Bourgeois, and right back Kosuke Kimura. Washington seems to have grabbed ahold of that LB position over Davis in the preseason, but certainly there will be plenty of time for both (and Davis has filled in at centerback in the past, as well). The reinforcements have arrived, too: all-USL right back Darnell King will compete with Kimura for time at that spot, while would-be all-USL player (he missed too much time with injury) Ken Tribbett will fill in at centerback, and appears to have already earned a role over Bourgeois, at least for the time being.
That’s not to say everything was perfect when it came to settled defense: 32 goals still leaves room for improvement, even if some of those came in unsettled situations (as covered Monday) or against set pieces (later this week). As with Pickens’s personal form, the overall quality of the defense went through some rough patches last season – of course those two are related – and when the offense didn’t improve much to compensate, a team that relied on its defense had a run of poor results.
As you can see: elite, then horrible (second) game against Indy Eleven, and the form never recovered consistently enough.
Improved depth, and not just at the keeper position, should help here. When Bradley Bourgeois was injured, the team relied on players that didn’t bring the same quality (especially given that the short-term signing of David Edgar had provided much better depth cover early in the year). When you look at not just the number of bodies, but the quality of players – Tribbett and King’s reputations speak for themselves, and one of them has already bumped a 2018 starter into a backup role – things can get much better. I don’t expect a huge role for Malcolm Stewart (nor do I expect multi-position trialist Genki Miyachi to sign) barring major attrition due to injury.
That brings us to the defensive midfielders. Nashville SC played three different guys in this role last year, and all three return. Bolu Akinyode is a pure holder, and while I discussed some of his faults in transition the other day, he’s very good when he’s able to square up and keep the ball in front of him. He led the team in tackles and tackle win percentage, and is a physical intimidator. Michael Reed wasn’t far behind in tackles won, and shows a little more motor throughout the midfield, and some punch going forward (though his patented rocket shots took a backseat to free-kick assists for much of the year). Matt LaGrassa plays in the role as more of a true box-to-box midfielder, capable of covering the width of the field as well as a bit more creation going forward.
Any or all of the three are strong players in the settled defense portion of the role (though I’ve listed them in approximate descending order in that regard). The Boys in Gold also added former trialist Vinnie Vermeer to the lineup, and while he seems to be more of a holding distributor, he hasn’t shown to be a defensive liability yet in preseason – we just don’t have the breadth of data to know how that will apply in USL season.
The wide midfielders and forwards (including an attack-minded central midfielder, depending on the formation) are more transition-focused in their defensive responsibilities – and they use the threat of their speed to prevent the opponent from loading the scoring third – but the wingers particularly will hassle opponents along the sideline deep into their own end. Among the players who return to reprise the role in 2019, Alan Winn and Ropapa Mensah were very much works-in-progress, but made major strides in defensive effort and technique over the course of the year.
NSC also adds Ramone Howell (moving from a more central defensive midfield position) and Kharlton Belmar (signed from Swope Park Rangers) to the unit. Howell’s pedigree at the previous position probably speaks well, while Belmar was successful in a very low volume of defensive actions last year.
Overall, success in the settled defense primarily comes down to a couple different things: more effective management of (or ability to manage with the talent available) the goalkeeper position to prevent fatigue, and maintaining health. There is higher-quality depth on this team than there was last year, but there’s quite a bit less of it.
Otherwise, each position seems to have either maintained its level from last year – with some improvement through maturity for the young guys, and perhaps a decline through maturity for the fellas getting up there in age – or made major improvements. Given that this was already an elite unit, there may not be room to be statistically all that improved (remember, some of the rougher moments were in transition, not settled D), but when the team can get behind the ball, success should be the expectation.